Commentary: A New Year, a New Democratic Party?

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The Democratic party of the city of Roanoke recently reorganized, as it does every two years.  The party claims to exist to encourage full participation in choosing a political destiny, to encourage the broadest possible registration of voters, and to develop meaningful outreach programs to raise electoral awareness.  Its preamble notes that the party ‘pledges’ itself ‘to open, honest endeavor and to the conduct of public affairs in a manner worthy of a society of free people’.  This is lofty and admirable rhetoric, a mission worth fulfilling.

Sadly, the democratic city committee has done little or nothing collectively in the past year to achieve these aims and (conversely) acted at times to undermine the democratic process.  Far too many well intentioned people throughout the city and beyond are hesitant to be involved in our political discourse as a result of perceived corruption and an overall toxic atmosphere.

The democratic primary candidates for this year’s city council elections have been announced and they are a decidedly mixed bag.  Trinkle, Garner, Ferris, and Bestpitch.  David Trinkle has been a reasonable voice on council and deserves another term.  Valerie Garner not only understands how the city functions (having covered city council for years as a journalist) but also has earned strong city-wide roots in the community.  Having a broad perspective on the needs of our citizens, she will make a fine councilperson.  Ray Ferris brings little in the way of a civic resume to his campaign.  He is a practicing attorney in Roanoke whose most recent claim to fame has been defending the nationally known neo-Nazi and race-baiter Bill White in federal court.  Beyond that, little has been brought forth about Ferris except that, according to campaign finance records, he has recently donated money to the political campaigns of Republicans Bill Cleaveland and Bob Goodlatte.  Finally, there is Bill Bestpitch.

Bestpitch served as vice chair of the Roanoke city democratic committee until recently.  Bestpitch (who clearly should have known better as a former councilperson) watched last year as committee meetings were conducted and funds disbursed without a quorum.  This was done in the name of political expediency. What might Bestpitch do in the name of his political interests on council?

Bestpitch was a part of the ‘Rules Committee’ for the recent reorganization of the party at which a list of recommended names for committee seats was circulated to attendees.  The names had been  collected without the full knowledge of the committee and recommended to the caucus-goers that evening almost as if the matter had been decided.  The reorganization was a sham, completely the antithesis of anything akin to democracy.  If Bestpitch had a hand in something like this, what might he do in a ‘smoky back room’ to subvert the needs of the citizens of Roanoke?

Last year, a legitimate democratic candidate for the state legislature sought to review and challenge the petitions and other qualifying documents of his opponent.  The democratic committee (led by Bestpitch and others) either stood by and watched or actively participated as the rights of the challenging candidate were stripped and the documents were kept (to this day) in the dark.  Nothing being more sacred in a democracy than elections, it should be even more shocking that our Commonwealth Attorney (Donald Caldwell, now the democratic city committee’s chairman) conducted a weak and one-sided ‘investigation’ of the matter in response to a valid legal complaint filed by the candidate.  It should be of concern to Roanokers that Caldwell did not at the time recuse himself from considering the matter, given his position on the committee and his close relationship to the challenged candidate.  It should be of greater concern, given the above named conflicts, that our Commonwealth Attorney and the sitting head of the Democratic Committee are now one and the same.

Hopefully, such actions have not alienated too many from observing and taking part in the democratic process. There is yet still reason to be hopeful: there are strong voices not only on the committee but throughout our community that believe in accountability, the political process, and the ability of good leadership to lead Roanoke out of its political darkness.

Mark Powell – East District Leader
Roanoke City Democratic Committee