In the Henrico County supervisors election, a Facebook user was no friend of honest politics.
In an attempt to taint Democrat Courtney Lynch by association in her Brookland District contest against Bob Witte, the Republican Party of Virginia used a Facebook account featuring favorite GOP targets — former President Barack Obama, former first lady Michelle Obama, Black Lives Matter and mass transit.
Doreetha Williams — whose Facebook account cover photo was of Barack Obama — had among her “liked” pages the Obamas, Justin Fairfax for Lieutenant Governor, Black Live Matters, Jesus! and Steve Harvey.
As it turns out, her page — later deleted by Facebook — was a fabrication fashioned from stock photos, apparently created for the purpose of attacking Lynch in campaign fliers. Describing herself as “an elderly Brookland resident who doesn’t drive,” she asked Lynch via Facebook if she favored expanding the new Pulse bus rapid transit line to “Shortpump.”
I’m not sure why the fictional Williams didn’t spell Short Pump as two words. But Lynch’s Facebook answer was expansive.
“I do agree with extending bus routes to Short Pump,” she said in her actual post. “The key is to plan a fiscally responsible way to do so.” She adds that Richmond “lags behind similarly sized communities when it comes to transit and I’d like to be a part of leading transit improvements.”
Next thing you know, the Republican Party of Virginia mailed out fliers that reduce Lynch’s response to “I do agree with extending bus routes to Short Pump.”
As dog-whistle politics goes, that’s a grand slam. You get to brand someone as a tax-and-spend liberal and special-interest tool while delivering a racially charged reminder of the Richmond suburbs’ long-standing leeriness of providing too much mobility to poor black and brown people.
Other fliers featured Lynch in a variety of poses with Mayor Levar Stoney, who endorsed her, and one ad with Lynch driving a bus — “Destination: Richmond city” — sitting amid piles of cash labeled “Henrico taxpayer money.” Another ad said Lynch not only favored spending $85 million on a bus line from Staples Mill Road to Short Pump, but also raising taxes and “spending more on public housing in Henrico.”
Witte, slow to respond to the controversy, eventually issued a statement denying involvement in the “creation, production or distribution” of the offensive mailings. He said he would have objected to their “edgy tone.”
Democrats found his response unconvincing; the subject matter of the ads, irrelevant.
“You’re talking about things the Henrico Board of Supervisors are not even talking about,” said Democrat Tyrone Nelson, the Varina District supervisor.
“Nobody on our board is talking about (bus rapid transit) to Short Pump right now. It’s an astronomical price tag. We don’t even have public housing in Henrico County.” And if anything, the county will cut taxes, not raise them, he said.
“All of this is fear. It’s just trying to scare people.”
Which left some of us wondering: Why is the Republican Party of Virginia using such incendiary artillery on a local election?
Well, it seems that as Henrico goes, so goes Virginia.
“It’s the battleground county in the battleground state,” then-state Sen. Donald McEachin told CNN in 2012, before the Democrat and Henrico resident moved on to Congress. “When you look at Democratic success over the past few years, whether it’s Tim Kaine, Mark Warner or (Obama), what they all have in common is, they carried Henrico.”
Yes, Republican Bob McDonnell won Henrico en route to victory in the 2009 governor’s race. But Democrat Terry McAuliffe carried the county four years later.
But even as Henrico tilted Democratic in state and national contests, Republicans maintained a 3-2 majority on the Board of Supervisors. Then longtime Brookland representative Dick Glover died unexpectedly last February.
“The race is important because in modern times it’s always been a Republican-led board,” Nelson said. “So this is the first time the Democrats have a chance to have a majority.”
Or as John Moeser, emeritus professor of urban studies and planning at Virginia Commonwealth University, said: “This election transcends that particular district because it will determine the whole orientation of the Henrico Board of Supervisors. And if (Lynch) would win, it would bode well for a much more progressive voice on the county board.”
Henrico County Manager John Vithoulkas is widely viewed as more progressive than his predecessor, Virgil R. Hazelett, but hamstrung by a board that still tilts conservative.
“This could really be a turning point that even reverberates beyond Henrico because I think (Richmond) would have a strong partner in Henrico,” Moeser said.
Citing Vithoulkas, Chesterfield County Administrator Joseph P. Casey and the potential political change in Henrico, “I’m more optimistic about regionalism than I have been in a long time,” Moeser added.
Henrico is the most diverse jurisdiction in the metro Richmond region, with substantial African-American, Asian-American and Hispanic-American populations and a majority-minority school district. But as racial controversies at Short Pump Middle and Glen Allen High School have demonstrated, the county is experiencing growing pains as its demographics shift.
The overtly partisan politics of Washington and Richmond’s Capitol Square have no place on the local level in a region in dire need of teamwork to address local problems and score wins on the national stage. (You think Amazon, etc. aren’t taking notes?) These campaign fliers have the potential to ratchet up tensions on the Henrico board and beyond.
“We have made quantum leaps in regional cooperation over the past year,” Nelson said. “To put all that in jeopardy is very shortsighted. Richmond is a regional partner, and we pretty much are slamming them.” Or, as he amended, “one (party) is slamming Richmond.”
With stakes so high, it’s no time for our local politics to go so low.