Roanoke will soon do something it’s never done, a pretty rare statement in and of itself. It’s about to elect city council members in November.
Roanoke Democrats pushed for the May-to-November switch and nearly a year ago the council’s Democratic majority voted 5-2 to make it so.
The argument in favor involved civic math: More people vote in November than in May, usually about five times as many.
Of course, there was a nice, unintended — or perhaps intended — consequence for Roanoke Democrats. Roanoke consistently votes for Democratic candidates for major offices — 56.5% for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and she underperformed other recent Democratic candidates for state office, who have topped 60%. (Tim Kaine took 64.4% in the 2018 U.S. Senate race). You have to back to 1984 to find the last time a Republican candidate for president carried the city. That was the year of Ronald Reagan’s landslide over Walter Mondale. Before that you have to go back to 1972 to Richard Nixon’s landslide over George McGovern.
The point being: A November council election may be good for democracy generally (more participation) but it also seems good for Democrats specifically. Roanoke hasn’t elected a Republican to council since 2000 but sometimes it has elected independents. Often those have been Democrats who found it more politically convenient to trust their political chances with a general election electorate than the fevered confines of a Democratic nominating process but in 2016 two actual independents — Michelle Davis and John Garland — got elected to council over Democrats. A November election is a lot harder for independents because a presidential election might produce a lot more straight-ticket voting.
Despite that obstacle, Roanoke has a large field of candidates. There are two candidates for mayor (Democratic incumbent Sherman Lea and former Democratic Mayor David Bowers running as an independent) and eight candidates for council. Those include three Democrats — incumbent Trish White-Boyd, plus Robert Jeffrey and Peter Volosin — along with Republicans Maynard Keller and Peg McGuire, Libertarian Cesar Alberto and independents Stephanie Moon and Kiesha Preston.
There are at least two ways to look at this field. One way is through a partisan lens, which would favor the Democrats, for the reasons we’ve cited above. The other way is to look at the field in terms of which candidates think the city is generally doing a good job and which ones think it’s not. That makes the candidates a bit harder to categorize. Lea and White-Boyd, as incumbents, naturally think the city is headed in the right direction. To some extent, all the others think there are things the city could do better, although some are more vocal about than the others — the two Republicans, the Libertarian Alberto and the more liberal Preston being the most vocal of all.
Here’s why we think that’s a useful way to look at the candidates. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Roanoke went through a period of political tumult. During Darlene Burcham’s decade as city manager, the city was led by three different mayors and 20 different council members. Voters seemed uncertain about how to proceed, and the city was riven by deep divisions over issues such as the fate of Victory Stadium.
In time, those issues were resolved, one way or another, and a new consensus emerged — that the key to economic development is for the city to invest in quality-of-life amenities as a way to retain and attract young adults and create a better-trained workforce.
The elections of 2010, 2012, 2014 and 2016 marked a six-year span when voters appeared quite satisfied with the direction of council. Voters either reelected incumbents or, when there were vacancies, chose candidates who most resembled the incumbents.
Not a single incumbent lost reelection in any of those four elections. That changed in 2018 when voters turned out independent Ray Ferris. Did that signal the end of Roanoke’s “era of good feeling” or was Ferris simply unlucky? He polled more votes while losing in 2018 than he did while winning in 2014. Turnout was up markedly, and in ways that benefit Democrats — a blue wave likely attributable to voters being energized in the Trump era.
We’ll find out more this year about just how Roanokers are feeling about the direction of their city. That choice is clearest in the mayoral race. A vote for Lea would be a vote of confidence; a vote for Bowers would signal unhappiness and the desire for a new direction. Likewise, a vote for White-Boyd would be an affirmation that things are generally going well. After that, things are less clear. Moon touts her institutional knowledge as the retired city clerk.
Two years ago, Jeffrey sounded a more dissident tone and lost. This time around, he sounds more like someone who’s promising incremental change, but not radical change — and earned the endorsement of the Business Leadership Fund, something he didn’t get before. (The fund’s endorsements are a mixed bag. The pro-business PAC also endorsed Lea and White-Boyd, two stay-the-course candidates, but then backed McGuire, who sounds very different notes).
As is often the case, the campaign has produced little discussion about the big-picture issues that the next council will face. Everybody wants a better economy, of course, but how? Volosin touted his union credentials and collective bargaining for city employees.
That might well be good for the employees, but would it be good for taxpayers? McGuire said government must “get out of the way” and let the economy create jobs. Alberto echoed that. But will that change the free market forces that are concentrating jobs in a relative handful of high-tech cities or exacerbate them? Keller, in a recent Zoom debate sponsored by the Roanoke Regional Chamber, attributed the loss of Norfolk Southern and Advance Auto jobs to high taxes.
Actually, those were just free market forces. Advance Auto wants to hire lots of software developers and can find more of them in Raleigh than in Roanoke.
What will help us deepen our talent pool? The modern economy demands workers have more education than those in the past. How do we get more students educated past high school? How do we persuade more graduates of local colleges to stay in the region? Those are the megatrends the next council will have to deal with — whether voters decide they’re happy with the city’s direction or want a new one.