HILLTOP — Will Sessoms, who has served as mayor for eight years, overcame his guilty plea to a misdemeanor conflict of interest charge and challenges by three candidates to win reelection to a third term, according to unofficial returns.
Sessoms, a 62-year-old North End resident, announced his victory during a gathering of family and supporters at the Eagles’ Nest Rockin’ Country Bar at Hilltop — where he had also announced his bid months earlier.
“This has been the toughest campaign of my life,” Sessoms told supporters on Tuesday.
Sessoms vowed to continue to work toward keeping Virginia Beach, as his favorite slogan goes, “the greatest city in the world.”
He faced Richard “RK” Kowalewitch, who unsuccessfully ran against Sessoms in 2012, George Furman III, a defense department employee, and Don Weeks, who formerly served on the city council.
Kowalewitch, in particular, painted the incumbent during the campaign as emblematic of favoritism in Virginia Beach government, but he earned only 20.3 percent of the vote to Sessoms’ 54.1 percent of the vote, according to unofficial returns with 98 of 99 precincts reporting.
Sessoms touted the financial strength of the city, particularly its Triple A bond rating, and its strong schools and public safety record. He also doubled down on his leadership experience as a successful banker, calling it an asset in a financially strong city.
“This has been a tough couple of years,” Sessoms said during an interview while returns still were coming in Tuesday night — all of them showing a comfortable lead.
“I’m so thankful to my family and friends for working so hard to let me be in this position,” he said.
He also vowed to continue to support the agriculture industry and initiatives such as the development of a biomedical park in the Princess Anne District.
Sessoms ran in a challenging year, amid a vocal anti-incumbent opposition, a volatile national contest, and a local campaign season that featured City Treasurer John Atkinson and supporters forming a political action committee that placed an advisory referendum about light rail on the ballot and, more recently, endorsed one of his challengers, Kowalewitch and a slate of candidates in local races.
Though the referendum is non-binding, voters were on track late Tuesday to reject extending light rail, according to unofficial returns showing 59 of 99 precincts reporting.
Sessoms, who has supported extending The Tide to Town Center, held a significant edge in fundraising, and his campaign featured a number of community leaders in testimonials supporting his accomplishments in office.
Sessoms is now retired from TowneBank. His role as an executive there and his duties as a public servant were portrayed as clashing in a critical story published by The Virginian-Pilot in November 2014.
A cloud remained for the next year, and, in late 2015, a special prosecutor accused Sessoms of five misdemeanor charges under the state conflict of interest act for votes he cast that involved TowneBank customers.
Sessoms maintained he did not knowingly vote on issues involving the bank. In a statement to reporters, he added, “I have never participated in any vote with the intention of benefiting myself personally or my former employer.”
Ultimately, Sessoms acknowledged on mistake on one vote, and he pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor charge. The vote would not have changed the outcome of the matter, he said.
Two years after its critical story, The Pilot’s editorial page endorsed Sessoms for mayor.
Sessoms raised nearly $750,000 during the election cycle. Weeks raised nearly $15,000. Furman raised $100.
Kowalewitch’s financial reports showed he had raised about $13,000 through the Oct. 31 reporting period, according to copies filed with the Virginia Beach registrar.
In other local races, with 98 of 99 precincts reporting:
► City Councilmember Dr. Amelia Ross-Hammond, a retired college professor from Wesleyan Chase, was poised to become the lone incumbent to fall on Tuesday, according to unofficial returns. Challenger Jessica Abbott, a 27-year-old insurance agent from Indian Lakes, led by a sizable 59.3 percent of the vote.
► City Councilmember Rosemary Wilson was anticipated to win her crowded race in an at large seat; City Councilmember Shannon Kane has fended off a challenge by Robert Dean, a former member of the council; and City Councilmember Bobby Dyer, who was unopposed, won in Centerville.
Updated at 12:06 a.m., Wednesday, Nov. 9, with adjusted numbers and light rail information.
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