Column – Sadly, party politics infiltrate even local elections
Published 5:48 pm Tuesday, October 17, 2023
Local government has never been without controversy. Some fierce battles have been fought on boards of supervisors and school boards during the past half century.
However, during much of our history, political ideologies were, for the most part, left at the door when local concerns were debated.
For example, four decades ago, the county was threatened with the loss of the giant Union Camp paper mill, by far the county’s largest taxpayer at that time. The city of Franklin had tried unsuccessfully in 1970 to annex the land containing Camp. A temporary moratorium was placed on another attempt, but Franklin promised to take another swing at it as soon as that was lifted.
Other counties in Southeast Virginia had faced similar dilemmas and declared themselves cities, which, in Virginia, can’t be annexed by another city. (Counties have always been fair game.)
There was a movement in Isle of Wight to follow that path, and the debate over whether to do so was furious. City status advocates pressed the potential loss of tax dollars if annexation succeeded, while others, particularly town residents, feared the identity of Smithfield, which would have been merged into the city, as well as the rural tradition enjoyed within the county.
In the end, the question became moot when a moratorium on new cities was imposed by the General Assembly and another path was chosen — a negotiated settlement with Franklin.
The remarkable thing about the city debate, and most others of that era, though, was that advocates on both sides of issues generally focused on the needs of the county, even though they often disagreed on how to meet those needs. Political party ideology didn’t come into play to any great extent.
Not that people weren’t partisan. The county, like most of Virginia and the South, had been staunchly Democratic, though today’s Democrats aren’t proud of that period in their party’s history, because it was the Democratic Party that manufactured and perpetuated the Jim Crow South and, in Virginia, shaped Massive Resistance to school integration.
Democrats outside the South became more flexible on the question of race and, in 1964 and 1965, joined the moderate Republicans of that era in enacting the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, laws that angered a whole bunch of Southern white folks. After signing the Civil Rights Act, Democratic President Lyndon Johnson famously commented that by pushing it he had “lost the South for a generation.” His politics were spot on, but his math was off. It’s now been closer to three generations that Republicans have largely held the South.
Republicans saw opportunity in anger and hit on what became unofficially known as the Southern Strategy. They promised to fight social change, and the shift to the Republican Party quickly ensued. With the same anger-stoking technique, the nation’s cultural wars were launched.
Within a few years, Isle of Wight had joined much of Virginia and the South in changing parties.
Despite the massive shift in party loyalty, however, counties, towns and cities managed to keep partisan politics largely out of local elections and issues.
Unfortunately, that couldn’t last. Starting sometime in the 1990s, Republicans across the state began endorsing candidates for local office. In time, Democrats began doing the same thing. Inevitably, national and state “litmus tests” then began showing up in local elections.
The upshot is that across Virginia, local candidates for office must often pass muster on views that may have little if anything to do with the issues they hope to address in the local offices they seek.
In many states, all elections have always been partisan. In the Old Dominion, however, leaving party politics and ideology out of local elections served us well for quite a while. Far better than the hyperpartisan environment that has infected elections in recent years, particularly school board races across the state. But tragically, that’s where we find ourselves.
John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.