Downtown Democratic headquarters to serve as community center

By Faith E. Pinho

A horse by any other name is just a horse, the old saying goes. But according to local Democrats, a donkey by another name is a community center.

As of the Nov. 7 elections, local Democrats decided to pool together donations to keep the doors of their Lexington headquarters open for the entire year.

Michelle Watkins and Christian Worth, two members of the Rockbridge County Democratic Committee, have pledged money to keep the doors of the Democratic headquarters open year round. Worth says it will cost $17.76 a day –or almost $6,500 a year-to keep the place open. Photos by Faith E. Pinho

Michelle Watkins, member of the Rockbridge County Democratic Committee, said they wanted to “resourcefully utilize the space to at least bridge things into next fall” for next year’s election. “At the same time, being able to give back to the community doing that – that just made sense to me.”

Typically, party headquarters shut down as soon as the elections is over, as the Republican space on Main Street did. But Watkins said Lexington Democrats have always wanted to stay open and this is the first year they have. The group will continue to rent space on South Jefferson Street next door to Goodhart’s Second-Hand Shop.

The vision for a community center began weeks before Democrats swept statewide races and unseated 15 Republicans in the Virginia House of Delegates. Watkins, who is in the running to chair the Democratic committee next year, said the idea for a community center began to take shape in mid-October, when committee members pledged money to continue paying for the Jefferson Street space.

The cost of rent and utilities amounts to about $6,500 for the year, according to Christian Worth, another Democratic committee member. Ten donors have committed to paying rent until the budget kicks in next fall.

“It’s been nice to see the energy that this is developing for people to really want to hop on the bandwagon,” Watkins said. “A lot of people want to give back to our community, they just don’t know how. And we’re hoping that this can be a mechanism they can use to do that.”

One potential problem the Democratic members foresee in turning a political party space into a community center is branding. While the center is for everyone, Watkins said, the idea of walking into Democratic headquarters could be a turn-off for some.

“For some people, that may be awkward or uncomfortable,” Watkins said. “And what we’re trying hopefully to convey to them and demonstrate through our actions is, whatever your position may be politically, you’re always welcome here.”

Julio Leon, a first-year student at Washington and Lee University, is one of the ESOL tutors volunteering his time at the Democratic Headquarters on Tuesday nights.

Democratic committee members are hoping to draw the community in with two pilot programs: English for Speakers of Other Languages tutoring and help with enrolling in the Affordable Care Act. Local insurance agents have offered their time to guide people through the process of signing up for healthcare.

The language tutoring is in collaboration with Washington and Lee University’s ESOL. College student tutors hold office hours at the Democratic committee headquarters on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings.

Ellen Mayock, professor of Spanish and ESOL faculty advisor at Washington and Lee University, said that the ESOL group was looking for ways to bolster their programming when the opportunity to join with the Democratic committee arose.

“Even as far back as 2004, I remember talking to some of our ESOL leaders and saying, ‘Wouldn’t it be fantastic if we just had a tiny little office in town?’” Mayock said. “And so this allows us a way in without having to pay rent.”

Christian Worth, a member of the local Democratic committee, said the group held a brainstorming session a couple weeks ago for programming ideas.

Democratic committee members are still deciding which direction to take the community center, though they are adamant that any programs must be free. Along one wall of the Jefferson Street building hang poster-size sheets of paper filled with ideas for future offerings and events. Included on the list are political and non-political items alike, from candidate debates to community game nights.

With the holidays underway, Worth says efforts for the community center will begin afresh with programming in January.

“We’re gearing up to gear down right now,” Worth said. “Stay tuned.”