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Chairman Brian Lang says his group is healthy, but several years of infighting have taken their toll.
Saturday, June 29, 2013
They stepped into the cavernous motel ballroom in early June, one by one. Inside, each person found a seat beneath the flickering fluorescent light.
Looking over nearly 30 of his fellow Roanoke County Democrats, committee Chairman Brian Lang posed the question: Would they nominate him to be the Democratic candidate for a seat on the county board of supervisors? Most of them said "aye;" none of them said "nay."
Lang thanked them, even as one man made a beeline for the exit.
Now, four months away from a November election in which a majority of the board's seats will be up for grabs, Lang represents the single Democrat his committee could produce to run. Some blame the cyclical ebb and flow of committee participation and the job description. Still others, including a collection of disenchanted local Democrats, point squarely at the committee's leadership and the wounds inflicted after months of political infighting that still haven't healed.
Five years after a struggle for party leadership led to a lawsuit against Lang and other committee members, fissures remain, even as Lang insists his committee is healthy.
An expected appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court notwithstanding, former committee Chairman Richard Evans' case against his own party is drawing to a close. In the dispute, Evans alleged that Lang, along with several other members, finagled parliamentary proceedings as a means of seizing power over the committee.
Without an end to litigation in sight, it is unclear how the chairman's bid for the Hollins District supervisor seat will be affected by the court battle and the strife that led up to it. His decision to run created a three-way race, igniting concern among some Democrats who have complained the move increases Republican Al Bedrosian's chances of winning by splitting the vote between Lang and independent Gary Jarrell.
Before dissent rankled the local committee in 2008, membership had been described as flourishing - enjoying a three-year period of sustained growth leading up to the national election.
Exactly what went wrong depends on the person recalling the story. In an interview and in his lawsuit, Evans spun a theory about a group of inner-party saboteurs - including Lang - who tried to obtain control of the committee by inviting people, some of whom had never attended a meeting, to cast enough votes to oust him.
In Evans' recounting, it was as if an occult hand had swept him aside, replacing him with new leadership, in which Lang had been tapped to call the shots.
"Siege mentality," Evans said.
Others, including Lang, described Evans as a vindictive leader who would arbitrarily cancel meetings and actively worked against some Democratic candidates.
Some members saw the party unraveling before them and sought to remove themselves from the committee. In an email to his peers, Dick Morris penned an all-caps message to committee leadership.
"I DO NOT WANT TO BELONG TO AN ORGANIZATION THAT DOES SUCH STUPID OR IDIOTIC THINGS THAT ARE OCCURRING NOW," Morris wrote.
But the infighting continued, stretching over several years.
As recently as last summer, Lang sought to banish Evans from committee meetings.
Shortly after, Roanoke County police were dispatched to a committee meeting held at a public library in which two factions of Democrats attempted to hold the same meeting at the same time. It devolved into a shouting match. According to Evans' lawsuit, several members of the committee left that meeting shocked, confused and dismayed.
More than a dozen members of the committee would go on to complain about Lang's leadership in an October 2012 letter to Mary Nuckolls, the acting chair of the 9th Congressional District Democratic Committee.
Susan Cloeter, a self-described lifelong Democrat, was one of the people to sign that letter. She said she got involved with the county party because she wanted to become more involved.
"I joined because my kids were at an age where I could finally be active," Cloeter said. "What I started noticing with time is that we never did anything."
Cloeter, who once considered running for a leadership spot herself, complained about a cloud of malaise over once-active members. After years of impassioned bickering, she and several others have moved on, devoting their political energies to other organizations, she said.
Lang sharply rebukes his naysayers, and says he is "totally dismissive" of committee members who were disruptive at party meetings. He said he does not think the turmoil during his tenure will affect his campaign.
"For most voters, I think they're more interested in government issues, not some partisan squabble," he said.
As to why he couldn't find anyone to run in the other two district races, Lang described the challenges before him.
"Getting people to run for local office has been a longtime challenge for local committees across the state, frankly," he said. "It's a job with part-time pay and full-time responsibilities. It's not something like Congress, where people earn a six-figure salary and aren't in session the whole year."
Before he decided to run for public office himself, Lang approached former supervisor and Roanoke County Circuit Court Clerk Steve McGraw.
Like Lang, McGraw was also named in the lawsuit as one of the conspirators who worked to remove Evans. More specifically, McGraw was described as the "puppet master" behind the plot.
He chuckled at the description.
"I can see why people would say that, because I was certainly involved a couple of years ago," he said. "It's untrue now."
He said Lang sought him out for advice about whether he should run for the Hollins seat. McGraw supported the idea.
With more than 30 years of involvement in party politics, McGraw said he's experienced enough to say his committee has seen tougher days. A supporter of Lang, McGraw said he isn't worried about the lawsuit, or its fallout, affecting the race.
"The committee itself is not that strong, but he has informal connections between Democrats and Republicans with whom he's talking," he said. "I think Brian has had his ups and downs. He's made some mistakes, he's willing to admit when he's done wrong, and now we're looking at a mature Brian Lang."
A s November approaches, Lang said he's prepared for any criticism lobbed at him as a result of the lawsuit.
"There may be vocal critics who like to paint a picture," Lang said. "I cannot control what others choose to do in a free country. I think it reflects more on them than on me."
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