Some say it started with the signs.
They first began appearing late last year — a few at first and then dozens of them — emblazoned with the names of the three men vying to be Goochland County’s next sheriff.
And although by the end of this past summer the number of people running for the seat would be down to two — current Goochland Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Steven Creasey and career law enforcement officer Levin White — the signs continued to multiply. Every yard in the county seemed to have at least one, silent sentinels reminding every passerby that the property owner was firmly in the camp of one candidate or the other.
To Goochland County Sheriff Jim Angew, who will retire in December after serving in his role for 27 years, this was nothing new. Having run for re-election many times, he said he’d seen the sign wars before.
What has happened in Goochland this year, however, has seemed to go beyond simple sign skirmishes and speeches about why one candidate in more qualified than his opponents.
The newspaper has been deluged with letters of every stripe, from those that coolly list the preferred candidate’s qualifications to those that go straightaway for the jugular, insisting that the county will be far less safe if the “wrong” candidate wins.
Freedom of Information Act requests have been deployed to suss out details of candidates’ employment history and even their personal finances.
Residents have reported being harassed in public for choosing to support one candidate over the other, though none of these claims have been substantiated.
Perhaps most notably, unsupported claims about each of the candidates have spread like a virus on social media, leading to both online and even reported in-person clashes between supporters of each camp.
Now, 14 months after Agnew announced that he would not seek another term, the race to fill his seat “has torn the community apart,” said one letter sent to the Gazette last month.
For many, this simply isn’t the Goochland they know.
“Having lived in Goochland for 36 years, I must admit I’m disappointed in my fellow Goochlanders,” said Barbara Taylor. “I always thought we were a strong cohesive community, but this race seems to have pitted neighbor against neighbor.”
Pat Gannon, who lives in Maidens, said the tone of the race has been disappointing.
“I was quite surprised by the level of vitriol,” Gannon said. “I can understand this level of contentiousness for an elected official who sets policy [but not] with one whose primary job is to carry it out.”
Like many others, Gannon said the sheer number of signs is something that should be controlled, though he isn’t sure how that could be done in accordance with Virginia’s current signage laws.
The sign saga, in fact, was at the root of the most recent headline-grabbing development in the race: On Oct. 6, Levin White was charged with trespassing after being caught on a game camera posting a campaign sign on a tree along Manakin Road near Broad Run Road, directly above a sign that read “No Trespassing.”
Reached by phone that week, White insisted that there is more to the story but declined to comment on the matter under the advice of his attorney.
He is expected to appear in court on Nov. 4, one day before the election.
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It isn’t supposed to be like this.
In any election, there are strict rules governing everything from filing dates to donations. The “Stand by Your Ad” provision in the state code even governs the language of campaign advertising and is intended to help curtail false or misleading claims (this is the reason for the “authorized by” taglines that have become ubiquitous in campaign ads over the past 20 years).
Still, there is at least one arena that remains almost completely untamed and unregulated: social media sites, particularly Facebook, have become a gathering place for like-minded people to champion their own candidates and excoriate the opposition.
One thing to consider, says James W. Ceaser, a professor of Politics at the University of Virginia, is the simple fact that social media sites allow people to communicate with far more people than they could in the pre-internet era, meaning that they can both spread their own ideas further and take in more of what other users are saying.
Ceaser has seen ugly politics firsthand: Charlottesville’s own political scene is still suffering the aftershocks of the Unite the Right rally that brought chaos and violence on Aug. 11, 2017, an event Ceaser says has ushered in a level of contentiousness rarely seen elsewhere.
Ceaser said he also thinks at least part of the blame can be pinned to the Presidential campaign of 2015, noting that what happened on the national level “seeped down into the culture at all levels.”
If the local truly reflects the national, Ceaser reasoned, the scorched-earth tactics and willingness to set aside decorum simply make sense.
For her part, Barbara Taylor is simply hoping that cooler heads will prevail sooner rather than later.
“In any election, race, sporting event, little league game, someone wins and someone loses, and we used to shake hands and be a good sport,” Taylor said. “I am ashamed at how vindictive and nasty this election is, and I hope we can figure out how to pull in our claws and be graceful towards both sides.”