Our Take: Tough Decisions for Those Voting Next Week

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Roanoke area voters may have some tough decisions to make June 9, for those who venture out to their polling place. Historically, voter turnout for primaries in Roanoke City has been very low, percentage wise, and in many cases, winning depends on turning out voters in home districts.

There are three men running for Roanoke City Sheriff against incumbent Republican Octavia Johnson, with two of them – Frank Garrett and Joe Bush – vying for the Democratic nomination that will be decided June 9. Brian Keenum is running this November as an independent candidate. All three have been careful not to criticize fellow law enforcement officers (Keenum is currently out of the business), while criticizing the management style of Johnson.

Bush held a press conference earlier this week after a former city jail inmate filed a lawsuit, alleging he was beaten by deputies and suffered a broken elbow while in custody. Sheriff Johnson was named in the suit, and Bush said the alleged incident was indicative of her poor management style. Johnson ran as a Republican in order to battle then-incumbent George McMillan four years ago. In the heavily Democratic Roanoke City, a challenger might stand a good chance of upsetting her, as she upset McMillan.

Meanwhile, the issues have taken a back seat in the 11th House of Delegates District, where Democrat incumbent Onzlee Ware will be challenged on June 9 by Martin Jeffrey, the former NAACP chapter president and neighborhood activist. After debuting with a news conference where he pitched innovative solutions for health care coverage and other topics, Jeffrey has chosen over the past month to question the validity and timing of signatures on Ware’s petition, which had to be filed before he could run again in the primary.

Jeffrey also alleges Ware spent campaign money raised in the past on questionable items. Ware denies all charges, and says Jeffrey is avoiding the issues because he has little real support and few campaign funds.

Monday, Roanoke City’s Commonwealth Attorney Donald Caldwell issued a statement saying his review of Ware’s ballot signatures found nothing that would disqualify the incumbent. Jeffery campaign manager Mark Powell claimed bias in the decision because Caldwell endorsed Ware earlier.

Waiting in the wings is 26-year-old Troy Bird, running as a Republican – yes, a Republican – in the Democrat-heavy district. Bird said he is ready to debate the other candidates.

“Let them duke it out until all of the dust settles,” said Bird after he watched a Republican forum for the 17th district seat last week. “I’d be more than happy to debate.”

Education concerns like the dropout rate in Roanoke City Schools is an issue Bird said he would like to discuss.

The biggest battle may be the five-way scrum for the 17th District Republican nomination and the right to challenge Democrat Gwen Mason in November for the seat vacated by William Fralin. At a rather polite forum last week, there seemed to be little difference between candidates, so the race may come down to style points and personal impressions.

A hopeful Melvin Williams, running against Bill Cleaveland, Mike Wray, Chris Head and Josh Johnson for the nomination, admitted after the forum at Patrick Henry that, “it has been difficult to distinguish myself from the other candidates. So many of us have similar views.” Gauging where all five candidates stood on the “conservative spectrum” will be tough, but that’s what will matter to voters next week, said Williams. “I’ve been working hard. That’s what I will do if I’m the nominee.”

Williams is studying the Ralph Smith model, when the now-State Senator beat Brandon Bell in a primary by getting his supporters to the polls. Less than 10% showed up for that particular primary election. Perhaps more will show up at the polls June 9, hopefully with enough information on hand to make a responsible decision.