Searls Reflects on Council Loss

In a letter to the Democrats for Change mailing list yesterday, former City Council candidate Alexandria Searls described extensively the circumstances behind her loss to Republican Rob Schilling. In the extensive essay, she compliments Schilling for running “an excellent, aggressive and focused campaign,” calls for a reorganization of the party, and criticizes herself, the party and the press for her loss. You can read her letter, of course, or read Jake Mooney’s article about it in today’s Progress.

33 thoughts on “Searls Reflects on Council Loss”

  1. I actually think this is a fairly reasonable critique of what went wrong with her campaign. Party politics is messy, and by agreeing to a toned-down campaign that toed the party line she probably got herself defeated. Democratic candidates in 2 years should look carefully and objectively at what went wrong here.

  2. This letter of Alex’s was the most ill-conceived, self-destructive bit of writing that I’ve seen in a long, long time. She just put herself in her political grave (in a cemetary that has quietly been filling up at an alarming rate lately). I only hope that she will remain active in the party as an effective precinct captain.

    The poor thing never should have been a candidate in the first place. That letter of hers only proved it. Anyone who lashes out with a pathetic, sprawling attack like that is clearly not together enough to hold public office. She is a very nice, intelligent person, but utterly mis-cast.

    One very good way to judge whether someone will make the best sort of winner in the future is by examining the grace with which they have lost in the past. A sore loser does not inspire confidence. Alex would have done well to take a cue from the likes of Waldo Jaquith and David Simmons after the primary, both of whom respectfully took their bows and thanked their supporters without the contamination of blame. Only one of those two gentlemen remains a growing force in C-ville politics, but they can both hold their heads up high.

  3. did you actually read the letter or were you just hot for a chance–any chance–to use that phrase “want some cheese with that whine?” i mean, she pointed some fingers but she also took some blame herself.

    full disclosure: i didn’t vote for her, i’m not defending her. i think your “j’accuse” post was just a little easy and careless.

  4. In my experience, it is not enough to be right.

    Regardless of the accuracy of her critique, it was probably a bad idea to hit ‘send’ on that one. She had absolutely nothing to gain by sending that email and a lot to lose. Her observations are all ones that others are already making without the emotional baggage. The letter was unnecessary and may come back to haunt her for a long time. For her sake, I hope that it is forgiven as the rash act of someone who has just suffered a bitter defeat.

  5. Alex would have done well to take a cue from the likes of Waldo Jaquith and David Simmons after the primary

    Though, to be fair, there’s really no comparison between my loss and those of David and Alex. I lost as an independent candidate that receive no (nor should I have) support from the party.

    David Simmons was the party’s favored candidate, and thus his loss (I speculate) must have be particularly crushing. As we’ve seen from the campaign spending reports, David neither received any contributions nor spent any money on his campaign. I can only assume that he entirely trusted party members to ensure that he was elected, which obviously failed to occur. Alex’s loss, naturally, must be felt even more sharply than David’s. She had the official support of the party, as the nominee, and naturally depended on them to ensure that she was elected.

    I received support from all of the great people that said they would, and every one of them did what they said that they would do. So, yeah, it was easy for me to be gracious. :) I was (and continue to be) impressed with the calm and even approach that David took to his loss, at least publicly. Alex has obviously been quite upset, and I can’t say that I wouldn’t feel the same way after a similar loss.

  6. I appreciate that Alex wrote this. I would have personally been hesitant to say some of the things that she said out of a desire to not burn too many bridges. She obviously has a lot more nerve than I. But that doesn’t mean that some of these things didn’t need to be said as an “emperor-has-no-clothes” type of thing. (That’s a bit strong, but you know what I mean.) Sometimes it takes a loss like this to snap us all to our sense. If Alex’s loss was a slap on the face of Democrats, her letter is the subsequent splash of water in our face to wake us up.

  7. If this story was hard to find in the paper, it’s because it was down at the bottom of the B section — roughly the same low-key place where the infamous single-shotting story appeared.


    Daily Progress staff writer

    Alexandria Searls, the first Democrat to lose a Charlottesville election since the 1980s, blamed her narrow defeat this week on her party’s “stultifying” campaign strategy, on “poor” media coverage and on Republican Rob Schilling’s “aggressive and focused” effort.

    “I am not saying any of this out of sour grapes, but in the spirit of an assessment we sorely need as a community,” Searls wrote in an e-mail to the Democrats for Change’s online mailing list that also appeared on various party message boards.

    “My own particular problem was that I didn’t establish myself fully as an individual” separate from running mate Mayor Blake Caravati, Searls wrote. “The joint campaign decided that I was not to have my own press releases, and I abided by that even though I disagreed with it.”

    “I was also encouraged to run everything I said and did through the campaign, which had a stultifying effect on me since I tend to be spontaneous as a communicator,” she added. “As the mayor, Blake naturally received the majority of the attention when we talked to the press together.”

    When Searls disagreed with Caravati and the rest of the all-Democratic City Council, “the campaign was not united in how much difference I could express,” she wrote, citing such issues as the proposed downtown bus transfer station, the future of the Jefferson Preschool and the planned demolition of the Priority Press building on West Main Street.

    Councilor Maurice Cox, a Democrats for Change member, said Wednesday that the party lost a seat in the election because it decided “not to run an issue-oriented campaign.”

    In particular, Cox said, the campaign effort should have focused more on Searls’ opposition to the proposed Meadowcreek Parkway – a project that Caravati supports. In her letter, Searls said her stance on the issue lost her “certain endorsements.”

    Caravati was not among the 22 people Searls thanked in her letter. Party co-chairman J. Lloyd Snook III, who ran the campaign, was absent as well, although Searls did extend thanks to Snook’s co-chairman, Russell Perry, and to Snook’s mother, Sandy, who in 1986 was the last Democrat to lose a council race to a Republican.

    Snook could not be reached for comment Thursday. Caravati, meanwhile, declined to blame anyone in particular for the party’s mixed showing.

    “My analysis of it is that the party didn’t do a good job, and we’re all individually and collectively to blame,” he said. “I’m very disappointed in a lot of stuff I’ve been hearing today and reading, because this isn’t where the city needs to be, or the party. … This type of discourse, I think, is not particularly healthy.”

    Citywide, Searls finished 443 votes behind Caravati and 84 votes behind Schilling. Out of eight precincts, she beat Schilling in just three: Carver, Tonsler and Alumni Hall. Searls finished third in the rest, including Venable, a traditional Democratic stronghold, and Recreation, her home precinct.

    Searls also criticized media coverage of the campaign, writing that Caravati and Schilling received preferential treatment. “Even when I did have the opportunity to speak in detail in front of the press, I did not receive adequate coverage,” she wrote.

    In a brief interview following her concession speech Tuesday, Searls called a Daily Progress account of the Republican campaign strategy “unethical” and “out of line.” She offered no comment on her loss, and has declined to comment in recent days.

    Searls wrote in the letter that “Rob Schilling ran an excellent, aggressive and focused campaign,” adding, “Using a metaphor from ecology, we have been living without an aggressive predator for a long time, and it has damaged us. I recognized early that we were making mistakes.”

    Among them, she listed the party’s decision not to campaign aggressively, the cancellation of a rally featuring former council members and a failure to order enough signs.

    Searls cast her letter as a response to people who have contacted her “expressing their dismay” and to “heavy criticism” she has received on the web site of Democratic Party activist George Loper,

    Thursday afternoon, there was a single posting on the site that criticized Searls: City Democrat Jeff Fracher called her campaign “abysmal” and her positions “fuzzy to non-existent.”

  8. I did read the letter, for example:

    “With Blake’s and my press releases, he would not release them until he had contacted Schilling. I did not have the same luxury. I was always listed third or last in each article. I was the one who first challenged Schilling on the elected school board debate, yet the reporting of it made it look as if Blake was the challenger, and I merely added a footnote! . Bias, though unintentional, is damaging.”

    This is from her own letter- if this isn’t sour grapes I don’t know what is.

  9. Looks to me she can get all the coverage she needs when she has got something to say. She trusted party elders who told her not to worry. The first thing to remember when you run for office- When it’s all said and done it’s YOUR name on the ballot not the party’s. The party can always run someone else next time.

  10. Regarding the infamous “How to Elect Rob Schilling” article on May 7:

    Jake Mooney et al. need to acknowledge that this article played a major role — perhaps, given Schilling’s slim margin of victory on Tuesday, THE major role — in Schilling’s win. The article was totally unbalanced in Schilling’s favor. There’s really no getting around that fact, no matter how hard the article’s apologists may try.

    Cville Democrats, on the other hand, need to acknowledge that this article merely helped the electorate do what a (narrow) majority of the electorate seemed to want to do on Tuesday–i.e., elect Rob Schilling to Council. Were it not for Mooney’s helpful election-day primer on single-shot voting, many folks would have unwittingly cancelled out their Schilling votes with a second vote for one of his opponents. In the aftermath of the 2000 Presidential vote in Florida, the Democrats rightfully asserted that MORE FLORIDA VOTERS WENT INTO THE VOTING BOOTH INTENDING TO VOTE FOR AL GORE THAN GEORGIE BUSH. It was the voting process itself (including those infamous Butterfly Ballots in Palm Beach County) that produced a differing result. The Democrats need to be consistent in their analysis of this Tuesday’s election. If the voting process HAD ended up electing Searls when Schilling was the electorate’s true choice, that would have been a real shame. If Jake Mooney had only been a reporter for a left-wing Palm Beach rag back in 2000 (rather than a right-wing Charlottesville rag in 2002), maybe this country wouldn’t be nearly as bad off as it is today.

  11. “Were it not for Mooney’s helpful election-day primer on single-shot voting, many folks would have unwittingly cancelled out their Shilling votes with a second vote for one of his opponents.”

    This isn’t entirely accurate. The only way a second vote would have hurt Schilling in any way would have been if that vote had gone to Searls. The odds of a Schilling supporter also being a Searls supporter aren’t good. Most likely, the second vote would have gone to Caravati, which would have had no bearing on Schilling’s final tally, or on Searls’. Net gain/loss would have been, most likely, zero.

    So while the Mooney article may have been less than entirely appropriate, it’s quite a stretch to think it had any bearing on the outcome.

  12. Well, it all depends on what her goal is. I think a good bet is that she will not run again and that gives her the latitude to be honest at the risk of offending the party. In fact, it is unlikely she will get the nomination again regardless of what she says. Someone who has lost once is hard to get re-nominated.

    Given that fact, saying some of the things she does may stir up the Democrats and actually get something done.

  13. Obviously we’ll never know the answer. I think it’s safe to say, however, that there may well have been at least 85 people who might have voted Schilling-Searls because they were upset by the direction of the current City Council and would have thrown their second vote to anyone other than Mayor Caravati. Salidis may have picked up some of those folks but I think he probably seemed too fringe for a lot of people.

  14. While I feel that Searls’ letter is a bit whiny, especially about the “it’s the media’s fault for being biased” (as if the media is NEVER biased), I strongly agree with her criticisms of the party leadership. It sounds like the party ran a campaign that was geared towards some sort of cookie-cutter, “we win this every year so lets just do the same-old same-old” attitude. Her comments about having to repress her individuality in order to conform to what the party wanted her to say and do must have been stifling, not to mention just an outright wrong strategy. People want to vote for someone who sticks out and seems unique, not just some mass-produced cookie-cutter party candidate who knows how to memorize someone else’s speech.

    The fact that the party couldn’t even motivate HER OWN PRECINCT to vote for her (over Schilling) shows how poorly run the joint campaign was. If the Democratic party leadership have half a brain, they will take this advice to heart and not act like the fat, lazy political machines they were this election.

    For all the Waldo-worshippers out there: it wasn’t his time and it certainly wasn’t the right climate in terms of party leadership. Waldo isn’t quite ready for city-level politics; however, he’s taken the important first step of getting your nose dirty in a nomination election. Waldo, if you’re reading this… stick with it dude. You ain’t there today, but you’ll be there in four more years if you keep stepping up.

    -Politically Independent Anonymous

  15. Parts of the city effected by the parkway had great turnout. The parkway made an enormous difference that no one is taking about. Searls was against it. All you have to do is travel the roads that have too much traffic today because there is no parkway. There were more signs for a republican on these streets then I have ever seen for a city council election. Blame the media , the party, and who ever else you want but the parkway motivated an overwhelming democratic town to vote for a republican.

    The candidate not the party is responsible for their race. If you depend on the party too much and it let’s you down that is your fault. This is an overwhelmingly democratic town where certain strongholds not effected by the parkway had terrible turn out.

    Point the finger of blame all around but when it’s all said and done “t’was the road that done her in”.

  16. Well, I voted for both Schilling and Salidis. Drove my husband crazy! But I was very disappointed with the City Council for a long time (traffic calming, stupid retreats that they have had in the past, and then the attitude of Caravati about the students who were out wilding).

    I usually vote Democratic. More so because I believe in many of the Democratic principles as well as the fact that many of the Republicans who are nominated (at least on state and national levels) are such flaming assholes that it’s quite easy NOT to consider them. But my ideal is to vote for the person, not the party. Or, at least, do the least harm. That’s what I did this time at a local level. I also believe that a one-party rule at any level is dangerous and encourages group-thought. A little diversity is fine by me.

    That said, I think Alex did a good thing even if she did whine a little (esp. about the press — they love controversy, hasn’t anyone figured that out yet?). I actually have more admiration for her now. Too bad I didn’t see much of that in the election earlier. And, it might be my own fault.


  17. You’re ignoring the fact that EVERY SINGLE VOTER that walked into their balloting place was handed a “sample ballot”. All of the Republicans were given a sample ballot that had just one name highlighted- Rob Schilling’s. Maybe I’m going out on a limb here, but I’m guessing that had more to do with the single-shotting than any article.

  18. what are you talking about? i voted at Walker Elementary school–no one handed me anything.

  19. Really now Dems. You lost a seat occupied by a Democrat who votes like a Republican, to a Republican who looks like a Democrat. Tough beans.

    The letter was probably a mistake. It started out kind and magnanimous and descended into maudlin breast-beating. It was single-shotting. Biased coverage. Overshadowing and underexposure and insufficient press releases. Failure to re-order signs.

    Crying over spilt milk. Must we devise new and ingenious ways to describe the spill, drop by drop?

    There are better things to talk about. Like why does our government think just because money is available we should spend it on a fancy bus stop we don’t need, and completely reconfigure an attractive part of the Mall that currently works just fine? This is the sort of thing that makes me want to stop paying taxes.

  20. Cville Democrats, on the other hand, need to acknowledge that this article merely helped the electorate do what a (narrow) majority of the electorate seemed to want to do on Tuesday–i.e., elect Rob Schilling to Council. Were it not for Mooney’s helpful election-day primer on single-shot voting, many folks would have unwittingly cancelled out their Schilling votes with a second vote for one of his opponents.

    This is very interesting. Anonymous here seems to be saying that Mooney’s article was not, in Searles’s words, “out of line,” as it helped “the electorate” honestly express their views at the polls and vote for the candidate they wanted instead of inadvertantly electing someone they didn’t. It makes me wonder if all these single-shotting complaints aren’t actually from people who wish that the rules had been byzantine enough to fool Republicans into unwittingly making two choices when only one was required and electing, Bush-style, the inferior candidate (Searles). It’s a desire to win at any cost, which really is every bit as unethical as they say Mooney’s interesting (and Toscano-quoting) article was.

    Still, though, it’s hilarious for city Dems to complain that the article made the decisive difference when all they needed was half a movie theater-full of voters in get off their lazy asses and go to the polls to change the outcome. Charlottesville, despite being so left-leaning, isn’t really that different from anywhere else: Anyone can win when the dominant party doesn’t take the opposition seriously. That, not Mooney’s article, is what played “THE major role” in Searles’s loss.

  21. Waldo,

    Do you think she had to even write the letter for this “subsequent splash of water” effect to be accomplished? Everything she’s written has already been suggested by other people, even in this forum: The party ran a lousy campaign, she wasn’t allowed to be her own person, the media didn’t find her especially quotable, etc. etc. I think it would have been a far better idea for her to just be gracious and let the scores of people who feel the same way she does — and you know they’re out there — complain about everything. Then she comes out looking like she either got screwed or was just a lousy candidate … as opposed to looking like a lousy candidate AND a sore loser, which is pretty much the case now.

    Unless, of course, she doesn’t intend to ever run for office again. Maybe that’s the case?

    Your friend,


  22. It would be interesting to compare the percentage of single-shotting at precincts where the GOP was handing out sample ballots vs. Walker (and presumably others), where they were not handed out.

  23. the funny thing is how seriously she takes this thing that means nothing.

  24. Do you think she had to even write the letter for this “subsequent splash of water” effect to be accomplished?

    I suspect that you’re right — I don’t think that it was necessary, not that a lack of necessity should have prevented her from writing it. I don’t know what her future plans are for office, but I’d say she wins points for honesty either way. :)


    Daily Progress staff writer

    Katie, bar the ballot box because the Republicans are coming to the City Council chambers! Last week, city voters elected city GOP poster boy Rob Schilling to a seat on the council, the first time a Republican has won a local election since Darden Towe in 1986.

    Don’t worry, Mr. Schilling is not a real city Republican. He seems surprisingly calm and rational. He has long hair, a moustache and plays guitar. Heck, the man looks like a Democrat. He even used a Democratic tool to get elected: The single-shot vote in an at-large election.

    Targeting victory

    For you who have lives and lack the idle time necessary to follow politics, an at-large election is when several candidates are elected at one time and every qualified voter in the city is allowed to vote for them. If there are two vacant offices and three people running, the two with the most votes get the offices.A single-shot is simple. If you really want a Republican in office — and some people are like that — you vote only for the Republican and ignore your other vote. That way you increase the Republican’s total by one and no one else gets a vote.

    Get enough voters to go along, and you got yourself a Republican in office. Or a black. Or a liberal Democrat.

    “The single-shot has been used by minorities of all kinds, including liberal Democrats in the 1950s and most often by African-Americans,” explained Larry J. Sabato, a University of Virginia political analyst, professor, founder of UVa’s Center for Governmental Studies and the commonwealth’s most oft-quoted political pundit.

    “Henry Howell got elected in 1959 when liberals single-shot for him and again in 1963 when liberals and African-Americans single-shot for him,” he said. “In 1969 the second African-American to be elected to state office — William T. Robinson Sr. — made it on the single-shot even though African-Americans were only about 20 percent of the population.”

    The right not to vote

    Of course, the single-shot is also controversial. It rankles those who lose, their party and their supporters. “You shouldn’t throw away your vote by only voting for one person,” they say. “Bad you!”

    Boo-hoo, says professor Sabato.

    “It’s a perfectly legitimate tool. Under the Constitution people have the right to vote for a candidate but also the right to abstain from voting for a candidate,” he said. “In the worst scenario that means people don’t show up to vote at all. Others skip voting for a particular race. That’s something I do. In my job, I actually get to know the candidates and sometimes I’m not sure I want to vote for any of them.”

    Oh, and don’t forget that honorary member of the Axis of Evil, the liberal media. When the liberal media found out city Republicans were planning such a strategy it was immediately reported, part of a vast media conspiracy to make the public — including the Democrats — aware of what’s going on.

    Bad media!

    “Everyone hates it when they get beat by it, but there’s nothing wrong with the single-shot vote,” professor Sabato said. “It has a long history and it’s completely legitimate in every sense of the word.”

  26. Absolutely true. Thank you for pointing it out.

    Two voting members in our household (and we lean towards the liberal side of the party) chose not to vote for Searls because of her poor communication (reading her answers at the League of Women Voters forum) and because of her parkway position, which showed blatant disrespect for the decisions of the very party that she was supposedly representing. Every time we have a new council election, do we want city council to go back and revisit every issue?

    When Maurice Cox suggested that perhaps the Democrats lost because the party stalwarts didn’t run a good campaign and that they should step aside for younger, more dynamic leadership (ie. the Democrats for Change who might consider that democracy is about representation, not pushing a narrow and perhaps more unpopular than they realize agenda on a diverse city)he was really doing some spin doctoring. Searls lost for several reasons, but there is no doubt in my mind that the parkway was one of the biggest. Add to that the fact that she was not a dynamic candidate and had she asserted herself and her positions(as she was free to do and should have done – instead of blaming others for stifling her after the fact), I have no doubt that Shilling’s victory margins would have been even greater.

  27. I cannot understand the claim by Searls and others that single shot voting is unethical. One has the right NOT to vote at all, so what is wrong with someone exercising their right to vote in a manner that is most likely to achieve the result he/she desires?? Complaining about the article in the Progress about single shot voting . . . well, the only thing I can infer from that is Searls et al are upset voters were informed about the way they could exercise their vote. I guess they prefer people to be ignorant of that possibility??

  28. Hear, hear!

    Searls is clearly a fault-finder who is certain that only her ends justify the means, no one elses.

    As far as her blame of the single-shotting article goes it only displays her lack of knowledge of its previous applications and her lack of belief in the voters of Charlottesville who clearly did not want her to win.

  29. What I find so curious is that Waldo (a big Searls fan?) won’t do post the Hook’s story about the Progress piece anywhere on this site. In case you didn’t see it, just about the only people in (or out of) town who the paper could find to criticize the Progress story were Searls and Ben Thacker-Bitchney. Both of whom are idiots.

    It’s just a shame the site’s administrator seems to be supressing the story in some kind of DFC-led conspiracy.

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