VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — The effects of changes made to the way City of Virginia Beach voters elect members to city council and school board seats are already being seen in candidates’ campaigns.
For the first time in decades, those who go to the polls to cast their ballot will find only one, or possibly no, city council or school board race to weigh in on. That’s because a federal court order last year instituted a new system in which each elected member, outside of the mayor, would represent one of 10 individual districts, and only those living in the district would be able to vote for that candidate.
Consequently, while political television ads are not in short supply this year, with the hotly contested Virginia Second District congressional race anchored in Virginia Beach, for the first time in decades there are no local Virginia Beach ads among them.
A longtime campaign consultant in the city said that is a direct result of the election system changes.
Traditionally, Virginia Beach races were conducted in what became known as a “hybrid at-large” system. Those serving on city council or school board had to live in certain parts of the city, but every voter could vote for every member.
Brian Kirwin, of Kirwin Development Strategies, said that meant all campaigns had to spread their message to the city’s roughly 450,000-person population.
Now, each of the 10 districts has roughly 46,000 people in them.
“It’s definitely changed what the money is spent on and in some cases the amount of money raised,” Kirwin said.
In the past, the top expense for city council candidates that chose to run TV ads was the TV ads. In 2018, roughly $500,000 total was spent by candidates on TV, according to campaign finance reports compiled by the Virginia Public Access Project.
This year, the top expense for most candidates is the cost to send direct mail.
“And that’s not been done in City Council races in Virginia Beach. There has been very little door knocking and very little direct mail, and those are the primary things this year,” Kirwin said.
Kirwin, who is working on a campaign in nearly every local race in the city, said television ads will likely be a thing of the past for council candidates, as there is no unifying message to broadcast all over town. In the past, flooding and resort development were often hot issues.
“The messaging has been much more hyper-local and been focused really on district issues. There has been very little city-wide issue discussion,” Kirwin said. “The parts of the city that flooded are talking about flooding, the districts that didn’t flood aren’t talking about flooding … The biggest issue in Bayside is not the biggest issue down in Princess Anne.”
He said candidates are running vastly different campaigns based on where they are in the district.
“The only thing I don’t think (the voting system) changed are their donor bases at the city council level,” Kirwin said. “The donors are still the donors.”
Indeed, four of the top five donors to city council races this year are names often found on campaign finance reports. They are the Franklin Johnston Group, Breedan Companies and Michael Sifen — all of which are developers — and then the Virginia Beach Professional Firefighters PAC.
School Board races
While council races may appear less robust than in years past, it is the opposite in the race for six seats that are up on the Virginia Beach School Board.
Five of the 13 candidates have raised more than $15,000 so far.
“That’s not usual,” Kirwin said.
Four of those in the race are incumbents. In 2018, they all were able to win their city-wide races by raising less than $10,000.
What has changed? Dr. Ben Melusky, an assistant professor of political science at Old Dominion University, said it is more than just inflation.
“The road to the governor’s mansion for Youngkin went through education, parental rule,” Melusky said. “It’s carrying … from 2021 into 2022.”
Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R-Va.) has made “parental rights” a cornerstone of his platform, as have many Republican candidates across the county that have come out of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Virginia Beach School Board meetings have been politicized more than any other in the region. Speakers have been banned, group gathering policies have been changed and lawsuits filed as right-wing advocates attack policies that they say take individual parental oversight out of their hands.
Recently, VPAP published an analysis titled: ‘Parental Rights’ Tested in Virginia Beach. The data visualization states the school board races are “shaping up as a key first test of the local power of the ‘parentals rights’ movement.”
Last year, a group of advocates that regularly rallied outside school board meetings, as well as Virginia Beach School Board member Vicki Manning, formed the Students First VA Political Action Committee.
The PAC is the largest single donor to a slate of candidates they have endorsed for office. As of the end of September, each candidate had received $1,000.
Student First VA’s website said one of their goals is to “flip” the majority of the school board and do away with “any radical indoctrination that takes away control of parents to decide what social issues should be taught to their children.”
So far, those candidates have mostly outraised their opponents.
“Youngkin and the state Republican party has really helped local school board candidates to have some structure they couldn’t afford,” Kirwin said. “There are a lot of eyes watching.”