When Frank Blechman ran for a Town Council seat in Tennessee in 1974, he was defeated because his opponent campaigned with a billboard urging the residents to "Vote for Tommy, he’s a good’un." Days of billboard campaigning seem to be gone, but new strategies and media offer an opportunity for fewer people to have a significant impact on political races.
Blechman, a political consultant who acts in managerial and advisory roles to campaigns in Virginia and other states, said low voter turnouts in Virginia elections mean each vote carries more weight in a race than it would in a high turnout election. "In the history of the 20th century, Virginia has been the lowest state in participation" in terms of voter turnouts in elections. "When you have a low turnout, everyone has an unusual impact," said Blechman. In elections with low voter turnouts, communication could play a key role in the outcome. "Letters to the editor and comments on blogs have disproportionate influence," said Blechman. "A small group, you and five of your friends, can have an influence on a race, particularly in primaries."
State Sen. Janet Howell (D-32) said she was elected in 1991 thanks to an effort from a group of people who organized her campaign from her basement. "A few people can make a huge difference," said Howell. Continuing with the same message of how every vote matters, Howell said that in her roles in Senate committees she often sees that one vote prevents bills unpopular to Northern Virginians, such as anti-abortion and anti-gay bills, from passing to law. Blechman, a Fairfax Station resident and former professor at George Mason University’s Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, and Howell joined Del. Ken Plum (D-36) and social activist from Vienna, John Horejsi, to discuss current trends in Virginia politics on Saturday morning at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Reston. About 40 people attended Saturday’s forum, held 10 days before primaries and five months before the November vote in which all seats in the General Assembly and the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors are up for election.
SPEAKING AS FRONTLINE participants in Virginia politics, Howell and Plum addressed the current climate in the General Assembly. So far, both remain unchallenged in the November election, and said they would not only campaign for other Democrats in the state but also for some moderate Republicans seeking reelection. "My mission for November is not only to get reelected, but to get moderates reelected," said Plum. He added that the House of Delegates, the more conservative of the two houses, is in need of more moderate politicians.
Meanwhile, Howell said some moderate Senate Republicans are engaged in primary battles against right-wing candidates in some parts of the state. She is worried that a delicate balance struck in the Senate, where she said politicians work across party lines to pass progressive bills, may be in danger. "Frankly, there are some Republicans I want to protect," said Howell.
While the other three participants spoke of their experiences of Virginia’s current political climate as political campaign participants, John Horejsi spoke from an activist’s point of view. Founder and coordinator of Social Action Linking Together (SALT), Horejsi said those who care about specific issues should address them with their representatives. He provided a few pointers of how to best approach the representatives with an issue. "Advocacy is worthwhile, but you got to be persistent and you got to be informed," said Horejsi. He urged those in the audience who were concerned with specific issues to get to know their government representatives, the process and the issue of concern. "You need to have a relationship with your delegate and senator and you need to go to their town meetings," said Horejsi. Once credibility is established, it is easier to get a point across to the representatives.
SHIRLEY BLOOMQUIST from Annandale’s Little River United Church of Christ asked whether government representatives preferred regular mail, something they see and feel, to e-mails. "I cringe when I’m told e-mail is not effective," said Horejsi. He said he has had communications with General Assembly representatives while they were on the floors of their respective chambers through e-mail, getting up-to-date information on votes and discussions. However, Horejsi advised that the author of the e-mail put his or her address near the top of the message, so the representatives know it is their constituent who wrote the message.
"Ninety percent of business in my office is e-mail," said Plum. He said the people requesting their legislators’ attention on a specific issue should get their message down to a single, most compelling, argument. Blechman added that advocates should not forget the most basic means of communication. "It still pays to talk to your neighbors. Candidates go door-to-door," said Blechman.
Jim Kelley, the regional director of the Ignatian Volunteer Corps, a group providing advocacy opportunities for people 50 or older, said people he works with are at times fearful of politicization. They may be reluctant to engage their resources in issues that may seem to favor one side of the political spectrum or one candidate in a race. "We are political but never partisan," said Horejsi. "While we operate in a political environment, it’s political with a small ‘p.’"
Others in the audience were interested in more specific issues and chances those issues may gain credit and funding in next year’s General Assembly session. Lynn Kramer wanted to know how receptive the General Assembly would be next year to fully funding the mental health system. Mary Supley Foxworth asked if the child care subsidy program could make progress in Richmond next year. Plum said those questions could not be answered until after November’s election, because it is not yet known who will vote on those issues. "We don’t know who will make the decision in ’08," he said.
Plum urged those concerned to seek out candidates willing to vote favorably on those issues. Also, he said, it is important that efforts be made to contact the governor’s office, and speak to someone there while the governor is working on the budget proposal, so he could ask for that funding. Horejsi said child care subsidy issue would probably be a high priority for SALT in its advocacy efforts throughout the election.