ROANOKE STAR SPECIAL: Pre-Election Interview With David Bowers

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The name “David Bowers” is familiar to most Roanokers–after all, he has served as mayor an impressive four terms (16 years) and owns his own law firm. We recently had an interview with Bowers to gather more information about him and the issues involved in the upcoming Mayoral race that will be decided on next Tuesday Nov. 3.

When I asked him why he was seeking re-election, Bowers chuckled and said he had just picked up a sandwich at a nearby restaurant and all the other patrons there told him, “You ought to have your head examined!” 

He then went on to explain that he first met Roanoke Mayor Roy L. Webber in the 1960’s at the groundbreaking for the Roanoke Civic Center, and that ever since being mayor of Roanoke has been his life dream.

During our discussion Bowers listed some of his major accomplishments from his previous 16 years as in office:

  • In 1992, the Hotel Roanoke was reopened after a long closure. 
  • In the late 90’s, the idea for the VT/Carilion medical school was birthed. At the first meeting when someone suggested such a facility, “everyone laughed,” but now the high-tech campus is a reality. 
  • The Patrick Henry/William Fleming High School rebuilds. 
  • An extensive Greenway system and 10 miles of trails on Mill Mountain.
  • Even though Amtrak resumed passenger service after his last term, Bowers claimed he had sought that for 25 years. 

With such a resume over 16 years, why not just rest on his laurels but instead reenter the fray of politics? Bowers, running as an independent this time, struck a tone similar to what I heard in my September interview with City Council candidate Maynard Keller (R) by expressing deep dissatisfaction with how the current City Council and Mayor Sherman Lea (D) are conducting business.

“It’s not the way Noel Taylor told me [how local government should be run,] said Bowers.”

Bowers claims the current council suffers from too much “groupthink,” alleging they “talk and email behind the scenes, decide how they are going to vote, and THEN announce they are going to have public hearings.” Bowers added: “The most important diversity of all is diversity of opinion,” where everybody is represented, not just one faction. 

Specifically, Bowers claims these issues trouble him and thus he is running to redress them: 

  • He dislikes the non-transparent way the City Council conducts Roanoke’s business.
  • Mayor Lea “did nothing about the many shootings and murders for four months,” and only in September did he address this issue. Bowers claims Roanoke City has had about 12 murders this year. Related to the violence, he adds “there are 32 vacancies at the Roanoke Police Department (RPD) and only 12 in the recruitment class.” How can we maintain law and order and keep RPD nationally certified if the department is woefully understaffed?
  • Police officers in Roanoke City are paid less than those serving in Lynchburg, Christiansburg, and Blacksburg, so that too is driving the high number of unfilled positions.
  • He is disappointed that there are no major economic development plans in the works. “Zero, none, nada.” 
  • After Roanoke paid $280,000 for a consultant’s study, the City planned to move the Valley Metro bus station to a lot across from the Transportation Museum. However, Bowers claims that would create congestion and instead calls for an intermodal transportation hub at the Amtrak station. 

In addition, Bowers denounced Lea and the current council members for their controversial decision last year to move local elections from their traditional May date to November, thus extending their own terms from July 2020 to January 2021. “I have tried to move elections from May to November for 10-15 years, but I would have moved them to years with STATE elections, not years with federal elections. Everybody is overwhelmed by federal issues and candidates. My signs are by BIDEN signs and by TRUMP signs.”

It is confusing. Bowers said people see his signs by BIDEN signs and assume he’s for Biden, while others see his signs by TRUMP signs and believe he’s for Trump. However, Bowers wants to maintain a local focus: “I want to seek Roanoke solutions for Roanoke problems.”

In addition to the confusion of mixing Roanoke City Council elections with national ones, Bowers also disagrees with council’s and Lea’s extending their own terms by six months. Bowers claims he would have been willing to SHORTEN his term if Council had moved elections to years with state elections, but he believes it was wrong for Council to vote to extend their own terms. “We currently have an unelected mayor and council, and they gave themselves a pay raise if they are re-elected.” 

On October 27, Governor Ralph Northam (D) came to Roanoke to endorse Mayor Lea and the entire Democrat ticket for Council for re-election. When asked if an endorsement from this controversial figure could be a negative or if he thought Gov. Northam should resign due to his lingering racist blackface/KKK photo and abortion statement scandals, Bowers replied, “no comment.”

Last fall many 2nd Amendment supporters in Roanoke called on City Council to join the “2A Sanctuary Community” movement, but got a cold rebuff. I asked Bowers, “If you were mayor, would you support such a 2A designation for Roanoke City, yes or no?” Bowers avoided a direct yes or no answer but replied, “I’m what you call an old-fashioned, pro-gun Democrat. The 2A Sanctuary status doesn’t have much significance.” He did add, “if guns are banned at City Hall like they are at the Courthouse, then there should be a security force there like there is at the Courthouse, to keep everyone safe.”

In closing, I asked Bowers if he would address the controversy he sparked in November 2015. At the time, Bowers cited ISIS and terrorist activity in various parts of the world as his rationale to pause the relocation of refugees from Syria to the Roanoke area; his comments ignited a national media firestorm. Mayor Lea is using this as a point of attack as he fends off his challenger.

Bowers’ response: “I had 16 great years as mayor and one bad week. I said the wrong thing at the wrong moment, and I apologized for it.”

Bowers continued: “My old Irish aunt told me, ‘actions speak louder than words,’ and ‘it’s always right to say you did wrong.’” Bowers then pivoted to this past summer: “Mayor Lea was on the state Parole Board that released the murderer of a Richmond police officer, and the Board gave no notice to the victim’s family or local authorities, as required [by law]. Mayor Lea has dodged every question about that. His actions speak louder than my words.” (I delve deeper into the Parole Board scandal in my August 19, 2020 column.) 

Bowers concluded with: “I’ve been visiting in 18 or 19 neighborhoods recently, and no one has said they have seen Mayor Lea. We had 4 people shot and sent to the hospital in the Rorer – 14th St. area last night.”

Bowers claims we need to place more focus on public safety and healthy neighborhoods, and that he is the candidate to lead in that area. 

– Scott Dreyer

Publisher’s Note: An interview with Mayor Sherman Lea Sr. will be published tomorrow Friday, October 30 2020