Saturday’s daylong caucus brought together all the city’s Democrats for eight hours of rain-soaked campaigning at the Nanny Lee Center. When the votes were counted at the end of the day, with the instant tabulation of electronic voting machines, all five incumbents running for reelection secured a spot on the Democratic ticket. Timothy Lovain, chairman of the city’s budget advisory committee, also won a place on the ballot that was vacated by outgoing Councilwoman Joyce Woodson.
“It’s a great day,” Lovain said moments after the tally was announced. “I ran a hard campaign, and I look forward to being part of the slate.”
The six candidates with the most votes in Saturday’s caucus will appear on the May 2 ballot as Democrats. Three Republican candidates have announced an intention to run for City Council, although more may still emerge before the Feb. 16 deadline set by the Alexandria Republican City Committee. Independent candidates have until March 7 to file with the city’s registrar.
“We’ve got a great group of people,” said Susan Kellom, chairwoman of the Alexandria Democratic Committee. “I was hoping for a better turnout, though. I wouldn’t be surprised if the weather was a factor.”
The caucus brought 1,695 participants — a small fraction of the city’s 86,290 registered voters. That represents about 2 percent of the electorate.
“A rainy day like today will bring out voters who are really into it,” said Ida Sondheimer, a 40-year resident who voted early in the day. “I came today to make sure my candidates win.”
Other voters agreed that the election had important consequences, even if few people showed up to vote.
“There are some very important issued before City Council,” said Ed Braswell, a former chairman of the city’s Planning Commission. “The biggest problem the city faces is the pressure for increased density.”
THE POLLS OPENED at noon on Saturday, with darkening skies offering an early threat to the day’s proceedings. Half an hour into the voting, the rain started. At first, candidates braved the weather and greeted voters despite the downpour. Eventually, they retreated to the dryness of the Lee Center’s lobby.
“This is the worst possible day for something like this,” said Del Pepper supporter Matthew Natale, looking toward the sky. “But this only happens once every three years, so you have to hope the people who care about issues will come out and vote today.”
Inside the Lee Center, Democratic committee officials tried to keep order. Former House of Delegates candidate Jim Lay acted as the committee’s counsel, defending the loyalty oath that all voters were forced to sign before casting a ballot.
“It’s a contract with no remedy,” said Lay while playing with a group of children. “People who vote in the Democratic caucus have a moral obligation rather than a legal obligation in the interest of good sportsmanship.”
Because Virginia voters are not required to register by party, the committee has caucus participants sign a “declaration form.” Voters who sign the form agree to language that stipulates they are Democrats who “believe in the principles of the Democrat Party” and “do not intend to support any candidate who is opposed to a Democratic nominee in the next ensuing election.”
The declaration form caused a bit of controversy Saturday, when the wife of a Republican candidate signed the form before casting a vote in the caucus.
“We were very pleased to see that the wife of declared Republican City Council candidate Townsend Van Fleet voted in our caucus,” Chairwoman Kellom said. “By signing our declaration form, Julie Crenshaw publicly avowed that she had no intention of voting for her husband in the May City Council election. We applaud her decision and hope that all Alexandrians follow her example.”
Crenshaw responded to Kellom's remarks with
frustration and sadness.
"Three years ago some voters in the Democratic Caucus publicly supported Republican Claire Eberwein in the general election, but Kellom chose to ignore that," Creenshaw said. "It saddens me that the Democrats would stoop to this unfair and mean-spirited attack."
MEANWHILE, OTHER DEMOCRATIC committee officials roamed the halls of the Lee Center to make sure that the caucus was in order. Commonwealth’s Attorney S. Randolph Sengel was the committee’s sergeant-at-arms.
“All’s quiet,” Sengel said. “Like the daily police report says, no incidents of significance to report.”
Just as he was saying this, Boyd Walker walked by wearing a kilt.
“I think that’s a sartorial violation,” Sengel said with a smile.
Walker was wearing a Maclean clan hunting tartan in support of Andrew Macdonald, the City Council member of Scottish heritage, who was also wearing a kilt during the caucus. Macdonald said this is the first time he tried campaigning in traditional Scottish attire. It drew second and third glances from voters arriving at the Lee Center.
“We don’t need much of an excuse to wear a kilt,” Walker said.
ALL OF THE CAMPAIGNS had some sort of visual accoutrement to distinguish their candidate from the rest. Councilman Rob Krupicka used the vibrant orange and navy blue of his alma matter, the University of Virginia. Vice Mayor Del Pepper employed primary blue, handing out cotton scarves emblazed with her campaign insignia.
“Lillian White has got a great logo,” said Del. Adam Ebbin (D-49), when he arrived to vote late in the day. “And I got a lot of mail from Scott Johnson.”
Other candidates tried hospitality. Councilman Ludwig Gaines brought a spread of homemade food, including chicken-salad sandwiches and oatmeal cookies. Supporters of Councilman Paul Smedberg passed out Kit-Kat bars with white “Vote Smedberg” stickers.
Each candidate had a strategy for approaching voters. Pepper positioned herself near the door so she would be the first person to greet them. Gaines positioned himself near the stairs to the basement so he would be the last to shake their hands.
“It’s really important to try to talk to everybody who walks through the door,” said Macdonald, turning his attention to another voter. “Hi, I’m Andrew Macdonald.”
The candidates stood in the Lee Center lobby for hours, shaking hands and engaging in small talk about the weather.
THE DAY’S MONOTONY was broken by a few flashes of excitement. People clamored for their cameras when former Gov. Mark Warner arrived at 5 p.m. to vote in the caucus. Before participating, he switched his voter registration from the Executive Mansion in Richmond to his house on South Lee Street. As the clock wound down toward the closing of the polls, many of the candidates looked tired.
“Are you sure you still want to do this?” asked Mayor Bill Euille.
They all responded positively, but only six of them ended up on the Democratic ticket. Councilman Paul Smedberg received the most votes, although he was cautious about interpreting that as a sign that he might end up as the next vice mayor when the votes are counted in May.
“It’s just a caucus,” he said.