Campaign signs outside the Roanoke registrar's office. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.

The email blast from a Roanoke political action committee made the historic case for the city’s Republicans.

“This is a generational opportunity for a new day in our beloved city,” the email stated near the end, after urging voters to cast ballots for four Republicans running for city council.

The closing statement wasn’t just the typical campaign hyperbole. Roanoke voters have not elected a Republican to city council in a generation — not since 2000, when a Republican eked out a win in a four-person race with barely one-third of the vote. Some years, Republicans haven’t run any candidates at all. This year, Republicans are running a full slate of candidates for four seats in two separate races that include a special election to fill an unexpired term of a Democratic council member who was convicted of fraud and sentenced to prison.

Focusing primarily on issues of Roanoke’s violent crime rate, homelessness and school performance, Roanoke Republicans believe they have a shot at making history. Some Republicans also recently received a valuable endorsement and, more importantly, money from the Business Leadership Fund.

“I don’t like to make predictions, but I am encouraged by people I’ve talked with,” said Dalton Baugess, a Republican running for one of three seats in the city’s general election. “The citizens are tired and ready for a change.”

Democrats, though, believe that voters will keep council reliably blue.

“All the data I look at tells me that this year resembles the last two elections, with a large number of Democrats voting,” said Luke Priddy, a Democrat running in the special election.

In fact, history could be made in a completely different way, considering that it’s possible voters could elect three openly gay men to city council if Democrats Joe Cobb, Peter Volosin and Priddy prevail.

“We’re a progressive, inclusive city,” said Cobb, who is running for reelection after being the leading vote-getter during his first campaign four years ago, which made him the city’s first openly gay vice mayor.

The city has made progress in matters of the economy, equity and social justice that must continue, he said.

“What’s critical is that voters have accurate information about each candidate,” he said. “What would this candidate bring to city council? How do these candidates help us continue to move forward with a strong economy and be a progressive-minded city? If we’re going to make forward progress, we can’t just go back to old policies that may or may not have been effective some time ago. That’s not who we are now. We’ve got to keep moving forward.”

Nine candidates running for three seats; two running for another in a special election

Multi-candidate elections can be messy endeavors, as voters consider many alternatives, split ballots between parties or even fail to use all their votes for open seats. Virginia actually does not include party identification on ballots for local elections, which means local races are technically nonpartisan. However, political parties frequently back local candidates, especially in metro areas where parties nominate candidates and provide money, volunteers and other forms of support.

Roanoke’s council election

There are actually two separate elections being held. Nine candidates are running for three at-large seats, currently held by Democrats Bill Bestpitch (who is retiring), Joe Cobb and Vivian Sanchez-Jones. The candidates, in alphabetical order:

In Roanoke’s general election, in which three seats are up for grabs, Democrats Cobb, Volosin and incumbent Vivian Sanchez-Jones are running. The rest of the ballot includes Republicans Baugess, Nick Hagen and Maynard Keller, and independents that include former mayor David Bowers, Jamaal Jackson and Preston Tyler.

The special election, also held Nov. 8 along with the general election, pits Priddy against Republican Peg McGuire, who narrowly missed earning a spot on council in 2020 when she came in fourth in a race for three seats by 1.7 percentage points. She finished ahead of Volosin in that race by 721 votes. Keller also ran in 2020, finishing seventh out of eight.

Roanoke voters have not elected a Republican in a local race since 2000, when Ralph Smith became mayor by outlasting a four-person field by receiving just 36 percent of the vote. Another Republican, Bill Carder, was also elected to council that year, but he eventually sided more with Democrats on issues than with Smith, then resigned because of a job relocation and became an independent.

Little disagreement exists among all candidates about what the main election issues are, with public safety, the economy and schools among the priorities. The differences are in how to address those problems.

Roanoke’s violent crime rate and rise in gun violence have been main campaign topics, especially for Republicans who blame Democratic policies for the increase in crime. Sixteen homicides have happened in Roanoke since the start of the year, equal to the number from all of 2021. Aggravated assaults have also been high the past several years, according to data from the Virginia State Police, although Cobb says more recent data from Roanoke police shows them falling this year.

“From the get-go, my whole issue has been crime in Roanoke,” said Baugess, who is a logistics officer for Salem Fire-EMS. “Roanoke has more rapes than Richmond, [and] more simple assaults than Richmond. I’ve been with EMS and the fire department since 1987. I know what a shooting does to a body. I know what it does to first responders and to [emergency room] people. I want a better Roanoke for my kids.”

Republicans want more police officers on the street and satellite police stations set up in different quadrants of the city. Roanoke has 46 vacancies on a force that considers 250 officers as a full staff. Baugess specifically blames the “defund the police” efforts that followed the murder of George Floyd in 2020 as a primary reason why officers are leaving the force.

Roanoke, however, did not reduce public safety funding and this year city council implemented a plan for raises that it expects will persuade more officers to stay on the force. The city will also receive state money from a $75 million “Operation Bold Blue Line Initiative” announced by Gov. Glenn Youngkin last week during an appearance in Norfolk that included Roanoke Mayor Sherman Lea. The money will be spread across the state to raise officer pay and improve recruitment and training.

Cobb acknowledges Roanoke’s high crime rate but he says that Roanoke is part of a broader national gun-violence problem that has been exacerbated during the pandemic, which included protests, police resignations across the country and a rise in the number of guns. He said that the number of police job vacancies have declined in Roanoke this year, and that the police and fire academies have seen increases in their classes.

Cobb is chair of the city’s Gun Violence Task Force, a commission made up of government, public safety and religious leaders and others that seeks to reduce homicides through use of data, intervention and policy implementations. The task force recently made 8,000 gun locks available to Roanokers in an effort to reduce accidental shootings that often involve children.

Although violent crime occurs in each of the city’s four quadrants, most of the shootings happen in a slice of Northwest Roanoke north of downtown and Orange Avenue. The people in those neighborhoods are mostly African American and typically poorer than the rest of the city, and they have borne the brunt of shootings and murders, many of which are tied to drugs, gangs and domestic violence, according to police reports.

Those neighborhoods are traditionally unfriendly territory for Republican candidates, but McGuire said that she and fellow Republicans have gone door to door in Northwest Roanoke to persuade voters to consider their ideas for resolving crime and gun issues.

“I’ve been knocking on a lot of doors where Republicans don’t normally find admirers,” she said. “I’ve spent 15 minutes, 30 minutes on people’s porches, just listening. I’ve learned a lot. They feel that no one is listening to them. Well. Republicans are listening.”

Baugess believes that Northwest residents are receptive to Republican ideas to hire more police and punish offenders.

“In Northwest, I’ve talked to people in houses with three or four bullet holes in them,” he said. “People are tired of living like that.”

Cobb said he supports police and approves increased funding for pay and training. However, he said that until the city deals with systemic poverty and confronts the legacy of past racial policies that forced Black Roanokers into segregated, low-income, crime-ridden neighborhoods — a practice from the mid-20th century called “red-lining,” where government, business and real estate firms drew actual red lines around mostly Black, mostly poor neighborhoods and deemed them unsuitable for investment or bank loans — Roanoke won’t be able to reduce crime in a sustainable way.

“We have to change the narrative and we have to change our relationships with people,” said Cobb, a part-time chaplain at a Roanoke retirement home. “When we see a change in relationships, that’s when transformation can take place. We can enforce, we can legislate and we can prosecute, but those things alone will not reduce gun violence in our city. We’ve got to reduce illegal access to guns and ensure safety. If people have guns in a household, they need to be secure so children and youth do not have access.”

Even though Roanoke voters have not elected Republican since 2000, they have elected independent candidates numerous times in the past 20 years. The current council includes two former Democrats turned independents Bill Bestpitch (who is not running for re-election after three terms) and Stephanie Moon Reynolds. The large field and Roanoke’s penchant for independents give Bowers, Jackson and Tyler hope.

Bowers, who served four terms as Roanoke mayor and numerous years as a councilman, especially has city-wide and even regional name recognition. He spent most of his political career as a Democrat before running as an independent in elections where he frequently faced Democratic opponents. He lost the 2020 mayor’s race to Lea by nearly 6 percentage points.

As an independent with a long political track record, Bowers echoes many Republican points when it comes to crime and homelessness. He said that crime is so bad in the city that his wife is sometimes afraid to walk the family dog on the Roanoke River Greenway. He said people have told him they are afraid to go downtown — partly due to fears or crime, partly due to the appearance of homeless people — a sentiment repeated by other Republican candidates.

Cobb rebuts the claim that people are afraid of downtown by pointing out the increase in downtown living accommodations over the past 15 to 20 years. Two decades ago, fewer than 50 people lived downtown compared to more than 2,500 today, according to Downtown Roanoke, Inc. Most downtown storefronts are full, even after the economic tumult of the pandemic, Jefferson Street welcomed new major businesses Mast General Store and the new Liberty Trust boutique hotel, and the largest retail construction project in decades is underway on the site of the former Campbell Court bus station.

“When I moved here in 2001, downtown had its strengths but was looking for a path forward,” Cobb said. “There was very little residential life downtown. In the 20 years I have lived here, the transformation of downtown has been extraordinary. … And it all happened through progressive policies that that [past] city council and city manager put in place and continue to be built upon.”

Bowers believes that a council majority is up for grabs this year, which would require that Republicans or Republican-friendly candidates sweep all four races.

“I have never heard the discontent and frustration regarding the city and council as I have this year,” Bowers said. “I believe that the mood of the community is to literally change the majority.”

To do that, however, would require an electoral feat that defies the city’s voting history for more than 20 years. For more than two decades, even the reddest political waves that sweep the country have been blocked by a deep blue seawall in Roanoke.

In 2021, while Youngkin won the governor’s mansion by 2 percentage points statewide over Democrat Terry McAuliffe, Roanoke voters preferred McAuliffe by more than 16 percentage points.

In the 2014 council election, Republican candidates ran a law-and-order-based campaign similar to this year, calling Roanoke “the next Detroit” and frequently quoting statistics from an online real estate company that called Roanoke’s crime rate the highest in Virginia. All were defeated.

In 2010, with the Tea Party ascendant across the United States, Republicans again failed to win a council seat, even though the local Tea Party had made at least one endorsement.

Republicans are hoping to make history on Nov. 8, even if they don’t sweep.

“I hope they elect all four of us,” Baugess said. “I feel that at least two of us will get elected.”

This year, some Republicans received endorsements and cash from the Business Leadership Fund, a local PAC that over the years has given money to candidates from both major parties and independents. Keller, Baugess and Bowers were endorsed in the general election and McGuire got the nod in the special. The endorsements also come with $4,000 for each campaign.

Republicans also have been supported by a new PAC called Roanoke Forward, which has provided money for signs and advertising for the four Republicans. A Democratic PAC, For Roanoke, is using candidates’ own money to make coordinated mailers for Democrats.

The amount of PAC money could help Republicans offset Democrats’ significant individual fundraising advantages. The four Democrats have outraised the four Republicans by a 3-to-1 advantage through the end of September, although more money has poured into campaigns since then. Democrats have received many more small donations of $100 or less, which can sometimes be gauged as evidence of grassroots support.

Roanoke Forward, the Republican PAC, has sent emails criticizing what it calls a “bloated city budget” and an “absurd amount of money spent on schools.” School funding has been in the PAC’s crosshairs at other times, including an Oct. 16 email sent to subscribers that called graduation rates “dismal” and claimed taxpayers “deserve a return on their investment.” Curiously, the PAC used budget numbers from Roanoke County Public Schools instead of Roanoke City Public Schools, even though the email was a call to support the city council candidates.

Suzanne Osborne, director of the Roanoke Forward PAC, said she got those numbers during a city schools forum she attended, figures she now realizes were incorrect. She said the city schools budget is even larger than what she included in the campaign email.

McGuire, a media relations and communications consultant who started a popular parenting page on Facebook in the early days of the pandemic called “Roanoke MOMS survive CORONA,” has made schools a priority in her campaign. She cites learning loss during COVID shutdowns as a prime mistake made by Democratic leaders locally and statewide.

“I’m deeply concerned about learning loss and the mental health of children,” said McGuire, a mother of two sons who are homeschooled. “We have to fix it. We didn’t have to do that [shutting down of schools] and we should never do it again.”

Priddy, chief of staff for Virginia Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, is in his first race after failing to secure a Democratic nomination in 2020, so he was not part of the council that made emergency decisions in the early days of COVID. But he said that those council members deserve credit for steering the city through an uncertain time.

“My opponent’s rhetoric is to be critical of past decisions,” Priddy said. “That we were closed for too long, and those closures had effects on the economy. But that doesn’t provide insight about what could have been done differently or give credit for difficult decisions that were made to save people’s lives.”

With Bestpitch and Anita Price, who was appointed to fill Robert Jeffrey’s seat, not running for reelection, council will be guaranteed two new faces next year. In 2020, Roanoke elected its first Black majority to council. When Sanchez-Jones was appointed, as the city’s first Latina council member, the number of white council members shrank to two. When Price was appointed earlier this year, women became a 4-3 majority. Those racial and gender majorities could remain the same after the election, although the party designations could be different.

“I hope that whoever is elected, we’ll have to figure out a way to keep improving Roanoke,” Priddy said. “We need to celebrate all the good things about Roanoke and not just harp about everything bad.”

An earlier version of this story listed the wrong name for the Republican PAC.

Ralph Berrier Jr.

Ralph Berrier Jr. is a writer who lives in Roanoke. Contact him at ralph.berrier@gmail.com.