Voters sought — and got — change

Published 10:46 pm Friday, November 11, 2011

Tuesday was a bad day to be an incumbent in Western Tidewater, and Suffolk City Council members would do well to learn from the day’s lessons.

Throughout Western Tidewater, voters tossed one incumbent after another out of office — a wave of dissatisfaction with the status quo rarely seen in local politics.

Suffolk had no contested city elections — Circuit Court Clerk Randy Carter was unopposed in the only local race that affected Suffolk voters — but the boards of supervisors in neighboring counties were to be chosen, and things went badly for those who had sought re-election.

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Nowhere was the anti-incumbent fervor more pronounced than in Southampton County, where voters unseated four members of the Southampton County Board of Supervisors. A recent pattern of rising taxes and indebtedness proved too much for voters to forgive, and four newcomers to government service were chosen to take the places of the veteran incumbents.

Incumbents in neighboring Isle of Wight County fared just marginally better.

Smithfield District Supervisor Al Casteen kept his seat, but Newport District Supervisor Stan Clark and Windsor District Supervisor Thomas Wright were defeated in their re-election bids, as was embattled Sheriff Charlie Phelps. Voter rebellion extended even to the school board, where Windsor District representative T. Hayes Griffin was ousted.

One of the region’s longest-serving and most respected politicians — state Delegate Bill Barlow, D-Smithfield — was dumped from office after a rough-and-tumble campaign that saw major involvement by Virginia’s Republican and Democratic parties and a number of special-interest groups. Collectively, the two candidates spent well over a half-million dollars, and in keeping with the prevailing winds on Tuesday, it was the challenger who prevailed.

It seems reasonable to expect that the level of frustration that turned incumbents out of office just over the city’s borders is not confined to Southampton and Isle of Wight County. Many of the issues that fueled voter frustration there — spending, debt and rising taxes, for instance — are the same ones that continue to frustrate taxpayers right here in Suffolk.

Of course, the next election that will include Suffolk City Council or School Board candidates is nearly a year away, and there are many things that could change between now and then. And besides, the fundamentals that drove Election Day choices for our neighbors do not all transfer neatly to Suffolk. So any predictions about what might happen here in Suffolk next November are premature and highly debatable at this point.

Even so, the election results were a powerful reminder that it’s still the voters who hold the power in a democracy. They wanted change, and they got it.