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Virginia Beach’s Shadow Government controls city

By Frank Palmieri  

The news out of the Republican Party in the last several days was the attempt by some party members to draw the party into the city’s elections for council and school board.  Because of the election laws of the Commonwealth prohibiting party labels for local elections, as well as strongly held beliefs that local elections should be non-partisan, the two major parties have refrained from nominations or endorsements.

The belief in non-partisan local elections is not unique to Virginia.  Non-partisanship is common in many cities that have a city manager and council form of government.  This governmental structure was promoted and became popular in the late 1890’s and in the first quarter of the next century.  Progressives, as well as business leaders, organized around the National Municipal League, were repulsed by the corruption of urban political machines in older northern cities based on mayor-council forms of government.  The path to good government was to have popularly elected city councils without partisan involvement and thereby encourage business and professional leaders to run for political office.  Operating schools, maintaining roads and providing clean water, they argued were not partisan issues; they just require good public administration provided by a professional city manager.   

These measures of local government reform, developed when American political science in its infancy focused on formal institutions, would, by today’s standards, be considered fatuous.  If one looks closely at Virginia Beach local elections you will observe that a political party – a Shadow Party – does operate to select and elect candidates to further specific goals and policies.  Moreover, it is the belief in non-partisan elections, as well as the formal voting structure that permits this shadow party to be successful. First, let us look at the role-played by the non-partisan tradition. The second part of our discussion will examine how the present formal structure assists the Shadow Party to attain victory at the polls.  

Virginia Beach, then, has not two, but three political parties: Republican, Democrat and Shadow.  If one counts the new Libertarian Party, it has four. Except for the Republican and Shadow Parties the others are irrelevant.  

What makes this Shadow Party insidious is that most members of the general and voting public are unaware that it exists.  It, for example, does not officially nominate any candidates, hold open public meetings, or openly raise any funds. It does not have a membership or openly recruit members. Unlike the formal parties, it is not required to file public reports, especially finance documents, on its activities. Moreover, as a party it is not subject to examination and exposure in the press and broadcast media.  This does not mean that it is not well organized, since its members can be found in certain local business and professional associations.  In fact, it holds an annual awards dinner commonly known as the Neptune Festival.    

However, it is in a position to win elections for its selected candidates by its ability to pull together certain elements of the community, even though they may be committed Republicans or Democrats.  The non-partisanship allows them the freedom to set aside partisan considerations and to join together in a coalition without creating, especially if they hold party leadership positions, any difficulty or discomfort with other partisan affiliations. 

 Current council members who are clearly part of the Shadow Party are Harrison, Sessoms, Branch, Wilson and Mandigo.  Jones and Oberndorf while getting support from the Shadow Party are to a degree more independent.  An excellent example of this pattern from the most recent council election is Rosemary Wilson, an apparent Republican.  If one looks at her ad listing her supporters one will find the names of key leaders from the Democratic and Republican Parties and the business community.  The style of campaigning for Shadow Party members, followed with scripted care by Wilson, is to avoid any discussion of issues that may be controversial or divisive.

The Shadow Party candidates frequently use ads listing supporters.  This type of ad, as well as other techniques, constitute a signal to those individuals affiliated or allied with the Shadow Party that this candidate has the blessing of the Shadow leadership and is the candidate you should vote for.  

The other factors that facilitate the ability of this group to elect its candidates and control city council are the candidate nomination process, at-large voting, and voter turn out.  

·        Local elections, in an effort to discourage partisan activity, only require that a person obtain a specified number of signatures on a petition.

·         The city has for all eleven council seats at-large voting.

·        Local elections are held in May while state and national elections are held in November of different years.  This usually results in an exceptionally low voter turnout.

  All three of these play a role in assisting the Shadow Party to remain in control. 

  The practical effect of nomination by petition, at-large voting and lower voter turnout are:

  1.  Rather than having only two candidates from which to chose, the electorate in many cases is confronted by three or more candidates for one seat. To get into the race one only needs to get the required number of signatures.  Votes, then, are spread among a large number of candidates in the field making it rather easy for a cohesive group to carry the day.  In the May 2000 Mayor’s election 61,954 votes were cast; of these votes the incumbent Mayor received 27,996 votes; her three opposition candidates divided a total of 33,085 votes – giving the Mayor a victory.  

  2. At-large voting makes it difficult for the poorly financed protest candidate to mount a citywide campaign. Shadow Party candidates are usually well financed (See: Best government money can buy) and can easily motivate their supporters in all parts of the city to get to the polls on Election Day.

  3. Because the number voting is exceptionally low it is very easy to bring a modest size block to the polls to assure victory.   

Finally, one only needs a plurality and not a majority in order to win.   

What groups in the city form the base of the Shadow Party?  Generally speaking the Shadow Party is an alliance of major seafront business interests, land developers and builders, those who finance and provide llegal services to these business activities, and residents who are natives and not transplants from outside of Virginia (some individuals may belong to more than one of these groups).

The Shadow Party also receives a considerable degree of support from city and school bureaucratic elites. 

  The Shadow Party represents business interests that generate big tax dollars for the city and, unlike ordinary home owners, they do not need expensive services like schools.  The Shadow Party uses its control of the city council and bureaucracy to advance its business interests – more tourist and real estate development.  

The senior bureaucrats are dependent on these funds to provide city services and a reasonable level of education for its children.  These city services, for example, police protection to suppress crime and maintain public order and schools, are also important, to some degree, to the Shadow Party.  To attract residents and tourist and sustain real estate sales the city needs to offer services that compete with other cities and regions.  

The bureaucrats need the tax dollars to sustain current service levels, add new programs, advance their own careers, and obtain salary increases.  In short, however, the city bureaucracy by depending upon the Shadow Party is able to detach itself from the concerns of the general population.    

My comments should not be taken to mean that these interest groups and city officials are evil or corrupt or that they are engaged in a conspiracy.  They operate openly looking for ways to bring dollars into the community to make a profit and generate taxes.  Virginia Beach, like most Tidewater cities, does not generate its own wealth and it must look to other regions of the county for “subsidies” by transferring dollars voluntarily via entertainment or by compulsion by federal expenditure of tax dollars.  

One should not be mislead by believing that they are acting in the interests of the community.  The “subsidies” are not and will not be evenly distributed or that the homeowners property interests will not be sacrificed for the benefit of others.  Nor can we assume that the wealth producing sections of the nation will be willing to continue to send us its cash.

Frank Palmieri © 2001

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