Culpeper, Virginia

If you listen to the advertisements of candidates for state delegate from Virginia’s 30th district you may be surprised to learn that socialism is alive and well in this rural section of the piedmont just to the south of booming Northern Virginia and just to the north of Charlottesville where the University of Virginia and strange liberal ideas can be found.

Independent candidate, J.D. “Dori” Callahan is campaigning against socialism. A homemade sign in a yard in Culpeper reads “Are you tired of voting for socialists? Get out and vote for Callahan!” Culpeper is where Virginia pioneered Welfare Reform.
Republican candidate George Broman shares Callahan’s views on those subjects where he has views. Broman is a retired surgeon, well-known around Culpeper and benefiting from $280,000 in campaign contributions. He’s running a tax-cut campaign, and intends to purchase vouchers for private schools and home-schooling without harming public schools. Virginia ranks 47th in state funding of grades K-12, and Culpeper (where the high school football stadium is named for Broman, ex-team doctor) is losing teachers as well as government employees to nearby counties that pay more.

I asked Broman’s campaign manager about a contribution his candidate had been given by George Pataki, Governor of New York. New York is a major exporter of trash to Virginia landfills. He replied that Broman has long been friends with Pataki and that Pataki has nothing to do with trash exporting. A Republican delegate in Tidewater Virginia has turned down a similar Pataki contribution. I also asked whether accepting $280,000 from well-off donors and PACs distorted democracy by giving some individuals more power than others. Broman’s campaign manager seemed perplexed. “The alternative is socialism, as far as I can tell,” he replied.

The third delegate candidate is Democratic nominee Doris Lackey. She hails from Madison, which sits south of Culpeper in the direction of Charlottesville. Culpeper has no active Democratic party. In local county board of supervisors and school board elections, the Republican candidates are the left-wingers. In some cases only Independents are running. In others, there are no candidates at all. Lackey opposes tax cuts, advocates allowing patients to sue HMOs (something the retired surgeon opposes), opposes school vouchers, and even speaks of preserving farmland. She has a chance at getting elected only because Callahan may deprive Broman of votes. Most people you talk to in Culpeper (of those who have any knowledge of politics at all) have no doubt that Broman will win. In the last election less than a quarter of registered voters turned out in Culpeper.

And yet, even Lackey does not seem to be proposing anything that would be recognized as socialism, say, in Europe today or America 60 years ago. The Democrat who is vacating this delegate seat, Butch Davies, got into a lot of trouble with some residents of Culpeper County for proposing a state park along the Rappahannock. A group of residents and county supervisors fears that “the government” (which does not really include supervisors if you are one) intends to seize land. They cite the example of how Skyline Drive and the Shenandoah park were created. Thus did Davies become a socialist. And Lackey is from his party. She’s also made the grievous mistake of mentioning regional control and cooperation. With local Culpeper candidates trying to play down their having been Democrats ten years ago, Lackey doesn’t stand much chance as an actual current Democrat.

The Rappahannock River badly needs protection, and voluntary easements of the sort that Davies actually pushes protect farmland, cut farmers’ taxes, and allow people to pass their land down to their descendants. Culpeper farmers have suffered horribly in recent years from drought. Scientific journals that people read down in Charlottesville and up in Northern Virginia suggest that the drought is caused by global warming and that a leading cause of global warming is automobiles. But this connection is never made in Culpeper politics. The school board is working on providing parking places for high school students and for the parents of elementary school students who don’t like busses. There is no public bus or rail service and none likely in the near future. (The nearby smaller town of Orange does have bus service.) But road construction is frantic. Forty percent of Culpeper workers drive north every day for work. Sprawl is sprawling at a rapid pace in Culpeper. Schools are heavily overcrowded. Cellular phone towers are popping up like mushrooms.

Every supervisor candidate in Culpeper, without exception, takes the desirability of “economic growth” for granted and campaigns on his or her professed ability to produce more of it, or – in some cases – more of the better kind. In counties to the north, like Loudon and Prince William, all of the local candidates are now campaigning against development. In Culpeper, sprawl (which is pretty well underway there) is considered a Northern Virginian problem which Culpeper need not worry about in the foreseeable future. The interests of farmers are defended by candidates in terms of the farmers’ inviolable right to develop land. The enemy is government, which might try to buy historic land or river frontage. Civil War preservation groups are an enemy as well, though not as notorious as government, despite the fact that they buy much larger pieces of land. And rich Northern Virginians who move to Culpeper can even be seen as an enemy, because in Rappahannock County similar folks managed to institute a 25-acre-minimum lot size.

Environmental concerns are pretty much off the political map. But there is some attempt at controlling development. In fact, local candidates universally support “controlled growth.” For some this means that residential, commercial, and industrial growth should happen first where water and sewer services are closest. For many it means that industry is preferable to residential, because it brings in more taxes (yes, these are Small-government candidates, but they want to “increase their tax base” by means of promoting business; motto of Culpeper: “Close-In and Open-for-Business”). For several candidates, controlled growth means going out and soliciting desirable companies, namely computer companies, which have settled in Northern Virginia more than any other region of the country.

Culpeper is currently renovating its downtown, and doing a terrific job of it. But there are a lot of empty lots in town, and a lot of sprawl around the edges. And the single most likely suggestion to get one labeled a socialist is recommending the construction of a new, compact town somewhere in the county. (As if this could cost as much as VDOT spends building roads and repaving them whenever a bird craps on one.)

Culpeper was headquarters for a five-county area that pioneered welfare elimination. The national and international press descended on the area five years ago. A German company produced a documentary. A newspaper from Norfolk, Va., even did a long series following several women through the process. But the honeymoon is over, everybody’s been reformed, more people are working, and problems remain. A state juvenile detention center has been opened in Culpeper to lock up some of the more troublesome young. Sheriff candidates universally make the War on Drugs one of their top “issues”. But drug problems are at an all-time high according to the director of the local Head Start program, which is able to serve about half of the kids on its waiting list. And many families are too wealthy to even get on that list, but much too poor to afford child care. Culpeper has the only in-patient public drug-treatment center in a 28-county area, but no halfway house to follow up on that treatment. It also has no Big-Brothers-Big-Sisters type program.

Housing costs in Culpeper have sky-rocketed, as it has become a bedroom community for people used to paying higher prices. Many of the county supervisors are opposed to allowing the Department of Social Services to apply for housing vouchers to assist people with full-time jobs in finding housing. DSS has also been working on a program to provide fully employed people with cheap cars at no-interest loans, but that hasn’t gotten off the ground yet.

As has happened in many Virginia counties, the court house and offices in Culpeper have become overcrowded, and the board of supervisors (in good Small-government form) is purchasing land and planning a relocation out of town, which will be followed by an exodus of lawyers and other services out of town. In Fauquier and Manassas and across the country, court-case loads have been reduced by resolution-dispute and mediation programs. One supervisor candidate, Republican incumbent Carolyn Smith, is pushing these programs in Culpeper. But the courts have yet to accept them. The schools have yet to accept peer mediation, which works successfully in Fauquier.

Fauquier County also pays county employees much higher salaries. If Culpeper (Town or County) ever raises its salaries, it will be in order to compete with the surrounding area. This seems unlikely to happen anytime soon. The city of Charlottesville recently raised its employees to a minimum of $8 per hour in response to a living-wage campaign at the University of Virginia which has yet to succeed for university employees.

One Culpeper newspaper, the Culpeper News (for which I work), runs two editorials every week, one by any number of conservative writers, the other by an elderly gentleman labeled “The Incorrigible Liberal.” It’s heartening to know that not all liberals are corrigible. So there’s always hope, and as long as that hope remains there will be a target for opposition to socialism.
31 October 1999

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