Politics in Loudoun County have been changing with some saying Republicans no longer have a lock on elections. Some could also argue this year’s elections are an example of the changing ways with almost every office a contested race on the Nov. 6 ballot.
However, two races feature candidates whose names will not appear on the ballot. Thomas "TAG" Greason, who is seeking to unseat incumbent School Board member Robert Ohneiser (Broad Run), was disqualified July 3 after some of the signatures required to be placed on the ballot were disallowed; he launched a write-in campaign in August. In addition, attorney John Flannery, a Democrat, announced last week he intends to challenge incumbent Commonwealth Attorney James Plowman (R) with his own write-in campaign.
History shows the odds are stacked against them, but their chances of pulling off an upset is not without precedent.
"Write-in candidacies typically are unsuccessful, but there are exceptions," said Scott Keeter, director of survey research for the Pew Research Center. "The fact that there have been successful ones in the past means it isn’t an obstacle to overcome."
Keeter cites former Washington, D.C., mayor Anthony Williams’ successful write-in campaign after failing to qualify for the 2002 Democratic primary as a local example.
KEETER SAID write-in campaigns usually emerge when one of two things happens: the candidate fails to qualify for the ballot or the incumbent doesn’t provide the voters any opportunity to express strongly held views on an issue. The bottom line for a successful write-in campaign comes down to the ability to establish name recognition and to get the candidate’s message to the voters, he said.
"Without adequate resources a write-in campaign is apt to fail," Keeter said.
In the race in Broad Run, Ohneiser said he is the only elected official in Loudoun County that files special financial reports. He was granted a waiver, because he does not accept donations and is limited to spending $1,000 of his own money. Greason, by contrast, reports having a campaign balance of $5,135 as of Oct. 29.
Ohneiser said he is running on his record and that his wife "made me get some signs." He said he did not alter his strategy despite Greason’s aggressive campaign.
"I basically rely on the community’s judgment on how productive I’ve been," Ohneiser said.
Greason on the other hand has been going door to door, appearing at community events, placing signs throughout the district and even plans to have volunteers hand out pens with his name on them at the polls.
OHNEISER SEES upcoming budget constraints as a major issue for the School Board. He believes the lackluster financial outlook requires someone with experience: Someone who can make the tough decision between what is nice to have and what is critical for the school system to maintain its high standards.
"The school system will be under tremendous pressure not to spend money if it’s not needed," Ohneiser said.
He said the proposed $60 million budget reduction made by some supervisors during last year’s budget sessions would have been detrimental to the efforts to reduce class size and would have cut some programs, which are considered optional, had it passed.
"The Monroe technical center is not a requirement. The Douglass School for alternative education is not a requirement. The science academy [at Dominion High] is not a requirement," he said. "There is value in having a School Board member with experience."
Ohneiser favors curricular expansion by substituting courses students are interested in taking for classes that are not as popular. For example, taking physical education is not required as a junior or senior, he said. So the school system could offer an elective in its place. He said there isn’t an alternative elective. He also said he would like to see the School Board and the Board of Supervisors get together more regularly and develop a 15-year plan for the schools. Currently, the planning process extends out five to six years.
"I believe in working together … in having good relationships and having trust," he said.
GREASON SAID Ohneiser does work hard on the School Board, but hasn’t been productive because he doesn’t "get along with other board members." He feels that puts the Broad Run District at a disadvantage.
"I’ve seen Mr. Ohneiser suggest some good ideas and some bad ideas," Greason said. "And no one on the board will listen to him."
He, too, agrees the two boards need to spend more time working together. He believes when it comes to the budget, the school system has to keep up with the growth and inflation.
"There is a middle ground between cutting the budget and fully funding it," he said.
Greason wants to see the boundary procedure for new schools revised so that takes it takes the politics and emotions out of the process, especially given that the school system is expected to open 19 schools over the next six years. He also wants to make sure the school system is doing everything it can to retain teachers rather than being "a training ground for Fairfax County."
PLOWMAN WAS unopposed for the commonwealth attorney seat until last week, even so he reports having a campaign balance of $3,956 as of Oct. 29 with Flannery reporting $4,517. To this point, Plowman said, he hadn’t done any "full-scale, hard-core campaigning." His job now is to make sure his message gets out there even though he doesn’t view Flannery’s challenge as much of a threat to his re-election.
"I reject his campaign as a publicity stunt," Plowman said. "Still, I’m very happy to get my record out there. I see this as an opportunity to re-enforce my message."
He said his main mission, and the mission of the entire office, is public safety. Over the next four years, he sees a need for the county to hold the line on gang activity, which he said is declining. In addition, the county is doing more to curb domestic violence, including receiving a grant, which allows the Commonwealth Attorney’s Office to have a dedicated prosecutor for domestic violence cases. The Sheriff’s Office also has personnel dedicated to domestic violence crimes and the two offices work as a team, Plowman said.
The cooperation between the two offices has improved since he began his term, he said. Prior to 2003, Plowman said there was tensions between the two offices, which often times played out in the media.
"That’s turned around … there’s a big difference," he said.
He dismisses the criticisms that he uses his office to help political allies, saying such criticisms come with the territory of an elected office.
"People get confused between political affiliation and saddling up to them," Plowman said. "Do I know these people [Republican politicians]? Yes, and I know Democrats as well. … I’m bound by the law, look at the facts. We do not make decisions in our office based on politics. It doesn’t happen, period."
PLOWMAN’S OPPONENT, Flannery, sees things differently and that is what spurred him to make an 11th-hour run for office. He said the recent dismissal of the fraud case against one-time Republican candidate Mark Tate was the spark. Flannery does admit to knowing Tate, who was indicted for campaign fraud just prior to the Republican primary for the 27th District Senate seat. The case was handled by a special prosecutor, but controversy has surrounded Plowman over the handling and timing of the case.
"It’s terrible to have an office that isn’t fair and objective," Flannery said.
He said his sudden candidacy should not be seen as a protest vote, but rather as a way to "restore faith and make it the best Commonwealth Attorney's Office in Virginia."
Flannery points to his 34 years of experience, which includes being a former state and federal prosecutor in New York, where he handled corruption and organized crime cases, as to why he is the best person for the job.
"It’s not about being Republican or Democrat. It’s about fair play," Flannery said.
Given the fact that the election is just around the corner, Flannery has mounted an electronic campaign to get his message across. He has been utilizing blogs, e-mails and some advertising.
"I’ve sent e-mails to 3,000 of my closest friends," he said.
He said the continued growth of the county requires someone in the Commonwealth Attorney’s Office with the experience to balance the needs of the more suburban east with the needs of the more rural west.
"I have a background that covers political issues, business issues, a background that matters."