Lynchburg is gearing up for what may be one of the most watched local elections west of Richmond this year, with seven candidates vying for three at-large seats on the city council in a referendum being held in November instead of May for the first time in decades.
“The big thing to watch will be turnout, which I expect will be a lot better because there is also a congressional race around here as well that will get people up to the polls,” said David Richards, chair of the Political Science Department at the University of Lynchburg, referring to the race in Virginia’s 5th Congressional District, of which the entire city is now a part after the Virginia Supreme Court approved new district maps last December. In this contest, incumbent Rep. Bob Good, R-Campbell County, faces Democrat Josh Throneburg.
Lynchburg’s city council is made up of seven members, four of whom represent the city’s four wards, with three more who are chosen at large. This year, all three at-large seats are on the ballot, with the three highest vote-getters winning these seats on council.
Marty Misjuns, Stephanie Reed and Larry Taylor are the candidates challenging incumbents Treney Tweedy, a former mayor, and Beau Wright, the current vice mayor. The latter two are running as independents. Two new candidates, Patrick Earl and Walter Virgil, are also running as independents, and councilman Randy Nelson, the incumbent of the third at-large seat, is not seeking reelection.
Although city council candidates are not identified with a “D” or “R” on the ballot, the body has been largely controlled by Democratic-leaning candidates in recent years. This year, Earl, Tweedy and Wright were endorsed by the city’s Democratic committee and by the Lynchburg Voters League, which represents minority voices in the city. Misjuns, Reed and Taylor will represent the local GOP after being chosen at a mass meeting in August.
Republicans are hoping to take advantage of their party’s apparent momentum on the federal level and an unpopular President Joe Biden, a Democrat, and flip two of the three seats to gain the majority on the council.
“I think they see a chance with the way the national party has been moving and that they could use this opportunity to gain control in Lynchburg, and that’s a strategy that could help them in general,” Richards said. “And a new party getting control means that the things that the council is currently interested in may change. Local elections tend to be that way, the party identification may matter, but on the ballot you will just see a list of names.”
While Lynchburg traditionally is a rather conservative-leaning city, Democrats have won the occasional state races there. Mark Warner took 53% in his 2001 governor’s race, but he was also the rare Democrat who performed unusually well in the western part of the state.
In 2006, Democrat Shannon Valentine won a special election to the House of Delegates, but she narrowly lost in 2009. Democrat Ralph Northam came close to carrying Lynchburg in the 2017 governor’s race with 47.2%. In the following year, Democratic U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine defeated his Republican challenger, firebrand Corey Stewart, with 50.6% to 45.6%.
In a presidential election, Lynchburg went Democratic for the first time since 1948 two years ago, when Democrat Joe Biden edged Donald Trump by 48.6% to 46.5%, with 3.8% for Libertarian Jo Jorgensen.
But amid inflation, high gas prices and an overall increase in crime rates, Democrats have been struggling in the polls – an opportunity that Republicans are trying to seize not just in Congress but in municipal elections nationwide.
Councilman Chris Faraldi, a Republican who was first elected in 2020 to represent Ward IV and who is not on the ballot this year, said in a recent phone interview that the Lynchburg GOP has made an unprecedented push by getting three Republican-backed candidates on the ballot.
“This is the first time that we have a whole slate running in the at-large cycle,” Faraldi said. “I really believe that Lynchburg is leaning towards bringing in new leadership, because under the current majority we have seen an increase in crime, taxes are higher, schools are seeing failing SOL scores, and Lynchburg shows a slowing economy. On almost every issue the current majority doesn’t have a good track record.”
Faraldi recently rolled out a “Lynchburg Pledge” about what a new conservative majority would do on council. He proposes reducing the tax burden of city residents, increasing investments in public safety and allowing voters to elect members of the school board, which are currently appointed by the city council.
Wright, who has served in numerous capacities in the administration of former President Barack Obama and who was first elected to the Lynchburg city council in 2018, rebuked Faraldi’s characterization of what he called the “moderate majority” on the council.
“The conservatives are selling a doom-and-gloom set of concerns,” Wright said in a recent interview. “That makes sense, that’s political strategy 101, so you could look good in comparison.”
The Republican-backed candidates have yet to offer solutions for the problems they have identified, Wright said. “They want to offer a tax rebate, but what are they willing to cut? Why aren’t they willing to have a discussion about what this money can be used for instead? Republicans say there are all these problems, but we are actually working on these things, and their platform is very, very thin on real solutions.”
But if there is one thing that both Faraldi and Wright agree on, it is that the 2020 decision by the General Assembly to move municipal elections from May to November is a game changer for both sides, for better or worse.
“It’s definitely challenging, this is a very competitive field, and there is a lot of activity,” Wright said. “The parties themselves have been involved, Democrats and Republicans have endorsed candidates.” Lynchburg, Wright said, has a “long and rich tradition” of running independent candidates. “But this election is testing this avenue to keep national politics and party politics out of local politics.”
And Faraldi said that the move of the election from May to Nov. 8 is advantageous for conservatives on a multitude of narratives. “If we just win two seats, Lynchburg will have a GOP mayor,” he said.
If campaign finances are an indicator, Republicans maintain an edge in the race, with their three candidates having outraised the remaining four by more than 2-1, or $116,000 to $47,000, according to data from the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonprofit tracking money in politics.
And the new congressional district maps may be further advantageous for Republicans, Richards, the political scientist, said. “I’m wondering if Republicans, who put forward that slate of three, may have been banking on the fact that Good is a popular and a far-right candidate.”
Lynchburg is a rather conservative city, “sort of old-line GOP, plenty of Trump supporters, but generally voters here are going to vote for Lynchburg issues, not national issues,” Richards added. “Having said that, those people coming out to vote for Good could change that.”
Turnout at Liberty University could also be significant in next month’s election. The school’s former President Jerry Falwell for years has encouraged students to vote, and the university’s Standing for Freedom Center provides one-stop information for students on how to register. Last week, Liberty hosted a Meet the Candidates forum, and it keeps a list of profiles on its website.
“Liberty’s student body might be key in the city council elections, and I am sure if they can turn out to vote for Bob Good, that will just increase his margin,” Richards said. “It would be in Liberty’s interest to have friendly faces on the city council, although I am not aware of any big items on their list that would intersect with the city council.”
Local elections officials are expecting a higher turnout on Nov. 8 than what they have seen in previous municipal elections.
“In the most recent city council election in May of 2020, which was by wards, the turnout was 23.6% overall,” said Christine Gibbons, the general registrar. In this year’s election, her office has already received 2,000 of the 3,000 mail-in ballots that the city sent out, and the flow of early voters coming in has been steady, with about 100 voters coming in per day. “I think moving the election from May up to November has been impacting the turnout positively,” Gibbons said.
But few are willing to predict where the pendulum will swing this year. Wright, the vice mayor, said that a possible higher turnout doesn’t offer many clues. “Your guess is as good as mine,” he said. “We certainly see more enthusiasm. This definitely is the most hotly contested city council election in recent Lynchburg history.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story erroneously said that the Lynchburg Democratic Committee and the Lynchburg Voters League endorsed independent candidate Walter Virgil. Neither organization endorsed Virgil.