VIRGINIA BEACH — On a Saturday this past month, one of two candidates to become the chairperson of the Republican Party of Virginia Beach met with supporters at Mom’s Kitchen, a restaurant in a strip mall on Holland Road.
It was two days before a scheduled vote that brought hundreds of people out to choose their local party leadership in a big election year for the city committee.
President Trump is on the ballot in 2020, and so is a challenge of U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, an incumbent Democrat and former governor, by Republican nominee Daniel Gade, who handily won a primary in June.
Closer to home, former U.S. Rep. Scott Taylor, a Republican, is trying to win back the seat he lost to U.S. Rep. Elaine Luria, a Democrat, two years ago in the 2nd Virginia Congressional District. The seat is largely selected by city voters.
Jimmy Frost, standing outside Mom’s, said the city committee he wants to lead needs to look even closer at politics in Virginia Beach by supporting local Republicans who are running in nonpartisan races for offices on the City Council and School Board.
That means recommending and advocating for candidates who won’t have an “R” next to their name on the ballot and using the party organization at the polls to let voters know these candidates align with party values.
“That’s what we’re there for,” Frost said.
“The stuff in D.C. doesn’t effect people every single day,” added Merri Tyrrel, Frost’s pick for vice chair should he win. “The local races effect people every single day.”
“That’s why the party needs to change,” Frost said.
He wants the city GOP to become more involved in local races. He said the party needs a process to vet candidates and say, “These are the candidates that represent Republican values.” Because the local bylaws exclude some support for local races, those rules may need to change – and there has been some resistance.
But that change is likely to happen regardless of who becomes the next chair of the city GOP, a process that was delayed due to voting issues on Monday, July 13, during a mass meeting of the city party. [Ed. — Another mass meeting and vote has been scheduled for Wednesday, Aug. 26, at the Virginia Beach Sportsplex.]
Bill Curtis, presently the vice chairperson of the city committee, is running against Frost to be the next party chairperson. Curtis, too, sees partisan involvement in nonpartisan races as a necessary step in politically divided times.
Curtis advocates more involvement, though he expressed regret that it is necessary. During an interview on Friday, July 17, and in a previous conversation, Curtis said he supports involvement in nonpartisan elections, which he sees as an evolution of “hyperpartisan” times and the decision to move local elections that were once held in May to November.
Curtis, among others, said local Republicans said they essentially are trying to match efforts by local Democrats to recommend candidates in nonpartisan races to voters.
“If it wasn’t for the weaponizing (of support for nonpartisan candidates) by Democrats, we wouldn’t need to,” he said.
Curtis said people want to vote party line, which makes it important to provide information about candidates consistent with party values. “If we give them a sample ballot with all the Republicans on it then they know. … We have to take action.”
Curtis wants to support candidates who are vetted by and have the support of the full city committee. This would be a change because the party cannot now endorse in local nonpartisan races under its bylaws. The party could change that.
“We are in a hyperpartisan environment, and that’s not going to change any time soon,” Curtis said. “That’s unfortunate.”
Holly Edwards, chairperson of the Virginia Beach Democratic Committee, said the committee has supported candidates for several years, but the precinct organization has been more effective in the past three years in talking to voters at the polls.
“We want to make sure we are supporting candidates that have our values so we have been providing a guide for local races,” she said, “and I definitely think that has been a benefit for the candidates we support.”
The response to the Trump presidency has played some role. “The committee definitely had a surge in membership after the 2016 election,” Edwards said.
Edwards noted that party preferences in nonpartisan races are not the same as endorsements in partisan races. However, the Democratic committee bylaws allow a bit more leeway than the GOP bylaws by specifying promotion is fine for party nominees “and other Democrats who are candidates for public office at the local, state and national level.”
The Democratic committee does not endorse, according to its bylaws, but “may share information and recommendations regarding Democrats running for nonpartisan office.”
Last year, candidates for nonpartisan offices – including Virginia Beach seats on the soil and water conservation board – appeared on a voter guide produced by Virginia Beach Democrats. The Republican Party of Virginia Beach also produced a voter guide, but its guide clearly specified the party does not endorse in nonpartisan races. It showed some candidates for nonpartisan offices, noting only that they are members of the city committee.
Recently, the Democrats also hosted Zoom forums for Democrats seeking local nonpartisan offices, allowing members of the committee to become familiar with them and interact. The committee membership decides upon the recommendations, Edwards said.
Recommendations can make a difference in nonpartisan races, in part, because there are so many candidates involved in them. People trust the party to do research, Edwards said.
“I really just think where we stand is we want to elect people who have our values and support candidates in local offices and make sure the community at large is aware of who we’re recommending,” she said.
After this story originally appeared in print on Sunday, July 19, the party released its recommendations for 2020 nonpartisan local races.
Virginia Beach City Councilmember Guy Tower, who represents the Beach District, said he was backed by the local Democratic committee in the special election he won in 2019.
“I accepted the endorsement,” he said during a telephone interview. “I didn’t seek it out (but accepted it) because I think it was done with good intentions.”
He said he had not been active with the local party in years, though he has been involved on the state level. He welcomed the support, and he said it is “not unhealthy for parties to be involved on a local level.” There is no expectation he would vote on a City Council issue along a party line, he said.
“The great, great bulk of the work of the council is and should continue to be nonpartisan,” he said.
City Councilmember John Moss, who holds an at large seat, has endorsed Frost in the Virginia Beach GOP chair race. Regarding party involvement in local races, he said, “I think it’s regrettable that we’ve gotten here.”
However, he said local Democrats have been involved in recent nonpartisan races and been effective in supporting candidates. Republicans should get more involved, too.
“It’s certainly not a level playing field if one group stays out and another group stays in,” he said. There is already partisan involvement, and local Republicans should not “unilaterally disarm.”
Moss believes in fiscally conservative government, but, overall, he said City Council is a nonpartisan body.
“I don’t believe there’s a Republican way to pave a road or a Democratic way to build a park,” he said.
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