Field set for Nov. 8 county elections
Henrico voters won’t have many choices to make in this year’s county elections, but the lack of competition in most local races will be countered by a wealth of it in three.
The races for the Henrico Commonwealth’s Attorney’s seat, the Varina seat on the Board of Supervisors and the Brookland seat on the School Board each feature three candidates, and five candidates are seeking spots on the Henricopolis Soil and Water Conservation District board. None of the other candidates for the Board of Supervisors or School Board face any challengers. Sheriff Mike Wade also is running unopposed.
The high-profile Commonwealth’s Attorney’s race became more crowded with the late entry of Democrat Shannon Taylor to the field. She joins Republican Matt Geary – who earned his party’s nomination and then refused to give it back when party leaders requested he do so, following his admission of an extramarital affair – and Virginia Delegate Bill Janis, a Republican in the House of Delegates who will run as an independent.
In the Varina District, five-term supervisor Jim Donati will face competition from Tyrone Nelson, the pastor of the Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church in Richmond who finished second in a three-way race for the Varina seat on the School Board in 2007; and from Reese Haller, a retired Henrico Police sergeant who also challenged Donati in 2007.
Three candidates – Beverly Cocke, Herbert Dunford, Jr. and Darrell Jenkins – are seeking the Brookland School Board seat, which is being vacated by two-term board member Linda McBride.
Robert Brewster, II, Nicole Anderson Ellis, John Ficklin, Gilbert Miles, Jr. and Lynn Wilson are seeking spots on the Henricopolis Soil and Water Conservation District Board. Brewster is the only incumbent.
School Board, Brookland District
Cocke, Dunford and Jenkins all told the Citizen that they opted to seek the Brookland School Board seat in part because friends and acquaintances in the community encouraged them to do so. The fact that McBride, a two-term board member, opted not to seek re-election made their decisions a bit easier.
Cocke is a longtime PTA volunteer at Brookland District Schools who served as PTA president at Moody Middle once and PTSA president twice at Hermitage High. She also has served on the Historic Preservation Advisory Committee (HPAC) since 1999 and on the Henrico Christmas Mother Council since 1997, but it was her involvement as a volunteer for the massive school redistricting process several years ago that got her thinking about a possible School Board run.
"We spent over 100 hours working on that plan," she said. "That was a turning point for me to see that possibly I could help even outside of the Brookland District."
Cocke said she would advocate for manageable class sizes, health and safe school environments and the increased utilization of public-private partnerships in schools to help fund programs that face budget cuts. She helped foster one such partnership at Hermitage that allowed the PTA to restore a prom night party for students.
Her promise to constituents if elected, she said, would be "the three As – able, accountable and accessible." While applauding the work of the current board, Cocke said there are still areas that need improvement.
"If Chesterfield County can have a 96 percent graduation rates, then we can certainly improve from 90 percent," she said.
As a member of HPAC, Cocke worked to create the Henrico Historical Awareness Project with the school system, which instituted a Henrico history segment into fourth- and fifth-grade education. Fifth-graders now take an entire section of county history.
Cocke is a fifth-generation resident of the Brookland District whose grandfather, E.Q. Hunter, served on the Henrico School Board in the early 1930s when it hired George Moody as superintendent. She and her husband have four children, the youngest of which will be a senior at Hermitage this year.
"Nobody knows this district like I do, and nobody has worked for these children the way I have," she said.
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Dunford, an administrative official for Martin's (formerly Ukrop's) for more than 30 years, has served on the Henricopolis Soil and Water Conservation District Board for the past quarter-century and as chairman of the board for 17 years.
In that capacity, he has worked to implement various educational programs in Henrico schools related to Earth Day, Arbor Day and other environmental issues. He helped created a scholarship fund for high school seniors fund from a successful HSWCD project eight years ago that has since contributed more than $17,000 to students.
He said he hadn't considered the idea of seeking a School Board seat until sitting at his niece's graduation from J.R. Tucker this summer and wondering, "What can we do to make things even better for our students?"
Dunford's experience managing the budget of the HSWCD for years would prove invaluable were he to join the School Board, he said.
"I think that gives me a little more insight on things that need to be dealt with on the School Board," he said.
While talking with Brookland District residents recently, Dunford said he's been surprised by how many he's met homeschool their children.
"Some folks pulled their kids out because they are just frustrated with what they see in schools," he said. "Henrico County's got a good school system, but like anything else there's always room for improvement."
Dunford said he would work to ensure students have safe learning environments in schools. He also said he'd try to involve the community in the school system – even those who didn't have students in schools.
"I'd love to see Henrico County Public Schools get more seniors involved as a support group in the schools," he said. "We have such a vast group and talented group of seniors in this county, very diverse, from different vocational backgrounds."
Dunford, who serves with Cocke on HPAC, praised both his opponents. He said his service on the HSWCD – which pays an annual salary of $0 – and his attempt to win a School Board seat are his attempt to give back to the community where he's lived his entire life.
"You do it out of your passion for civic duty," he said.
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Jenkins spent his entire career as a teacher, administrator and coach in the Henrico County Public School system, first as a health and physical education teacher at Hermitage (later Moody) Middle School before moving on to Henrico High School for seven years, Hermitage High for 13 years and Deep Run High for six years.
At Hermitage, Jenkins was the varsity basketball coach and eventually served as the health and physical education department chair, a position that he said helped him gain experience as a leader and decision-maker. When Deep Run H.S. opened in 2002, Jenkins was hired as its director of student activities, a position he held until his retirement three years ago.
"I was actively involved with the community [at Deep Run]," Jenkins said. "The dealings that I had working with parents – not only when they were excited about what was going on but when they had concerns about what was going on – those types of relationships prepare me to work in a leadership role."
As a School Board member, Jenkins said his philosophy would be simple: Keep the focus on teachers and students. He said he'd make attracting and retaining quality teachers and administrators a top priority by working to provide the best pay and incentives in the region for them.
"You have to give those teachers the full support and make sure those teachers feel that support," he said.
He expressed some concerns about the impact of Standards of Learning tests and vowed to ensure that teachers didn't feel the need to simply drill students for standardized tests but rather worked to teach students 21st century skills.
Jenkins said that his own experiences in middle school and high school classrooms, coupled with those of his wife, Melinda (a longtime elementary school teacher and current elementary math specialist in the county) have helped him gain a complete understanding of the challenges and opportunities that exist at all three levels.
"This is going to be a competitive race," he said. "There are three good candidates for the position."
Board of Supervisors, Varina District
Donati, first elected to office in 1991, is seeking his sixth term as Varina supervisor. He has overseen a period of growth in the vast district, which welcomed a new shopping center (The Shops at White Oak Village) and has seen additional pockets of residential construction in the past four years. Funding for a new Varina Library, which was approved by voters in a 2005 bond referendum, was part of a $73.5 bond issuance late last month.
A priority for many in the district has been the opening of a new high school in Sandston, which has been delayed in years past because funding was not available. Nelson said he would make the construction of the school his top priority if elected and also would seek to move the East End landfill out of the district. While a large portion of the 2005 bond referendum was set aside for projects in Varina, residents are tired of waiting to see tangible evidence of progress, he said.
“It has to be more than just numbers on a page,” Nelson said. “The Varina residents I talk to, they want to see more happen for their district.”
An across-the-board comparison of facilities in the Varina District and those in other districts, he said, prove their point.
“You can look at the schools, but it’s not just the schools,” he said. “Look at the libraries – no comparison. We still have to travel out of Eastern Henrico to go to a bookstore or a big gym.”
“I’m running because I’ve been encouraged to run by residents of Varina. People are calling for a change. If we win, then we listen to the people. If we lose, then hopefully the conversation will guide the winner.”
Haller, who pledged four years ago to seek election again, said he was determined to live up to that promise and continue to offer voters in the district another choice. He said many residents of the district continue to perceive it as being treated as a second-class citizen of the county.
“That perception exists, and in the minds of the people who have that perception, it’s reality,” Haller said.
Furthering that perception, he said, is the fact that six of the nine public schools in Henrico designated as “hard to staff” by the state are located in the Varina District.
“I can’t help but believe that we’ve got a systematic problem somewhere to have six of the nine schools be in one district,” he said. “It’s a School Board issue, but more than that, it’s a community issue.”
Haller said that while Henrico’s Board of Supervisors, which has served four terms in office as a unit, has performed admirably, it’s time for some change.
“If you don’t start having some change, then you’re going to end up with widespread change,” he said. “You’re going to end up going from five experienced supervisors to none when they all decide to retire at the same time.”
As recently as several weeks ago, Republican Matt Geary, a former Richmond prosecutor, seemed to have the commonwealth’s attorney race to himself. Geary had announced for the position in 2009 and had raised a significant chest of campaign funds from dozens of prominent Republicans.
Geary, a criminal defense attorney, spent three years as the chief deputy commonwealth’s attorney in Richmond from 2006 to 2009. He also teaches as an adjunct law professor at the University of Richmond’s T.C. Williams School of Law and served as the special counsel to the Courts of Justice Committee for the Virginia House of Delegates.
After Geary had earned his party’s nomination, however, party officials (seemingly upset about an extramarital affair to which he had admitted) demanded that he renounce the nomination. Geary refused and has continued as the party’s candidate.
Now the race is a crowded one, with the late additions of Virginia Delegate Bill Janis, a Republican in the House who will run as an independent, and Democrat Shannon Taylor, also a former Richmond prosecutor.
Janis, who served 10 years in the House and exits as the majority whip, said that his decision to run came about quickly.
“A month before the announcement, I was supporting the other guy,” he said. “But in July, I had people calling and urging me to run. We reached a point where I said, I am the best qualified person.”
Janis, who has earned the support of a number of elected Henrico Republicans, said his experience as a defense attorney and his work in the House – where he once chaired the subcommittee on Judicial Systems and served as the vice chair of the Virginia Code Commission – would serve him well as commonwealth’s attorney. Janis also operates his own private legal practice in Henrico.
“That breadth of experience is going to be a tremendous value not only to those within the office but also the citizens of Henrico,” he said.”
Taylor’s decision to enter the race also was influenced by the Republican Party’s strife, she said. Running “was always in the back of my mind,” she said, “but with the inner fighting in the Republican Party, there were certain concerned citizens who approached me.”
Taylor’s lengthy list of experience – 12 as a prosecutor, including eight in the commonwealth’s attorney in Richmond and work as a special counsel for the metro region’s multijurisdictional grand jury – makes her the best choice for the job, she said. She has been designated as a special assistant U.S. attorney twice, worked with DEA, FBI, ATF officials and developed relationships with local, state and federal officials through her work.
“I can’t say that I’ve done absolutely everything,” she said, “but I’ve done almost everything. I’ve been working to achieve the reputation of being a hard worker and one who worked with the police.”
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Citizen Staff Reports 04/25/2016
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