In a year when all 140 members of Virginia's Republican-dominated General Assembly are up for reelection, many Democrats who considered running for state office have instead decided to go local.
Many say that, even if they won a state seat, they would be little more than lonely voices shouting against a band of conservatives who dominate state politics. Republicans control 66 of 100 seats in the House of Delegates and 23 of 40 seats in the state Senate.
That fact influenced Prince William County Democrat Rick Coplen's decision to forgo a race for the House of Delegates seat held by L. Scott Lingamfelter, one of the most conservative Republicans in the General Assembly, whom Democrats would love to defeat. Instead he will run locally, for the chairmanship of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors.
"Even if I defeated Scott Lingamfelter, quite frankly, I'd have much more significant of an impact on the Board of Supervisors than I can on the General Assembly," Coplen said.
Also dampening Democratic desires is recent redistricting that gave Republicans an edge in most races. Democratic officials said that they consider about two dozen races to be competitive and that they are fielding serious candidates in only about a third of the nearly 90 seats they don't control. Republicans estimate that only about a dozen races will be contested.
"Clearly there are some seats that aren't quite as competitive as they used to be," said House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford), who said about 10 seats in the House would be up for grabs this year.
Money is another factor for potential candidates. Fairfax County supervisors, for example, make $59,000 a year, while state senators receive $18,000 and delegates earn $17,640.
"It's been a challenge to get people to run for some House seats," said Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, who plans to run for governor in 2005. "We're having a little more luck on the Senate side. It's hard as a Democrat to get much done, and that is an obstacle in recruiting. People who want to get into this business want to make a difference."
So they are deciding to make a difference on the local level and perhaps seek a state seat with a stronger base from a firmer platform in a couple years. This is particularly so in Northern Virginia, where officials can affect regional, state and even federal policies from their local perches.
"I certainly was courted to run for a state Senate seat," said Fairfax County Supervisor Gerald E. Connolly (D-Providence), who is running for board chairman instead. "But I think I can do the most good staying here rather than going to Richmond."
Democratic leaders acknowledge that they are not going to take control of the General Assembly this year. In fact, many say they will do well to keep what they have. So they have concluded that building a "farm team" to take a strong, unified run at Republicans in a few years is the best strategy.
That plan reflects a party that is adjusting to minority status for the first time in decades. Officials say efforts to cultivate a cadre of local leaders atrophied over the last 10 or so years as Democrats enjoyed control of the General Assembly and, often, the governor's mansion. That changed in 1999, when Republicans captured the assembly, and GOP numbers have grown stronger since.
In their effort to build from the bottom, Democratic leaders have revived a dormant organization that is in charge of recruiting and supporting candidates to run for county boards, city councils, school boards and constitutional offices. They also have invested in a computer system to track voters and potential supporters.
"The shellacking that we took a year and a half ago in the House of Delegates as a result of redistricting did significant damage to morale," said Larry Framme, chairman of the Democratic Party of Virginia. "Our task is not only to build back seats but build back morale. We need to give local elected officials the comfort that they're not alone, so they don't resign from office and leave."
Republicans say that this has been their approach for years and that it was instrumental in their assembly takeover. "The Democrats are clearly looking at a strategy that Republicans used over 20 years ago," said Shawn M. Smith, communications director for the Republican Party of Virginia.
Despite a renewed focus on local races, Democratic leaders point to a handful of newcomers and local officials as evidence that they have not given up on gaining ground in Richmond this year.
Loudoun County Supervisor Mark R. Herring (D-Leesburg), for example, is running for the Senate seat held by Republican H. Russell Potts Jr. (Winchester) because he is frustrated by how little he can accomplish as a county politician. "In order to help my community most right now, I need to run for state office," Herring said. "I'm tired of our General Assembly refusing to help give localities the authority to better manage growth and sprawl."
Herring said he is undaunted at the prospect of being in the minority in Richmond, and in any case, he said, to change that scenario, "good people need to step up and get elected."
Del. J. Chapman Petersen (D-Fairfax) is one of those who tried to step up and get elected in 1996, but he lost a party primary. So he turned to the Fairfax City Council, where he won a seat in 1998 and was reelected in 2000. He took another shot at the House in 2001 and succeeded.
In retrospect, Petersen said, it was better to get local experience before he moved on to Richmond. When he reached the House, he found that "those not involved in local government didn't have much to contribute because they didn't know how the system worked."
"We've not been able to field as many candidates as we'd like in 2003," he said. "Now we just have to get back to recruiting the candidates at the local level we need to recruit and get our farm team back together."