By Samantha Yates
Incumbent Mary Harvey-Halseth was defeated Tuesday in a four-way race for three Lexington City Council seats.
Harvey-Halseth, who also ran for mayor two years ago, lost by 94 votes behind the third-place winner, VMI professor Patrick Rhamey. The other two winners were incumbent Chuck Smith and newcomer David Sigler, a Washington & Lee alumnus who works at VMI in the athletic department.
In a race in which voters could vote for up to three, Smith won the largest number of votes – 1,043. Sigler won the second largest number of votes – 916 – and Rhamey got 793. Harvey-Halseth garnered 699 votes.
The terms of three current City Council Members are for four years, in staggered terms with the other three members of the council. Council Member George Pryde, whose term ends Dec. 31, did not run for reelection.
Both incumbent candidates are finishing their first four-year term on council.
Before Tuesday, Harvey-Halseth expected to be re-elected. “I think people know me,” she said last week. “I’ve been involved in local government for 22 years. It’s not that I’m not worried… but as long as I keep plugging at what my job is—to represent the people—I think they’ll re-elect me.”
Before she was elected to City Council, Harvey-Halseth served on the planning commission, the board of zoning appeals and the Rockbridge Area Youth Task Force, among other posts.
Smith was also happy to run on his record. “I think as long as things are running satisfactorily, incumbents have maybe a leg up on the challengers,” he said.
Leading up to the election, Sigler said he felt extra pressure as one of the new guys.
“Name recognition is pretty important, and people in Lexington want to know who they’re voting for,” Sigler said. “So I’m at a disadvantage in that my signs haven’t been up previously … I think I’m definitely an underdog, but that’s okay. Everyone starts sometime.”
Rhamey, who teaches political science in international studies, said the incumbents had a slight advantage because people knew who they were and because they were familiar with the system.
“They can give more detailed responses to questions because they were in the room when the decision was made,” Rhamey said. “And that can make them sound more knowledgeable about an issue if they know the minutiae.”
All four candidates put up signs, knocked on doors, talked to people on the streets and attended candidate forums.
But Smith, as he did four years ago, took a different approach to campaign signs. His kids made his.
“The homemade signs got the kids involved and shows I think a different side of somebody who’s interested in public service, public office,” Smith said.
Smith said he got the idea from a candidate in a nearby town. He called it a response to how much spending goes into election campaigns on a national level.
The candidates all said they were concerned about the same major issues that Lexington faces: infrastructure, real-estate taxes and balancing the city budget.
“In fact, you can take the four of us and there’s not a lot of disagreement on the issues. It’s more about how you get there,” Rhamey said. “It’s a matter of focus and prioritizing the things that need to get done around town.”
Rhamey said many good ideas come before City Council. But he said he hopes to use his political science background to help council make smarter decisions.
Each candidate also had his own new ideas for the city.
Sigler had been looking to other localities and successful college towns for ideas he’d like to adopt in Lexington. He wants to have a loyalty card designed for W&L and VMI students that gives them discounts downtown.
“Eat 10 meals locally at any of the restaurants and get a $10 gift card or discount,” Sigler said. “I think W&L and VMI students would eat that up.”
Sigler said Chapel Hill, N.C., has developed such a system. He said he thinks it will encourage college students here to shop downtown and benefit local businesses.
Smith, who is on the local tourism board, is working on a program that will most likely be called “Rockbridge Outside.”
“The idea of the program is to showcase and broadcast the high quality of life opportunities that we have here to attract tourists, to attract people that want to move here, that attract businesses,” Smith said. “Happy employees are a good thing to have.”
Rhamey said he is “anti-projects” because everybody has one and they never get done, or they get done instead of something more important. But he would like to improve the town-gown relations in Lexington, especially with W&L third-years apparently destined to live on campus in the near future. That proposal is awaiting approval by both Lexington City Council and the county Board of Supervisors.
“For both safety reasons and just a broader quality of our community, I think we need to be less divisive,” Rhamey said. “W&L kids are part of the town that need to be treated as part of the town, and we need to stop acting like it’s some separate issue. That’ll make everybody better off.”