Leesburg candidates compete for office — and attention of voters
By Caitlin Gibson,
In the final countdown to a highly anticipated Election Day, many observers are focused on Loudoun County as a potentially decisive Northern Virginia battleground in the widely publicized national races.
At the same time, and for the first November Election Day in Leesburg’s history, voters will also be confronted Tuesday with lesser-known names on the flip side of the ballot — candidates vying for mayor and for seats on the Town Council.
In an election dominated in the news by national races, the hope among Leesburg officials is that voters will also be equally informed about the down-ballot races. These contests don’t draw the same level of publicity but often have the most tangible effects on the daily lives of residents.
Two candidates, incumbent Kristen C. Umstattd and newcomer Linda Shotton, are competing in the mayoral race. Eight other candidates, including incumbents Katie Sheldon Hammler, Thomas Dunn and David S. Butler and one write-in candidate, are competing to fill three seats on the Leesburg Town Council.
In the coming term, the mayor and Town Council members will oversee local traffic improvements and will weigh in on matters such as taxes, water rates, regulations for area businesses and ongoing discussions about how best to handle the expansion or possible move of the county courthouse. They will lead a town at the heart of one of the fastest-growing and increasingly diverse counties in the nation.
“We don’t have a lot of glamorous issues at this level, but sometimes the least glamorous issues are the most important,” Umstattd said.
Local media outlets have dedicated space to profiling the candidates, but inevitably, the majority of recent coverage has gone to the presidential race and other higher-profile contests: For the Senate, Timothy M. Kaine (D) vs. George Allen (R); for the House of Representatives, Frank Wolf (R) against newcomer Kristin Cabral (D).
Leesburg candidates were denied an opportunity to connect with voters when the arrival of Hurricane Sandy canceled a meet-and-greet forum scheduled for last week.
But both mayoral candidates expressed hope that Leesburg voters would familiarize themselves with the issues.
Shotton, a Leesburg resident since 1999 and a political newcomer, said she hopes to win the support of voters with her campaign promise to foster stronger ties among the town, its businesses and its neighbors.
“We have a mayor who is very good at keeping the town quaint and historic and charming, but at the expense of getting more tech industry,” Shotton said.
She cited the Town Council’s vote against a study to examine the cost of a possible water pipeline to Raspberry Falls, a community outside Leesburg that has long complained about water quality, as an example of Leesburg’s perceived unfriendliness to surrounding communities.
“There was no reason to say no to a study,” she said. “We have a cooperative relationship with our neighbors versus an adversarial relationship.”
Umstattd said that her constituents have repeatedly told her that their top concerns are affordable tax and water rates and maintaining the authentic feel of the historic district.
“They don’t want to see that changed in any way,” Umstattd said. “They like Leesburg’s downtown just the way it is.”
Umstattd said she hoped voters would remember that although town issues are lower-profile compared with the national races, they have many repercussions for residents.
She offered an example: Nearly 10 years ago, soon after she was first elected, the council decided a top priority should be to improve the storm drainage infrastructure throughout the town.
Had the work not been done, she said, engineers reported that Leesburg might well have been underwater in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, which poured eight inches of rain on the town over two days.
The lesson is clear, she said: “These decisions are not glamorous, but they are important for the day-to-day lives of our people. These are things we need to focus on.”
Shotton and Umstattd agreed that despite the competition with the presidential election and other big-ticket races, they were pleased that the town elections had moved to November from May and hoped for a higher voter participation.
Turnout for Leesburg elections in the spring had been consistently low, with just 8 percent to 15 percent of the town’s roughly 25,000 registered voters casting ballots.
The push to move Leesburg town elections from May to November was led by Leesburg resident Barbara Bayles-Roberts, who launched a petition that got more than 3,000 signatures. The subsequent proposal passed with a resounding 6,000 votes in last November’s referendum.
After the proposal to change the the date of town elections passed, the Leesburg council drafted an amendment to the Town Charter, specifying that the local races must continue to be nonpartisan. But although candidates may not officially align themselves with either party, both the local Democratic and Republican committees have made endorsements, and the names of their preferred candidates will be included on sample ballots handed out at the polls.
Those who opposed moving the elections, including Town Council member David S. Butler, expressed concern that shifting the election to November would politicize the local races, allowing national trends to overshadow town issues.
Umstattd said she thinks Leesburg voters are sophisticated and unlikely to vote blindly along party lines.
“I think you might find them voting in one race for a Republican and another race for a Democrat. I could see Leesburg voters splitting their tickets,” she said. “At a local level, I think, in the end, it’ll come down to who they’re most comfortable with. The thing about it is this is the first year, so we won’t know until the election is over.”