05/18/11: Don’t empower another incumbent

This op-ed appeared in The Virginian-Pilot on the date shown.

WITH the announcement of the resignation of Rita Sweet Bellitto, the Virginia Beach City Council will temporarily fill the at-large seat she occupies. The appointment will be made within 45 days of the effective date of her resignation, June 18, with a special election to be held in November. The winner will serve the remainder of her term, which expires in 2014.

Mayor Will Sessoms has said he expects the selection process for the appointment to be the same as it was when the last vacancy occurred. That process included public interviews of the candidates for the vacancy created by the 2009 election of Ron Villanueva to the House of Delegates. Ironically, it was Bellitto who was appointed, in February 2010. She was then elected to the seat in November 2010.

The council should consider modifying its selection process in one way: The appointee to the seat should be someone who will not run in November.

Both Norfolk and Portsmouth chose such candidates last year when temporarily filling vacancies on their respective councils. In Norfolk, Alveta Green was appointed to the Super Ward 7 seat that became vacant when Daun Hester ran for mayor. In Portsmouth, Bernard Griffin Sr. was appointed mayor after James Holley III was removed from office. Both appointments took place last July, with special elections last November , so the timing is similar.

A subsequent opening on the Portsmouth council, created when Elizabeth Psimas ran for mayor in the November special election, was quickly filled without public interviews or a commitment from the appointee, Curtis Edmonds Sr., that he would not run. The lack of transparency in that selection prompted a scolding from the editorial board of this paper as well as some lingering resentment from Portsmouth voters. That seat also will be on the ballot this November.

By including in its criteria a stipulation that the appointee not run for the office in November , the Virginia Beach council would avoid creating an incumbent where none now exists.

There are reasons why incumbents win so often. One is name recognition — people are more likely to vote for the name they know. Challengers have to spend money — on mail, newspaper, radio and TV advertisements — to raise their name recognition. And that money is much harder to come by, as donors prefer to contribute to incumbents. In fact, some political action committees have a policy of contributing only to incumbents.

The council created an incumbent by appointing Bellitto. It is no surprise, then, that Bellitto received the most votes of the seven candidates running for the two at-large seats last November. She also spent the third most in the race, surpassed only by fellow incumbent and winner of the other seat, Bill DeSteph, and the mayor’s choice for DeSteph’s seat, David Redmond. I have no doubt that all seven of the candidates worked hard to get elected, but the power of incumbency — as Redmond, who finished fifth, discovered — is hard to overcome.

The 10 remaining members of the Virginia Beach City Council should not be picking winners. That choice rightfully belongs to the 284,662 registered voters in Virginia Beach. Surely in a city with nearly 438,000 people, there is one who is willing to serve and not run in November.