Out with the old and in with the new. That’s what it was to be three years ago, when four fresh-faced new supervisors took their place alongside the “old man” of the board to make the change Chesterfield citizens voted for and hoped they would get. What happened? It may not have been the obvious.
What happened last Wednesday, when the Board of Supervisors was poised to bring about change by having a Democrat – and, for the first time, an African American -- in the chairman’s seat during an election year, during a redistricting year and during a year when a sweeping comprehensive plan would be approved, was politics -- or was it personal?
In Chesterfield, it has been the tradition that there is a certain order or succession of leadership within the Board of Supervisors. Most of the time, the vice chairman is nominated and elected to the chairman’s seat and a new vice chairman is elected. The politics usually surrounds who will be the next vice chairman.
But, this board started fresh in 2008 and sort of broke tradition when four of the five seats were then held by newly elected supervisors. Their elected leadership was the “The Old Man and the Sea” of Chesterfield politics, Art Warren. His vice chairman, Dan Gecker, from Midlothian, didn’t take the cue the following year and Mr. Warren held the seat again. Then last year, the board went back to tradition. Mr. Gecker took center chair and the Dale District’s Jim Holland was vice chairman. So it stands to reason Mr. Holland would be chairman this year. Newspapers predicted, name placards were moved, paperwork and seating arranged and then it happened.
In midsentence, as County Administrator Jay Stegmaier called for nominations, Bermuda District Supervisor Dorothy Jaeckle blurted out, “I nominate Art Warren,” and the game, as well as a return to tradition, was altered.
Some elected officials speak of back room deals and of early morning phone calls. Some citizens speak of racism and cronyism. But one thing is certain: Chesterfield takes it on the chin again, our little soap opera continues and we become more isolated.
So what was the real reason for this last minute turn of events?
Was it racism? Absolutely, unequivocally no. I do believe the members of this board are long past such things.
Was it politics? Absolutely, but there are different kinds of politics: The obvious, such as Republican and Democratic, but then there are personal politics, too. Because the Board of Supervisors governs in a sort of microcosm, their votes affect people they see in the grocery store, so their political world is a small and personal one.
They are also concerned with whom they have to work, on the board, on committees, at public affairs and behind closed doors negotiating votes as they do. So, keeping all that in mind, it is rather difficult to go dowsing for an answer to why tradition did not take hold last Wednesday and this end of the county has just now gotten the slightest bit of leadership representation on the board, and why Art Warren has had three of the last four years as chairman. Is he really that good? Or is he just the strongest Republican?
In 2005, the Republican Party in Chesterfield reportedly threw a fit when a couple of board members stood up to the party leadership and put Democrat Edward Barber in the Chairman’s seat. He had been in his third term without serving as chairman. The Republican powers that be put up with it, but said it could never happen in an election year, according to a source. But that’s really not the case here either – maybe.
What it boils down to here is even more personal and not about the chairmanship at all. It was about what was perceived to be a package deal, that of chair and vice chair – kind of a Clinton/Gore sort of thing, the affable leader and the verbose sidekick. Mr. Holland wanted Marleen Durfee, Matoaca District supervisor, to be vice chairwoman, and according to some on the board he wasn’t flexing on that issue. And, he probably shouldn’t have, because she has supported him all along with votes over the last three years.
In the end, the supervisors could have voted for Mr. Holland and not for Ms. Durfee, keeping with tradition and not humiliating Mr. Holland by having him sit in the chairman’s seat throughout the first session of the meeting.
But in the personal politics analysis, there is one puzzle piece that doesn’t fit: Mr. Warren’s vote. He said that he had gotten “calls” the morning of the infamous vote. If those calls were from the party, then we’re back to square one and it’s all about having political control in an election year. And Ms. Jaeckle delivered the message. But there are only a few people who really know and I don’t think the rest of us will ever know for sure. That’s democracy for you.