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NEWS/ANALYSIS: Mitchell to Retire as Commonwealth’s Attorney

June 2, 2011

UPDATE 6/4: Since this post, more news has developed.

I knew that today would be a big day, what with coverage of the BOS Worksession….ok, big for me, yawn for everyone else. But it suddenly turned into a HUGE day with the announcement that Al Mitchell, Shenandoah County’s Commonwealth’s Attorney, would not be seeking re-election this fall, according to the Northern Virginia Daily. Mitchell was elected in 1999 over Independent Brad Pollack, having been appointed earlier in the year to complete the term of William Logan, who had been appointed as judge in the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court. Mitchell had previously held the office between 1972 and 1976 when it was a part-time position.

And with that, the campaign in 2011 got far more interesting. It was anticipated that none of the constitutional offices would be open nor that they’d even face challengers. Usually, there’s a big scramble for these seats not for ideological or political reasons, but because of one base motivator: money. The constitutional offices pay very well compared to the average citizenry. What’s more most of them don’t have basic qualifications, other than being a qualified voter of the county and having lived in the commonwealth for one year. That is, except for the office of Commonwealth’s Attorney. Under the Code of Virginia, the CWA (we like abbreviations, so step off) has to be a member of the bar. In fact, its the only office with such a restriction.

So that’s the biggest frame for this discussion–there’s a smaller pool of eligible candidates than any other office–though we should view eligible and qualified as to seperate terms. Its one thing to be strictly eligible to hold the office–its something completely different to actually be viewed as someone, by both the press and the citizens, as someone who can actually discharge the duties of the office. To wit, a few years back in Rockingham County they had an 11 way contest for Clerk of Court. Everyone on the ballot could hold the office–they wouldn’t have been put on there if they weren’t eligible. The larger question, though, was how many could actually do a good job at it?

Again, these offices tend to bring people out of the woodwork, because they pay well. Additionally, the conventional wisdom is that these races can be won by just about anyone for a few reasons. One, the party label does not appear on the ballot. Even if someone is the Republican nominee, they won’t have an R next to their name. The party’s involvement is in getting on the ballot–there’s no benefit of the label on the ballot, though the nod does come with access to party resources. At any rate, there’s an assumption that, without that guide, more casual voters are likely to vote for the person they’ve heard the most about or just happen to know. Secondly, the thinking is that people, even if aware of the party labels, will discard with that and vote for the best man for the job. Finally, in keeping with that, given the local nature of the race, its much easier to build a “friends and family” coalition of people who would support you for any office on any ticket, even if you’re running as a confounded Democrat.

But does that hold up in real life? Well, to be honest, open or even challenger races are pretty rare in Shenandoah County–there’s even something of a gentleman’s agreement that the Treasurer is just not to be challenged. The last time an office was contested was in 2007, when incumbent (and then Republican) Clerk of Court Denise Barb was challenged by independent Tammy Heishman. Barb scored a solid win with 58% to 42% for Heishman. But to find the last truly open race, we have to go back to 2003, when now-incumbent Republican Tim Carter received 53% of the vote over 4 rivals. Though stats are not readily available, in 1999 Mitchell won his kinda open seat as an R, as did Commissioner of Revenue Kathy Black over a Democrat. (Hers was also kinda open, as she had been appointed earlier in the year). In fact, the only Republican who DIDN’T win that year was “Porky” Bowman, who was challenging incumbent Independent Sheriff Larry Green.

So in reality, at least in Shenandoah County, that logic doesn’t quite hold up–maybe its due to the fact that a majority of the county is Republican, but being a small county they also know the Republican so they’re voting just as much on personality as party. Whatever the case, its clear that the party has a pretty solid track record and their nominee would be the prohibitive favorite going into November.

So where do we go from here? Well, keep in mind Al is NOT resigning, so that doesn’t trigger an avalanche of code. No, this is just now a simple open seat process. On the Republican side, there are four options: a state run primary, a party mass meeting (in which all eligible voters claiming to be Republicans can attend), a convention (in which voters must first be elected as delegates at their own precinct level mass meetings), or a canvass (which is essentially a party-run primary, with a secret ballot).  Democrats are limited to a caucus (their term for mass meeting), convention, or primary. My money? Convention for Republicans, Caucus for Democrats.

So who will run? Well, the interesting thing about all this is Virginia has a variation on the sore loser law for primaries. While you cannot run on the general election ballot if you lose a party primary, you CAN if you manage to collect enough signatures after losing a non-primary contest (canvasses included). Just 125 signatures gets you on the ballot, so its altogether possible you could be half way there just by getting signatures from delegates who supported your losing bid the night of the convention (though no one I know of has ever been quite that brazen). Honestly, its more common for Republicans to chicken out challenging the candidate who appears to be handpicked and start a run as an indy BEFORE the nomination takes place, but it has happened–in fact, happened here in the 1999 Sheriff’s race. My point to all this is anyone who’s mentioned as running could foreseeably run as an R or Indy. As for the Dems, well……there are a few left leaning lawyers I’ll mention, but honestly, its been over a decade since they even nominated someone who wasn’t named Cindy George for a constitutional office. But that could change….

So who’s out there? Well, there’s a few lawyers on the Republican Committee already–the McClearys, the Wiseleys. Kevin Black, husband of Kathy Black, is also a lawyer, though word has it he’s a bit more independent minded than some Republicans may like. Brad Pollack has made his face shown often since 2008, but Pollack has had a bit of domestic trouble, and at one time was a Warner appointee (though Governor Warner eventually backtracked on that appointment). Of course, the 800 pound gorilla is Delegate Todd Gilbert, a career prosecutor. Any candidate, save Pollack, is likely to defer to him, but frankly, Gilbert has developed enough power in the House that even a substantial pay raise may not be that appealing. On the Democratic side, there’s Mike Cook, Kermit Racey, and Billy Allen. A darkhorse on their side could be Rhodes Ritenour, a Shenandoah County boy who now works in Richmond as a commercial litigator–he bring some political connections and possibly money to the race. The question is, though, would he want to, and even if he did, could he? Well, under the state code, he only need live here 30 days, so its a possibility, but the clock is ticking. How about independents? Well, that’s trickier–pretty much anybody above, save the McClearys or the Wiseleys, could ultimately decide to go indy, and even a Dem could decide that the D, even if its not on the ballot, its too costly and just run solo.

We’ll keep you abreast of this story as it develops, but there’s the long and the short of it. Stay tuned tonight for coverage of the Board’s work session, as well as possibly more on this story as it develops.

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