By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 4, 2007
In early January, Republican legislative candidate Faisal Gill paid a consultant $2,000 to design a Web site for his campaign to represent Prince William County in Richmond.
But Thomas Kopko is no ordinary political consultant. He is chairman of the Prince William County Republican Committee. In that role, Kopko decides whether to hold a primary open to registered voters or a convention in which handpicked Republicans choose nominees for the fall election. For Gill's race, he chose a convention.
Julie C. Lucas, Gill's rival for the nomination, said the transaction startled her. "I don't think the chairman should be paid by any campaign," said Lucas, a county School Board member.
A spokesman for the Virginia State Board of Elections said the payment from Gill to Kopko does not violate the law. Gill and Kopko, noting that the transaction occurred before Lucas entered the race, denied any impropriety. But the issue has added to strife among local Republicans before the county and state elections.
This week, School Board Chairman Lucy S. Beauchamp, a longtime Republican who has won three countywide elections, decided to run as an independent for clerk of the Prince William County Circuit Court because, she said, she was angry at Kopko's handling of her nomination process. He had favored a convention in that race as well.
The wrangling between the two School Board members and their Republican brethren reflects a debate in Virginia over the merits of conventions vs. primaries. Because Virginia residents do not register to vote by party affiliation, local party leaders are sometimes loath to hold primaries because they believe the process gives too much influence to outsiders. In conventions, however, only delegates thoroughly vetted as partisans are permitted to vote.
In the race for the Republican nomination for the 51st District in the House of Delegates, a seat that GOP incumbent Michèle B. McQuigg is relinquishing, a convention could prove critical.
Gill, a lawyer who has held various Bush administration positions, lives in a precinct that has had heavy participation in recent Republican voting. Lucas does not. That means, under rules of the convention that will be held June 2, Gill's neighborhood will be allowed more voting delegates in the convention.
Lucas, who won her nonpartisan School Board seat in 2003 with 65 percent of the vote, said she respects the view that a convention prevents outsiders from interfering with a party's nomination. But she said a convention poses its own challenges.
It has been difficult, Lucas said, to persuade local partisans to spend a Saturday afternoon attending a convention. She said residents also are perplexed when they learn that her convention will be on a different day than others' conventions.
Kopko said his work for Gill's campaign did not unfairly influence his decision to approve a convention because it had been well-known that he favors that format. There will be a primary for the Republican nomination for county sheriff, Kopko said, because party rules permit the incumbent to choose.
"The only reason there's a controversy is that somebody else had the hope it might be a primary," Kopko said of the Gill-Lucas contest.
Gill said his payment to Kopko is "absolutely not a conflict of interest" because it was made in early January, several weeks before Lucas announced her candidacy.
Lucas, however, said she met with Kopko on Jan. 4 to tell him she was "seriously considering" running and that he seemed open to primaries. "He asked me what I wanted, and I told him I preferred a primary," Lucas said. "He said, 'I'm open to discussing all the options.' He never said, 'I am only going to do a convention.' "
Kopko said he told Lucas that day he strongly favored conventions and that he was only interested in a primary if the state would permit a "closed primary," exclusively for voters with strong Republican voting histories. He also said that Lucas expressed interest in running for numerous offices and that she had not decided which to pursue.
On Jan. 5, Gill paid Kopko $2,000 for the Web site design, according to state records.
Gill said that Kopko, who works for a telecommunications company, wrote the text for http://www.faisalgill.com, describing the candidate's background and positions on issues. Gill said he is eager for the convention.
"There's no doubt that conventions help the conservative, and I am the conservative in the race," he said. "Conservatives usually feel more passionate, and they're willing to spend two or three hours on a Saturday to do this."
Peter Frisbie, chairman of the Prince William County Democratic Committee, said Kopko's paid work for Gill is "unheard of" for party chairmen. "You have to treat everyone fairly equally no matter what," Frisbie said, "because he selects the nominating process."