Herndon Residents Question Partisanship in Town Elections
A number of Herndon residents have begun questioning the involvement of party politics in Herndon's 2012 town council election.
A number of Herndon Town Council candidates, and one mayoral candidate, are coming under fire after Herndon residents began questioning a campaign flier and a YouTube video.
It started with a Herndon Patch blog post by Grace Wolf addressing campaign signs. Reader Jim Seevers commented that he thought brochures were more effective than road signs. “A brochure that represents a specific candidate, not the only one I have seen so far that seems to ask voters to vote in a block of candidates to provide a ready-made majority for all future votes,” he said.
The flier features mayoral candidate, Lisa Merkel, incumbents for re-election, Sheila Olem and Wolf, and new to the election, Melissa Jonas, Eric Boll and Jeff Davidson. It includes their contact information, election day information and reads, “A team that will work together and put our town first.” The flier also lists out the group’s priorities.
Though there is no mention of the Republican, Democratic or any other political parties on the flier, soon comments began coming in with accusations that those who appeared on the flier together are being supported by the Democratic party.
Matt Genkinger said, “Perhaps it was a coincidence that Ms. Olem's February 22nd fundraiser was hosted by Fairfax County Democrat Committee Chairman Cesar del Aguila with special guest Supervisor John Foust (D)? Lets (sic) not pretend that party politics have not inserted themselves in the race.”
THE YOUTUBE VIDEO
Herndon resident William Campenni included a YouTube video in the discussion of the candidates in the comments section on Wolf’s blog post, along with the comment: "The long tradition, and legal necessity, of Herndon elections being non-partisan was breached in 2010, and totally destroyed in this election."
The video was made to support Herndon resident Cesar del Aguila, during his campaign to become the chair of the Fairfax County Democratic Committee. In the video, Merkel, Olem and Wolf talk about the impact del Aguila had on their campaigns in the Herndon’s 2010 election. Del Aguila ran for Herndon Town Council in 2010, but was not elected. Boll appears in the video as well.
In the video, Boll says del Agulia turned Herndon from a Minutemen-Tea Party stronghold to a Democratic stronghold. Merkel laughingly says that she knocked on the doors del Aguila told her to knock on. Wolf says, “I can honestly say I wouldn’t have gotten elected if it weren’t for Cesar.”
Campenni said the flier and video show a new disregard for the town’s traditionally non-partisan election. He said he believes there is no doubt the group of candidates is running with support from FCDC, and that FCDC has held fundraisers for some of the candidates.
Herndon town code prohibits candidates from having a political party next to their name on the ballot, but doesn’t have further restrictions on party politics in the town’s election. “But there is no doubt as to what the intent of the town code is—to prevent party politics from taking over Herndon elections,” Campenni said.
The Hatch Act (1939) prohibits federal employees from taking part in partisan politics. However, the town’s nonpartisan ordinance allows them to take part in the local election and be on the council.
When asked about the video, del Aguila said the people who appeared in the video did so as friends to help support him in the FCDC chairman election, and the video was intended to show him in a positive light. “Those folks are in no way indebted to me for anything.”
Del Aguila said he is also aware that the town’s election is nonpartisan. “The FCDC is in no way, shape or form endorsing any candidate in any town election,” he said. “That includes all towns within Fairfax County.”
Though del Aguila and others are affiliated with FCDC that doesn’t mean its members won’t help the campaigns of people they are friends with, he said. “I want to help my friends,” he said.
Merkel said though del Aguila did help her during the last election, he wasn’t chair of FCDC at the time. She said he offered assistance to fellow candidates he was friends with in the 2010 election, which was helpful with his experience in marketing and sales, and that she was joking in her comment about door knocking.
Merkel said she disagrees with the “Democratic stronghold” comment Boll made in the video, but that doesn’t mean she won’t get along with him if they were both elected to the council. The candidates shown on the flier are a group of town residents who want to come together in spite of their differences to move the town forward, Merkel said.
She said she also thinks those who are responding negatively to the flier are underestimating Herndon’s voters. “No one thinks they have to vote for every candidate on the flier,” she said.
Wolf said there are a wide variety of political beliefs represented among the town council candidates, and she wants to set aside ideological differences for the betterment of the town. “Town issues are nonpartisan,” Wolf said. “Therefore we’re taking a nonpartisan approach to it.”
Campenni said though there were purely local groups that would form because of election issues in the past, that can no longer be said. "That all changed in the 2010 Town election, and is being repeated on a grander scale in the current election," he said.
INFLUENCES AND ACCUSATIONS
A number of those involved in the discussion on the blog expressed concern about the involvement and impact of political action committees, special interest groups and others on the Herndon election. Though the groups come and go, accusations of partisanship aren’t new to the election.
Groups taking an interest in the Herndon election over past years include the Herndon Minutemen, Help Save Herndon, the Alliance for Herndon’s Future, Citizens for a Better Herndon, Neighbors for Herndon and a number of others.
In the 2010 election the Virginia New Majority became involved in the election with the intent of having an impact on the town’s street solicitation ordinance.
The Alexandria-based, lobbyist-represented group is largely funded by Service Employees International Union, with more than $60,000 in contributions from SEIU reported. In 2010 VNM supported Olem, del Aguila, current Herndon mayoral candidate Jasbinder Singh, Daniel Alvarado and Merkel.
When the street solicitation ordinance wasn’t addressed right away VNM’s tactics became aggressive, including singing Christmas carols with offensive alternative lyrics to members of council it had previously supported.
In 2006, the election got contentious when candidates began debating on the subject of the day labor site. Campaign tactics included anonymous post cards, telephone push polls and accusations of partisanship. Ultimately, many of the incumbent council members were unseated that year.
"It's a new direction for Herndon," newly elected Charlie Waddell told the Post. "We've got a new slate. We've got a new council. We've got a new mayor. We are going to try to be responsive to the people. That was lost on the council." Waddell is running for Herndon Town Council again this election.
This year Virginia New Majority, as well as the group Progressive Majority, have contacted a number of the candidates about endorsements for this election. Merkel and Wolf said they have refused support from VNM and they have not authorized them to do any campaigning on their behalf. Additionally, Merkel turned down support from Progressive Majority.
Herndon Voices is a new PAC this year looking to have an impact on Herndon’s election. According to its website the group will “evaluate all candidates seeking elective office and recommend individuals that best share our vision for our town. We seek to put our town before politics.”
There are no names on the website in terms of who the organization is supporting nor who is heading the organization, though VPAP.org shows Sharon Gleason and an address she owns as the contact information. The address is outside the town of Herndon, in the 20171 zip code. The single $500 donation is from a McLean resident.
Del Aguila said he can understand how someone who lives adjacent to the town could be concerned with the election, as changes in the town of Herndon could have impact on their neighborhoods as well. The same argument was made by Herndon residents in the 2008 election on the RestonWeb forum in regards to the PAC Help Save Loudoun.
The Dranesville District Democrats posted Facebook photos of a fundraiser for Herndon Voices in March that was held in McLean. In attendance were candidates Jonas, Boll, Wolf and Merkel. Del Aguila attended as well.
Herndon isn’t the only locality to worry about partisanship in its local elections. In 2003 Vienna's council addressed the issue. The Herndon council and mayoral candidates will learn how town residents feel at the Dulles Regional Chamber and HCTV-sponsored candidates forum, to be held next week, and ultimately the day of the May 1 election.
In the meantime, residents can sound off here in the comments. What do you think of partisanship and outside influences on Herndon's elections? If you want to tell the candidates directly, visit our candidate directory for contact information.