ANALYSIS: Spotsylvania Elections: Debate Over ‘Recommendation’ Shines Light on Party Troubles

Spotsylvania County hasn’t voted Democratic in a presidential election since 1976. That’s when Georgian Jimmy Carter, riding a wave of public frustration following the impeachment of Richard Nixon and runaway inflation under Gerald Ford, surprised the nation by walking his way up Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House.

Since that time, things have been solidly red in Spotsylvania. Especially since 2016, when the Republican Party gave way to the American MAGA movement.

Today, the Republican Party is in search of its soul in Spotsylvania, and the Democratic Party is on life-support.

It would be easy to attribute the Democratic Party’s collapse to the surge in the anti-democratic – and ugly – Know-Nothingism of today’s MAGA movement. And that certainly has played a role.

However, it’s also true that the Spotsylvania Democratic Party has in significant ways undercut its own power in the county. And the current uproar over whether the Democratic Party is endorsing two candidates – Megan Jackson and Belen Rodas – for School Board is a case in point.

Rigidly Independent – In the Virginia Way

By law, candidates for school board in Virginia run as independents. But followers of local politics know that for almost ten years now, that label has been little more than window dressing.

The four majority members of the Spotsylvania County School Board unabashedly ran, and have since acted, in ways that make clear their adherence to today’s Republican (i.e., MAGA and/or Tea) Party.

Rodas told the Advance, she made it abundantly clear to Ignacio at a meet-and-greet on August 13 that she had no interest in the party’s endorsement. Ignacio asked her directly at that event if she was seeking the Spotsy Dems’ endorsement. “No,” Rodas says she told him.

So it was a breath of fresh air when two women put themselves forward as candidates for the School Board and were clear about their intent to be staunchly independent.

From the beginning, Both Megan Jackson (Livingston District) and Belen Rodas (Chancellor District) have talked, campaigned, and acted as Independents, and not Democrats or Republicans.

In her March 13 interview with the FXBG Advance (then called F2S), we described Jackson politically this way:

The Livingston District race is already turning ugly. Mimicking the tawdry and childish tactics of Donald Trump, extremists in Spotsylvania have already tagged Megan Jackson with a school-yard label – Marxist Megan.

Spend a few minutes with Jackson, however, and one quickly sees that Megan is no Marxist. Politically, she seems to be like the majority of the American populace – a little right of center on some issues, a little left of center on others.

In many ways, Jackson represents a growing body of politicians tired of the types of antics we’ve observed here in Spotsylvania, and across the country.

She describes herself as “solutions-based.” And she has aggressively resisted any ties to the Democratic Party in the county.

Rodas, as we’ll soon see, has been no less clear in her determination to be independent.

Endorsed?

Given their dedicated independence, it caught no few people by surprise this week when Nick Ignacio, who is running for Clerk of Court in Spotsylvania, took to social media and made the following announcement.

The problem?

The Democratic Party has not endorsed Belen Rodas, Megan Jackson, Roger Harris, or Christy Jett.

Not only has the party not endorsed them, but as Rodas told the Advance, she made it abundantly clear to Ignacio at a meet-and-greet on August 13 that she had no interest in the party’s endorsement. Ignacio asked her directly at that event if she was seeking the Spotsy Dems’ endorsement. “No,” Rodas says she told him. She then explained to Ignacio:

I take seriously the spirit of the Virginia Code that school boards are meant to be nonpartisan…. There is no room for [Ignacio’s] misunderstanding [me] on this point.

Megan Jackson was equally clear about her not being endorsed. In speaking with the Advance, Jackson said:

I have not been endorsed by the Spotsylvania Democratic Party, and I have not sought their endorsement. In fact, I have told them I do not want it.

We spoke with Bob Martin, the chair of the Spotsylvania Democratic Party and asked if he or his organization had endorsed Rodas, Jackson, Harris, or Jett.

“No,” Martin tells the Advance.

Both Jackson and Rodas have made it very clear to me that they do not want to be endorsed, and I’ve respected that.

Asked about Ignacio’s assertion that he learned about the endorsements at an NAACP event over the weekend – presumably the meet-and-greet held at the Salem Church Library – Martin denies that any such announcements were made.

“We didn’t make any announcements there, and we didn’t hand anything out there,” said Martin who was in attendance. There was “no endorsement about the Democrats except for mentioning Mark Lux being endorsed by Abigail Spanberger, Zet PAC, and the Sierra Club.”

So if Ignacio didn’t get that information at the NAACP meeting, where did he get the idea the Dems had endorsed Rodas and Jackson?

Recommending?

While the party did not endorse the candidates, it did take the unusual step of “recommending” Rodas, Jackson, Jett, and Harris. Martin insists that recommending and endorsing are two separate ideas. Ignacio has seized on this idea and called this effectively an endorsement.

Is there a distinction between an endorsement and a recommendation?

The Advance reached out to Stephen Farnsworth, political science professor at the University of Mary Washington, to get his take. Farnsworth told the Advance via text message:

I would not see much of a difference, but better to ask the person seeking to draw a distinction between endorsements and recommendations.

We did, and Martin insists there is one.

“Recommending a book,” Martin says, “is not the same as endorsing it.”

“When we make a recommendation,” Martin says, “we are recommending people support a candidate because they are honest, committed, and trustworthy people.”

But this type of hair-splicing can muddy the waters.

“Confusion is not helpful,” Farnsworth says.

But confusion is what has ensued. And the party should have been able to see it coming.

Ignacio has a history of stirring the pot in Spotsylvania politics. He publicly protested in front of the Free Lance-Star offices, accusing the paper of lying and being “liberal.” He was a player in getting the current school board majority elected.

Further, during the primaries, he along with Republican candidate Steve Maxwell (candidate for sheriff) appear to have played fast-and-loose with guidelines from the Board of Elections regarding the collection of signatures. Both had multiple signatures on the petitions dated January 1. State published guidelines clearly identify January 2 as the first date to collect names. (The Advance broke this story, and we continue to follow it.)

Do Better

There’s little doubt that the stakes are high this November. Especially in Spotsylvania.

Either the county will go further down the road toward becoming a MAGA-fueled dystopia, or it will reset itself and begin the transition to a healthier, more-democratic government that is temperamentally suited to address the growing tensions in the county between its conservative, progressive, and more-moderate residents.

Getting that right can only be done when people have good information.

The MAGA-fueled Republican Party has made clear over the past two years that they are aggressive in seeking office, and they are willing to use that power once in to pummel their perceived political enemies.

Jackson and Rodas are looking to restore decorum, civility, and a solutions-based approach to politics in the county, and they have been abundantly clear about that. And this is why they have not sought, nor do they want, any party endorsements.

Martin himself tells the Advance that he has “heard that message loud and clear and respects it.”

And yet, the Democratic Party in Spotsy has muddied the waters by recommending Jackson and Rodas, as well as Harris and Jett.

Fortunately for voters, the candidates themselves have been crystal clear about how they feel about this race.

And if the pollsters are right, Jackson and Rodas are striking the chord that a majority of Americans now say they want. Politicians who are politically independent.

The candidates get that. The voters get that. Why hasn’t the Democratic Party in Spotsylvania?

It’s time that party do better.

The Republican Party, too.

Two women in Spotsylvania may well prove to be the civic leaders who show the Republican Party how to respect and listen to, but not succumb to, extremists. And they may also be the ones who show the Democratic Party what multipartisan, open-minded leadership looks like.

Clarification

In our August 24 story titled “Ready or Not … Election Season Is Here,” we listed many of the interviews that we have done with candidates. These interviews are aimed at helping voters get to know candidates on their own terms.

Unfortunately, when we compiled our list, we failed to include the fascinating discussion we held with Elizabeth Melson, who’s running for office in Senate District 28, on June 11.

Here it is – and we apologize for the oversight.

by Martin Davis
EDITOR-IN-CHIEF