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Votes

Local GOP Picks Its Battles

Alexandria Republicans ignore House race, focus on Sheriff's office.

It's not easy being a Republican in Alexandria. The city has a reputation as being a Democratic stronghold — and its voting patterns tend to justify the reputation.

The GOP hasn't won Alexandria in a presidential election since 1972 — and the party hasn't won in a gubernatorial race in the city since 1969. Currently, only one Republican holds elected office in Alexandria: Ken Foran, who won an unopposed election to the School Board.

So far, no Republican will appear on the ballot in Alexandria's House of Delegates election for the 45th district — a race that has a crowded field of Democratic candidates who are now engaged in a primary battle. The last Republican to run for this seat — Jay Test, who ran against Del. Marian Van Landingham in 2003 — received 36 percent of the vote.

Instead of focusing their attention on a difficult House race, local Republicans are campaigning on law-and-order issues in Alexandria's sheriff election, hoping that party affiliation won't be a detriment to a position that oversees the prison and secures Alexandria courthouses.

IN THE 2004 ELECTION — an indicator of a community's political temperament — Sen. John Kerry won 67 percent of the vote, and President Bush received 32 percent of the vote. That's a huge victory for Democrats, especially considering that Bush won 51 percent of the nation's vote. The lopsided nature of Alexandria's voting demographics make it difficult for Republicans to field candidates to city voters.

"Alexandria is about as solidly blue as you can get," said Mark Rozell, professor of Public Policy at George Mason University. "President Bush has been such a polarizing figure that the ideological divide created during his administration has worked its way down to local campaigns."

In the past, the city has had its share of Republican officeholders. These include Bob Calhoun, who served as a state senator and City Council member. Other Republicans who have served on the City Council in recent years include Bill Cleveland and Claire Eberwein. But in 2003, Eberwein lost her race on the City Council and Cleveland lost his race for mayor.

"I think a lot of the problems that Republicans have been having in Alexandria stem from the increasing polarization in American politics," said Rozell. "All over America, you see Democratic strongholds such as Alexandria voting out the few elected Republicans who are there."

WITH THE 2004 election now gone — and speculation about the 2008 presidential race beginning — Republicans are trying to increase their fortunes in the city. The Alexandria Republican City Committee's Web site instructs potential Republican officeholders to serve on a city board or commission and get involved in neighborhood civic associations.

"With 68 different boards, commissions, committees, and task forces, there's sure to be one of interest," the site says.

One issue that has traditionally interested Republicans is taxes — and this year is no exception. Recent controversy over the rising property taxes has given encouragement to the Alexandria Republican City Committee, which sees anger over rising tax bills as one way to break the stronghold the Democratic Party has in the city.

"The decision to hike taxes and spending over eight percent is a reckless one for which Democrats should be ashamed," said Chris Marston, chairman of the committee. "For Alexandrians not fortunate enough to see their incomes rise by over eight percent, this means a serious hit in the family budget."

During this year's contentious budget season, local Republicans supported the movement to ask City Council members to cap its spending increase at 3 percent — a measure that would have lowered property tax bills. But the City Council members, who are all Democrats, did not lower the tax rate or cap spending at 3 percent. And now local Republicans are wondering about their ability to pick up votes in the future — especially by campaigning against new taxes instituted by City Council members last week.

"Democrats have stooped so low in their effort to raise taxes that they have gone after teenagers, couples and families at the movie theater," said Marston. "Thankfully it won't be long before voters have a chance to respond."

BUT HOW WILL voters respond? Alexandria Republicans have their eye on two races this year: Jerry Kilgore's race for governor and Bill Cleveland's race for Alexandria Sheriff.

Former Virginia Attorney General Jerry Kilgore's campaign has attempted to seize on the anger over rising property tax bills by proposing a cap on real-estate assessment increases at no more than 5 percent a year. But Kilgore will have an uphill climb in Democratic Alexandria. The last time a Republican won a gubernatorial election in the city was 1969, when Republican A. Linwood Holton Jr. won with 51 percent of the vote against Democrat Bill Battle, who received 48 percent of the vote.

Republicans look forward to the sheriff's race this year, which pits former Capital police officer and former City Council member Bill Cleveland against Alexandria Police Department Detective Dana Lawhorne.

"The Republican Party is alive and well in Alexandria," said Cleveland. "It is possible for Republicans to win in the city — if they show a community involvement."

Cleveland hopes that his community involvement with the City Council, the Capitol Police and the Untouchables — a mentoring program for young men — will translate into an electoral victory against Lawhorne. In 2003, Cleveland lost the mayor's race to Bill Euille, who won approximately 2,200 votes more votes than Cleveland.

"A sheriff's race is one elected office where voters look for a real law-and-order candidate," said Rozell. "That may be a position that's well suited to a Republican running in a heavily Democratic area such as Alexandria."