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In Nation & World | Short of money and support, Democrat Beto O’Rourke quits race | Page A12
‘FALL BACK’ THIS WEEKEND
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Answers from the candidates
With dozens of local elective offices and all 140 seats in the General Assembly up for grabs Tuesday, we asked candidates why voters should pick them.
Their responses have been printed throughout the week and also can be read on Richmond.com.
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Hundreds of red and white pens emblazoned with the name Nick Freitas are part of an expensive and laborious campaign encouraging voters to fill in a bubble, and accurately and legibly spell out his name.
The race in the 30th House District is one of at least two General Assembly contests that will feature a write-in effort, and whose results will remain murky on election night.
The races might not feature a clear winner as other contests are declared Tuesday; local elections officials will report to the state only the total number of write-in votes that were cast.
After Election Day, local elections boards will gather to review write-in ballots. If the number of write-in ballots cast is fewer than 10% of the total, they won’t be counted. If the votes inch above that, the boards will vote on which variations of a candidate’s name will be accepted. (Virginia law says election officials simply have to determine voter intent, so the local electoral board could decide to count various misspellings.)
Freitas, a Republican who represents the district anchored in Orange and Culpeper counties, is running a write-in campaign after he failed to qualify for the ballot due to missing paperwork. Freitas, who has represented the district since 2016 — and who sought the GOP U.S. Senate nomination in 2018 — is running against Democrat Ann Ridgeway.
His campaign manager, Joe Desilets, said the pens are part of a final push to make sure voters who intend to vote for Freitas vote for him successfully. On Tuesday, the campaign will have multiple staffers and volunteers at every polling place, handing out pens and notecards with instructions.
“There aren’t too many write-in campaigns in Virginia, so I think many people and campaign staff are experiencing this for the first time,” he said.
The Freitas write-in bid could complicate Republicans’ effort to retain control of the House of Delegates. The GOP holds 50 seats and Democrats 49, with one seat vacant.
While the 30th District has been in GOP hands since 2000, no one has won a write-in campaign for the legislature since 1989, when Jackie Stump, the head of the Virginia arm of United Mine Workers, used union organizing to defeat Democratic Del. Donald McGlothlin Sr. in Southwest Virginia amid an uproar over a labor strike.
The 97th District, based in Hanover County, features a quieter write-in effort not apparently backed by its beneficiary, Del. Chris Peace, a Republican who lost the district’s GOP primary to Hanover Supervisor Scott Wyatt.
Peace said in an interview that after his primary loss, he had been contacted by many people expressing support and intentions to back him on Election Day.
He is not discouraging people from writing in his name, he said, but he is not running as a write-in candidate, and is not engaged in campaign activities. Others in the community are, he said, including his wife, father-in-law and mother-in-law.
“They’re strong-willed people,” he said. “I’ve been really surprised by how intense and immersed in all of this they’ve become. I, unequivocally, 1,000 percent, have nothing to do with it.”
At the same time, if enough people write in their support, Peace said he would return to the House. Asked why he’s not running as a write-in candidate, Peace said that in order to do so, he would have to drop his GOP identity.
“People supported me to be GOP nominee, not as an independent candidate,” he said. “I still consider myself a Republican.”
Wyatt’s campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Democratic candidate Kevin Washington, in an interview, said he wasn’t under the impression that the effort backing Peace would heavily affect the race.
“As far as concerned, I’m not. I know people have the option to either vote for who’s on the ballot or write in their choice. I think it’s good for them to exercise that choice,” Washington said.
Peace described his chances of being re-elected as “plausible but not likely.” He said that on election night, no matter the results of the write-in effort, he would not be declaring himself the winner until state election officials deemed him so.
Freitas’ campaign, meanwhile, said Freitas would declare himself the winner if the percentage of write-in votes cast hit 57%.
Ridgeway said that in the face of an opponent running a write-in effort, “we haven’t done anything different.” She said her mailers have focused on herself, only once sending out a mailer featuring Freitas and a recent $500,000 contribution to Freitas from top GOP donor Richard Uihlein, an Illinois-based millionaire.
“I have no idea who will win. Of course I want to win,” she said. “But you never know until doors close.”
Candidates in a race featuring a write-in candidate can demand a recount if the margin between the two camps is within 5%, compared with 1% for regular races.
Del. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg, knows she can’t afford to look ahead to a potential Democratic takeover of the House of Delegates and a potential leadership role.
Aird said she has to pay attention first to a transformed district — with almost one-third of its voters in southwestern Chesterfield County — and an independent challenger, Larry Haake, who’s lightly financed but well-known after 22 years as the county’s general registrar.
“They want to know you’re going to be there for them on local issues that they can feel, touch, see,” she said in an interview in Petersburg, her home base in a district that now also includes all of Dinwiddie County and five precincts in Chesterfield County.
But Aird, 33, a member of the Appropriations Committee, also has been widely seen as a rising star since her first election four years ago to a House that was two-thirds Republican before an electoral tidal wave flipped 15 seats to Democrats in 2017. Now, Democrats have high hopes of taking control of the House in elections on Tuesday.
“I think I’ll have a lot to say after Election Day,” she said.
For Haake, 68, the biggest question, even in his own mind, is: “Why am I doing this at all?” He had retired as registrar two years ago after a career that also included 16 years as a Richmond police officer.
The answer arrived with the new voter card Haake received just before Memorial Day that showed his home in the Collington neighborhood of Midlothian as part of the 63rd House District.
“They changed our district!” he remembers exclaiming.
A successful Democratic legal challenge of the House electoral map legislators adopted in 2011 triggered a redistricting this year that moved Haake and other southwestern Chesterfield residents into the 63rd, while taking away two precincts in Matoaca. The new map also added Dinwiddie, while removing parts of Hopewell and Prince George County. The 63rd covers all of Petersburg.
“I felt compelled to do something,” he said.
The changed boundaries made the 63rd nearly 26 percentage points more Republican, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. But that might not be decisive in a district Democrats have held since 1983. Republicans have not fielded a candidate for the seat since 1995, according to the Department of Elections.
Haake also said he was concerned about the quality of Aird’s representation, based on complaints he said he had heard as registrar from residents of the Matoaca precincts that she no longer represents.
“I’m going to be an advocate for local government,” he said.
It’s an uphill climb, concedes Haake, who is financing his campaign primarily with a $6,000 loan and donations from himself and his wife, Rose.
By Oct. 24, Aird had raised $302,476, receiving $50,000 from Charlottesville financier Michael Bills and $10,000 from Bills’ wife, Sonjia Smith. Aird had more than $48,000 left in the bank.
Haake had raised $23,426 and had about $3,000 on hand as of Oct. 24.
The district has voted solidly Democratic in every statewide election since 2013, but Haake said Democrats are open to supporting an independent — not a Republican. He also hopes to take advantage of the skeptical mood of Petersburg voters who tossed Sen. Rosalyn Dance, D-Petersburg, out of office in a June Democratic primary battle with former Del. Joe Morrissey.
Aird worked as a legislative liaison for Dance, who also had represented the 63rd District in the House before moving to the Senate, but she makes clear that her record stands on its own.
“I have deliberately tried to create a brand of my own,” she said.
Aird questions Haake’s grasp of state policy issues beyond better state funding of local government — beginning with local elections offices — grants for police and an approach to public education that emphasizes training in trade skills rather than standardized tests.
She holds a coveted seat on Appropriations, as well as its health and education subcommittees. Her other committee assignments include General Laws — including its alcohol and gaming subcommittee — and Health, Welfare and Institutions.
Aird also handles weighty assignments on legislative commissions that tackle some of the state’s biggest challenges — fiscal stress for localities such as Petersburg, the competitiveness of higher education and fixing the state’s troubled behavioral health system, which she rates as one of her top priorities.
If Democrats take control of the House, they will have the opportunity to act on long-held priorities, such as raising the minimum wage and measures to reduce gun violence, which has become all too familiar in Petersburg, she said.
However, Aird said Democrats also should take a balanced approach to pocketbook issues by continuing to build rather than spend the state’s reserves. A new taxpayer relief fund, devised by the assembly’s Republican majority as an election-year response to an unexpected windfall from federal tax changes, is “very different,” she said. “That’s all game.”
She regards it as “presumptive” for Democrats to focus on the House leadership if they win control, but made clear that “leadership elections will be contested.”
As for her own prospects for a leadership position in a Democratic-controlled chamber, Aird said, “I think I have the capacity.”
Richmond police arrested two men and are seeking a third in the shooting death of 9-year-old Markiya Dickson, Mayor Levar Stoney announced Friday after a graduation ceremony for new recruits at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
The report comes just over five months after bullets tore through a Memorial Day weekend cookout at Carter Jones Park in South Richmond, striking Markiya and an 11-year-old boy, who survived. A third gunshot victim, a man who had been in the park enjoying the festivities, later came forward.
Police at the time said an argument and gunfire broke out about 7:20 p.m. among a separate group at the basketball court and skateboard park at the far end of the park at 27th and Perry streets, near Semmes Avenue.
“This is not a day for celebration,” Stoney said Friday. “An innocent child’s bright future was taken away from her doing nothing other than playing in one of our public parks.”
Chief William Smith on Friday identified those arrested as Jermaine Davis, 21, and Quinshawn Betts, 18, both of the 4500 block of Millenbeck Road in South Richmond. Authorities charged Davis and Betts each with murder, two counts of malicious wounding and three counts of using a firearm in commission of a felony. Both men were arraigned Thursday.
Police are seeking a third suspect, Jesus Turner, 20, of Chesterfield County. Turner will be served with the same six indictments when he’s apprehended, police said.
“There is no win. It is a loss for everybody,” Smith said. “There’s no bringing Markiya back.”
Police declined to say who they believe fired the shot that killed Markiya.
News of the Crestwood Elementary School third-grader’s death redoubled local efforts to pursue gun control, prompting policy roundtables and a vigil where frustrated community members lit candles and prayed for an end to senseless violence.
Stoney cited Markiya’s death and a mass shooting at a Virginia Beach government center in proposing a symbolic ordinance to ban guns in public parks and city-owned buildings. The Richmond City Council approved the measure, which conflicts with current state law.
Through the day that Markiya was killed — May 26 — 100 people had been shot in Richmond for the year. That’s a 28% increase from the 78 people who had been shot at the same point in 2018.
Her death marked the city’s 24th homicide of the year. In the five months since, there have been an additional 31 lives cut short due to violence, bringing the year’s death toll to 55. At this point last year, 48 people had been killed.
The FBI offered a $20,000 reward for information related to her shooting. That reward resulted in just one tip, Smith said.
“We still need persons to come forward who were witnesses or have information to share,” he said Friday. “Anybody who now knows that these people are off the street should feel more comfortable in bringing forward information that we can use.”
“We can’t afford to lose another child in our city — not a single person in our city — to senseless gun violence,” Stoney said. “Enough is enough.”
Parents at the highest-performing elementary school in Richmond’s East End are pushing back against the potential shutdown of the school, the only one in the city where that’s an option under draft rezoning plans.
The Parent-Teacher Association at Bellevue Elementary, nicknamed “The Castle on The Hill,” is urging the city School Board not to close the underenrolled school in the Church Hill neighborhood. Parents say they’d instead want to see the historic school turned into a specialty — an idea also being proposed on the other side of the city by community members upset with the current rezoning options.
“I really hope that Bellevue can be seen as a really strong community of families and teachers working hard for our kids,” said Nora Bryant, the PTA president at the school. “Bellevue could be a model. It would be a shame if we lose that.”
Enrollment at the school, located on East Grace Street between 23rd and 24th streets, dropped from 280 students in 2017-18 to 240 students last year, leaving it at 66% of its 361-student capacity. As recently as the 2014-15 school year, the school housed 337 students, according to state data.
The school system is grappling with overpopulated schools, largely in the South Side, and underenrollment elsewhere. The School Board, which ultimately has the final say over new school zones, has not sought to cull its facilities portfolio as it redraws lines this year, but has left the option open.
The prospect loomed larger over rezoning debates in 2013, when Summer Hill Elementary was closed, and in 2015, when 16 schools would have closed under a plan approved by the School Board that eventually stalled because of the city’s limited debt capacity.
Instead, the focus has been on filling the three new school buildings set to open next fall. One of the three schools, George Mason Elementary, is located less than a mile from Bellevue.
Matthew Cropper, the consultant hired by Richmond to create rezoning options, said he proposed closing Bellevue to shift more students to the new Mason, which is slated to open with a capacity of 750 students.
The pushback, he said, doesn’t come as a surprise to him.
“Anytime you’re talking about repurposing a school and looking at alternative uses for a school than what it is right now, it’s always a contentious issue,” he said. “It’s not a surprise that people who have a vested interest in Bellevue are concerned.”
While enrollment has fallen, student achievement at the school has not.
Bellevue meets the state’s full accreditation standards — the only of the five East End elementary schools where that’s the case — and outperforms citywide testing averages in math and science. While 56% of city students pass the state’s math tests, nearly 2 in 3 do at Bellevue. In science, 3 in 5 pass state tests across the school district compared with Bellevue’s 68%.
“It’s working,” said Bryant, who has two daughters at the school. “Because of its size, our teachers have authentic relationships with children.”
Bellevue’s 9-1 student-teacher ratio is below the city average of 13-1, according to data presented to the rezoning committee.
A group of 40 parents who do not currently have students at Bellevue but are zoned for the school sent the School Board a letter dated Oct. 16 advocating against closing it.
“We believe rezoning options that include closing Bellevue (or repurposing as something other than an elementary school) deem to deprive current and future Bellevue students of a small, established, well-functioning school and, in exchange, offer them a much larger and untested institution, George Mason,” reads the letter, referencing Mason’s lack of state accreditation.
The school originally opened in 1872 as one of the first three public schools in Richmond. Named for Bellevue Hospital, the school’s current location — it was originally at 22nd and Broad streets — was once the home of Elizabeth Van Lew, an abolitionist who built an extensive spy ring for the Union Army during the Civil War. The mother of Maggie L. Walker, the first black woman in the U.S. to found a bank, was a slave at the Van Lew mansion, according to the National Park Service.
“It’s the best-kept secret in Church Hill,” said Ridgely Carter-Minter, whose daughter is in third grade at Bellevue. “The School Board should listen to the voices of parents and students and keep Bellevue open.”
If the board does close it, parents hope to turn it into a specialty school. Those schools typically have a themed curriculum and can receive more money than a normal neighborhood school.
The PTA is asking a committee of School Board appointees tasked with reviewing school zone options to recommend having the specialty school serve students currently zoned for Bellevue and having a lottery for the remaining seats weighted so students zoned for other East End elementary schools get first priority. It’s an idea also being floated for George W. Carver Elementary, a low-performing school that one controversial rezoning option has being combined with the high-performing Mary Munford Elementary.
Bellevue’s specialty school would be at 75% capacity. The parents want to leave the school’s zone unaffected for next year, when other changes are slated to take effect, and have the specialty school start in the 2021-22 school year.
“That means they are really utilizing their building,” said Sharon Burton, one of two East End representatives to the committee, of the 75% capacity. “We love the idea.”
The full committee has yet to sign off on any recommendations, which it plans to finalize Friday in a meeting at George Wythe High School.