By Erich Wagner (File photo)
In American electoral politics, few things can portray the acrimony between two candidates quite like a debate. But the debate over whether to have them in the first place certainly comes close.
Mayor Bill Euille was ousted from appearing on the ballot for the Democrats in the city’s November 3 general election after losing to Vice Mayor Allison Silberberg in the party’s primary by 312 votes in June. Last month, he announced he would pursue a write-in campaign to retain his seat.
Last week, officials with his campaign said they planned to push for a debate between the four-term mayor and his potential successor, to the chagrin of Silberberg and the Alexandria Democratic Committee.
“At some point, we do anticipate challenging Ms. Silberberg to a debate,” said Eric Williams, chairman of Euille’s campaign. “She is working to get the job, while Mr. Euille is working to get the job done.”
But Silberberg was firm in her opposition, arguing that she cannot be expected to debate someone who is not officially on the ballot.
“I will not debate a write-in candidate, period,” she said. “And the Alexandria Democratic Committee agrees with me. There are 148,000, almost 150,000 residents in the city of Alexandria, and there’s a primary system for a reason.
“Anyone can step up and say they’re a write-in, I’m a write-in, you’re a write-in or whatever. And that’s just not a good use of time — no candidate would do that.”
Euille’s announcement provoked a minor rift within the city’s Democratic establishment, with longtime members temporarily leaving the party to support the mayor’s campaign, including former mayor and primary opponent Kerry Donley, former City Councilor Lonnie Rich and, most recently, former candidate for delegate Julie Jakopic. But local party chairman Clarence Tong said his organization stands behind Silberberg.
“We support our vice mayor’s position,” he said. “She’s our nominee, and she has made her position very clear that she doesn’t plan to engage in debates. From the ADC’s standpoint, we have hosted several mayoral debates during the primary season, which is what we see our role as being.
“In terms of council debates, we already negotiated those with the Republican and Independent candidates a month in advance, so we’re focused on our game plan to elect the Democratic ticket on November 3.”
But Williams said it is overly simplistic to dismiss the idea of debates, arguing Euille is not your everyday write-in candidate.
“We have a current, sitting mayor [asking for debates], and the mayor is running a full-fledged campaign,” Williams said. “We haven’t determined when and where to challenge Ms. Silberberg to a debate, but we will do so.”
But for all of the posturing, veteran political analyst Geoff Skelley of the University of Virginia Center for Politics said any effort to participate in a debate is secondary for a write-in candidate.
“I couldn’t tell you if it’ll be that vital or not,” he said. “If Euille wants a debate and his opponent doesn’t, that at least suggests that Euille feels it’s an opportunity for him to get noticed and for some of the electorate to hear what he has to say and hear his attacks on his opponent.
“Really, it’s just an opportunity to get more notice for the write-in campaign, which, in and of itself, is challenging. From that perspective, it has more use than none, but I don’t think that necessarily will decide his fortunes.”
Skelley said that, particularly for a candidate who lost in the primary, the most important thing is to inform potential voters that he still is running, particularly through avenues like direct mail.
“Given the fact that [Euille] needs people to write his name in on Election Day, he needs to contact Alexandria voters with a strong history of showing up each election,” Skelley said. “I think Euille has a shot here, but he’s got to make sure people understand that they have to write his name in. Don’t waste money on irregular voters until you’ve reached the people you know are going to show up.”
But demanding a debate is an easy — and cheap — way to keep a high profile, particularly as news coverage of the city council and school board campaigns ramps up.
“It’s not make or break, I wouldn’t think,” Skelley said. “But it’s a chance to increase the attention paid to the campaign. And hey, it’s free media coverage.”