Following the Funds: Partisan politics getting more involved in nonpartisan council races

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VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — On the ballot, you won’t see political party affiliation next to the names of candidates looking to be the next mayor of Virginia Beach, but on the campaign trail, party influence has become hard to miss.

The Democratic Party of Virginia has contributed several hundred thousand dollars in the form of campaign materials — such as mailers — on behalf of candidate Jody Wagner’s campaign.

On the other hand, the current attack ad running against Wagner on TV refers to her as a “liberal Democrat,” trying to capitalize on her party affiliation to gain support for incumbent Mayor Bobby Dyer.

Dyer identifies as a Republican and Wagner identifies as Democrat. But in running for a seat that is nonpartisan, the third candidate in the race R.K. Kowalewitch — a construction contractor who has unsuccessfully run for City Council multiple times — said influence from any political party shouldn’t be allowed.

“It changes the game,” Kowalewitch said. “There’s no D’s and R’s in front of police officers and teachers. There’s no D’s and R’s in front of streets.”

But as long as they follow state-mandated financial contribution limits, parties are free to donate to any candidate as they please.

“The reality is, they’re not nonpartisan,” said Dr. Ben Melusky, an assistant professor of political science at Old Dominion University.

Melusky said an elected representative’s partisan ideology will come out anyway in how they vote, how they make policies, and who they give access to. 

“​It makes sense that the parties — it makes sense that economic interests and other interests groups themselves — would want to send money towards candidates … or [the party] works on [the candidate’s] behalf,” Melusky said.

Wagner — who owns Jody’s Popcorn and once was the state’s secretary of finance — leads the field in both fundraising and spending. Since entering the race in May, she has raised nearly $589,000 and spent roughly $479,000, according to reports filed with the state Friday.

She defends using the Democratic party’s services as part of her campaign. Her largest cash donor is Gov. Ralph Northam’s (D-Va.) Political Action Committee, “The Way Ahead.”

“I think that when the City Council, when they converted the elections from May to November … they really invited the parties in,” Wagner said. “They created an environment where the elections are being held at our most partisan time.”

Dyer himself said the race has “gotten a little too partisan for me,” but conceded he would take money from the state’s Republican party if they offered.

“This race is about the soul of America,” Dyer said. “I have to do what I have to do to win. I didn’t make it a partisan race but I can not afford to lose for the sake of Virginia Beach.”

Dyer’s campaign has raised just over $190,000 this election cycle and spent nearly $97,000. His top donor is Chesapeake based MEB General Contractors — builder of the new Virginia Beach Sports Center.

Kowalewitch has raised $6,100 and has spent nearly $4,000 of it. The majority of his funding came in the form of a loan from Bill Dillion — owner of Abbey Road Pub at the Oceanfront.

Some of the largest amounts of money raised in the last month were not done by candidates at all, rather the Virginia Beach Police Benevolent Association (PBA) — which serves as the optional union for Virginia Beach Police officers.

The newly-formed Virginia Beach PBA PAC Fund raised $111,140 since its first contribution was received on Sept. 16. It spent nearly all of it to pay the Davis Ad Agency — which in turn has helped produce the commercial in support of Dyer’s reelection.

It depicts Wagner as a leader who stands with demonstrators who have caused chaos in other cities in recent months, rather than police officers.

“It’s about pushing back against the anti-police rhetoric and who aren’t willing to support us,” said Brian Luciano, president of the PBA.

This is the first time the PBA has accepted money from other people in their political dealings.

While campaign finance reports show that nearly $16,000 came from the PBA, the majority of the money came in installments of $9,500 from prominent developers such as Bruce Thompson, Michael Sifen, S.B. Ballard, Wendell and Tayler Franklin and Champions for Charity — a nonprofit founded by automotive dealer Charles Barker whose goal is to raise funds to provide support of programs serving the youth of Hampton Roads.

“The police department has been maligned and they have saved our Oceanfront from total destruction this summer,” Thompson said when asked about his contribution. “I think all that have donated, and there will be more I’m sure, want to show our officers we stand with them. I’m proud to support our police department.” 

This isn’t the first time Thompson and several of the other donors have commenced a check-writing blitz in order to show their support or opposition for a candidate. They were also behind the funding of attack ads against Councilman John Moss in 2018.

The latest reports only account for money raised and spent through Sept. 30. Partisan or not — the mayoral races in two of the three cities that have them have already broken spending records.

Dyer, Wagner and Kowalewitch have spent a combined $582,000 thus far. In 2018, the total spending for the mayor’s race in Virginia Beach was $390,000.

In Portsmouth, six candidates looking to replace outgoing Mayor John Rowe have spent more than $290,000. Four years earlier the total cash spent was $257,000.

Action in Suffolk’s Mayoral race is much slower, with a total of $47,000 thus far being spent in the race that four years earlier topped out at $110,000.

The mayor’s position is part-time in all three cities and the combined yearly salary doesn’t exceed $76,000.


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