Tepid Candidate Forum Reflects Lack of Issues

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Sherman Lea, Court Rosen, Brandon Bushnell and Anita Price take questions.
Sherman Lea, Court Rosen, Brandon Bushnell and Anita Price take questions.

by Valerie Garner

Incumbent Mayor David Bowers capped off his closing remarks at last week’s City Council candidate forum with a surefire winning political strategy – mention your mother. Bowers said, “she said [to me] well, when you’ve got a car with four good tires why would you change one.” She is a wise woman thought son, David. Mary Bowers sat grinning in the audience.

Past Roanoke City elections have had contentious issues that set candidates apart from each other or formed tickets around major issues like Victory Stadium. This year’s challengers are struggling to find an easy target in the calm sea of the current incumbent council.

Thursday evening at the Greater Raleigh Court Civic League a candidate forum was held. One Independent candidate, Brandon Bushnell, is challenging Democratic council incumbents Sherman Lea, Anita Price and Court Rosen. If the 80 or so attendees came looking for delineation between the incumbents and the challengers they came away empty. The mayoral contest between Democratic incumbent Mayor David Bowers and his Republican challenger Mark Lucas produced an entrepreneurial dialogue that was muted at best.

Moderator John Carlin noted that there were few issues available for a challenger to make a mark in this year’s election. That was evident by the softball questions and equally soft responses.

The only issue Carlin asked about that has received some recent media play was the 2-cent meals tax that will expire on July 1. Councilwoman Anita Price’s response was non-committal. Though Price took the stand of her other colleagues saying, “a promise is a promise” she also hedged saying, “as whether or not it should continue, that’s a question that relies upon our citizens.”

Independent candidate Bushnell is basing his campaign on keeping the 2-cent meals tax – pointing to the fact that, “it has not deterred anyone from eating out.” Even without the increase the meals tax rose over the two years it was in force. “I am a huge proponent of the meals tax,” said Bushnell. He said he has a vision for what could be done by keeping the tax. “Taking the schools beyond adequacy; beyond good enough where we are vulnerable to a budget-cutting state government and the economy.”

Court Rosen who first proposed the short-term tax said it was meant as “a band-aid on a scab.” With the $12.5 million the schools have in contingency Rosen believes the tax should expire as promised. “You don’t tax people because you have the ability to and you can. You tax people because you need to.”

Sherman Lea said it took courage and boldness to implement the meals tax. “This council supports our school system better than any other urban city in the state of Virginia.” He recounted a gathering he attended in Greenville, South Carolina where developers told him that they wanted to see consistency in government when choosing locations for business development. “We have that – we have good regional valley collaboration,” he said.

Bowers, in his opening remarks, was prepared for a little one-on-one with his opponent Mark Lucas. “My opponent suggests he is a visionary,” said Bowers. “I’m still that working class guy.” He hoped voters would agree that he has brought dignity and friendliness to the office. He contrasted the cordiality of council to the discourse in Washington and Richmond and read off a list of accomplishments. He emphasized the 1600 jobs created over the last four years.

Mark Lucas didn’t take the opportunity to take a whack at Bowers’ mayoral style. Instead he mostly affirmed his opponent’s views but thought he could do better when it comes to jobs and growing businesses. Lucas and his wife Wendy own Lucas Therapies and have started and sold multiple businesses. Lucas, when asked what he would do differently to attract businesses, proposed an entrepreneurial day in the mayor’s office on every first and third Thursday.

When asked later Lucas said he had a few more poignant remarks about the current Mayor that he decided not to use. “He was sitting right next to me,” said Lucas.