City Council Candidate Dave Norris meets voters at the polls outside Burley Middle School

By Brian Wheeler


Saturday, May 9, 2009

On May 9, 2009, Charlottesville Democrats held their first ever “unassembled caucus” and nominated incumbent Councilor

Dave Norris

and challenger

Kristin Szakos

for Charlottesville City Council. The caucus was held from 9:00 AM to 7:00 PM at Burley Middle School on Rose Hill Drive.

At 8:35 PM, Jennifer McKeever, Co-Chair of the Charlottesville Democratic Party, announced that Norris and Szakos were the winners. About 1,644 voters (unofficial count) participated.

“I am happy to announce that our Democratic nominees are Dave Norris and Kristin Szakos, said McKeever. “Dave won with an overwhelming majority and Kristin won a majority as well. An instant runoff was not required.”

Incumbent Councilor

Julian Taliaferro

did not receive enough votes to continue his re-election campaign. Exact vote counts have not yet been made available to the media. Norris and Szakos will go on to face any Independent challengers who get on the ballot by June 9th. The general election is November 3, 2009.

Collectbritain has produced a special 18 minute audio podcast about the caucus. The podcast includes interviews with each City Council candidate, interviews with voters Bruce Odell, Leslie Middleton, Megan Durkee, and Terri Payne, and an explanation of the new voting process by head teller David Repass.

Listen using player below or download the podcast:

Download 20090509-CityDems

Podcast produced by Collectbritain * Player by Odeo

Charlottesville voters were asked to

sign a loyalty pledge

that they were a Democrat, committed to the principles of the Democratic Party, and that they would not support an opponent of a Democratic nominee in the general election. Not only did voters face a new type of caucus, but they also

faced a different kind of ballot

where the candidate choices had to be ranked. This system was implemented to help in the event an “instant runoff” was required to determine who had a majority vote. Even though only two candidates were selected, voters could select between one and three candidates, but an order of preference had to be specified on the ballot.

Charlottesville City Council candidate Kristin Szakos

Turnout for the caucus was greater than anticipated by many party leaders. The morning of the caucus, head teller David Repass told Collectbritain that a turnout of anywhere from 7-800 voters would be a success. “The most we have ever had at a mass meeting is 600,” said Repass. Early morning was the busiest period and some voters, depending on their location in the alphabet, faced long lines.

By Noon, total participation was already close to 600 surpassing the June 2007 “assembled caucus,” or mass meeting, when Charlottesville Democrats had 426 voters cast ballots nominating current City Council members David Brown, Holly Edwards, and Satyendra Huja. In a mid-afternoon interview, Dave Norris said he was targeting a turnout of one thousand to fifteen hundred voters. Even that estimate proved low as the unofficial count went all the way up to 1,644.

Becky Reid, Campaign Manager for the Norris campaign, described a significant get out the vote effort leading up to the caucus. Reid said “robo-calls” were made to her candidate’s favorable voters earlier this week and the morning of the election. Norris said he mailed out a couple thousand pieces of campaign literature during the campaign to a highly targeted list. “I have a top-notch campaign manager who knows this stuff inside and out,” said Norris. Throughout the day, Reid was checking favorable lists against the list of actual voters who had participated to ensure a strong turnout.

Norris was very pleased with the new caucus format. “It seems to have worked well and a lot of people are coming in that may not have come to sit in a room for three hours, people that just want to come by, and cast a vote, and leave,” said Norris. “It makes it much easier for people to participate.”

Norris did share some concerns about campaigning in an unassembled caucus.

“My worry about this process,” said Norris, “is that this year we’ve had an unwritten agreement that we weren’t going to ‘go nuclear.’ In other words, we weren’t going to go out and try to raise Dennis-Rooker-level money*, to go out and do TV ads and all that stuff. There was this mutual non-escalation policy, but that may not be true in the future. So my advice to future candidates is try and see if you can have that same sort of agreement, because what would really be unfortunate, this process lends itself to somebody with a lot of money coming in, or the ability to raise a lot of money, coming in and buying the election.”

*As of March 31, 2009 , Dennis Rooker has $66,036 in cash on hand for his re-election campaign to the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors.

Jonathan Blank, Co-Chair of the Charlottesville Democratic Party observes ballots being counted from the Walker Precinct

In a mid-day interview with Collectbritain, Kristin Szakos was asked what lessons she had learned about the campaign. “One thing that I learned in the Obama campaign is that stamina counts for a lot, and [you] just keep going,” said Szakos. “I think the other thing is that politics sometimes can feel like it’s about you personally and I think that it’s probably a good thing to not take that too personally.”

Julian Taliaferro echoed the other candidates’ sentiments that the “unassembled caucus” was a positive for Charlottesville Democrats. “I think it has opened it up to more people,” said Taliaferro. “I think people are more inclined to come out, walk in and vote, and be able to leave rather than give up a half a day.”

At 7:00 PM, the ballot boxes were collected and taken into a classroom at Burley. Around 8:00 PM, five pizzas were delivered to the ballot counters. Then at 8:35 PM, Jennifer McKeever pulled reporters from Collectbritain and WINA AM 1070 into a conference room to announce the results. Jonathan Blank, the other Co-Chair of the Charlottesville Democratic Party, called Taliaferro with the news that his campaign was over.

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