Sessoms’ Resignation Gives Beach GOP a Chance to Apply a Lesson Learned

With the retirement of Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms after nearly three decades of public service, it seems appropriate to look back and learn some lessons.

In the case of Sessoms, at least for conservatives, it’s a strong lesson that a party “free for all” in a general election with partisan overtones is probably not a wise move.

Republicans, eager to defeat longtime incumbent Mayor Meyera Oberndorf, had three candidates running in the 2008 cycle. It was the city’s first test of shifting local elections, once the domain of May, alongside the federal one in November.

The challengers were Sessoms, a former city councilmember and vice mayor who openly claimed his long “affiliation” with the Republican Party. Proudly Republican Councilman John Moss. And a new voice on the scene, now-U.S. Rep. Scott Taylor.

In retrospect, the lack of a formal endorsement by the GOP, wanting to keep up the appearance “non-partisan elections” created divisions in the party that are still felt today. And the lack of party-backing led to loyalist confusion that resulted in ultimately backing the longtime public servant, Sessoms.

Oberndorf had no qualms bringing partisanship into the race. She formally endorsed and received the endorsement of her party’s presidential nominee: U.S. Sen. Barack Obama.

In a twist, a “trickster” had fliers made up for Election Day featuring Obama and Sessoms. The move backfired because instead of creating questions of Sessoms’ conservative bona fides, it might have solidified him as the “true” Republican in the race in the eyes of voters and the alternative to Oberndorf among the plurality.

I stand by what I said then to The Virginian-Pilot: “Republican voters are going to have a difficult time choosing between mayoral candidates this election because Sessoms, Moss, and Taylor all are running under the party’s banner…. The city’s Republican Party should have endorsed one candidate.”

It was confusing then. Even worse, it resulted in a mayor who was unable to ever be the Republican standard bearer and unifying force so needed for conservatives in Virginia’s largest city over the past decade.

Instead, Sessoms’ tenure has been marred by political division, policy meanderings and public investigations that tarnished any ability to reflect positively on the GOP.

Whether it was Sessoms’ joining the party in 2011 only to be removed (by rule) after endorsing Democrat Gov. Terry McAuliffe in 2013, supporting boondoggles like light rail or having his public votes scrutinized for impropriety, all the potential goodwill for conservatives that could have come from his win in 2008 quickly evaporated.

Now Virginia Beach Republicans have a similar dilemma. Will they learn their lesson and unite behind a candidate or will the campaign devolve into a squabble that fails to bring unity to a community that desperately needs it?

It would appear that the stars might be aligning for City Councilmember Bobby Dyer, who represents the Centerville District, who has announced his candidacy. State Del. Glenn Davis, a former city councilmember, stated his intent not to run are any indication. Linwood Branch, a former member of the Virginia Beach City Council, is in the running, with the support of Sessoms. As of this writing, others are rumored but not announced.

Dyer’s campaign is sure to please conservatives who have felt the city is an ATM of taxpayer handouts for the well-connected. Dyer sees the city at a crossroads with economic challenges and wants to move the city away from a “culture of arrogance.” He promises to promote a free market approach to city government, where winners are not determined by government edict – and who they know – but by fair competition.

And Davis, who politely acknowledged Sessoms’ “leadership and commitment” in his statement, explained he decided not to seek the mayor’s job so he could continue to “grow economic opportunities” through mitigating tax and regulatory burdens on small business through his work in a very-closely divided Virginia House of Delegates where every vote, including his, counts.

Other candidates for mayor seeking to be the conservative choice could possibly emerge to challenge Dyer in the coming weeks. And this column is certainly not an endorsement of Dyer.But it will be wise for conservatives to find their candidate early and be supportive all the way, especially if they truly want the next decade in Virginia Beach to be one that actually promotes conservative values – and elects more conservatives to office.

This column appears in The Princess Anne Independent.