No Ordinary Candidate
It is not my usual practice as a journalist to reach into other counties and extol the virtues of local candidates for office. Caroline has certainly had its share of not so well meaning people from the outside, who did not have a clue about county dynamics or even a basic understanding of local needs and issues.
There have been those who attempted to influence the political climate here, with motives originating in a personal agenda, seeking to use Caroline as a tool to manipulate a rise to power in the state. No one is wiser to such an agenda, and to those who don’t speak the language here, than smart country people on both sides of the political spectrum who can spot a fake friend in a heartbeat, and know just how to “send ’em packing.”
Before a primary, I also make it a practice not to write about candidates in general for a number of reasons. Certainly one of these reasons is that it has become the norm for many candidates to present themselves so poorly.
Over the years, I have developed a particular annoyance and lack of sympathy for two situations that our Republicans seem to find themselves facing, after they have declared their intent. The first is a complete lack of even a rudimentary knowledge of the office they are running to obtain. I call it, “I woke up one morning and thought I should be a Senator.” Whatever happened to the old fashioned idea of working your way up the ladder, so you actually understand and have experience in the relationships and duties of Virginia governance?
It’s so much fun to call a newly minted Senator in the General Assembly to discuss the proffer bill, and the hardships it places on the citizens of my county only to find out he has no clue what a proffer or even zoning actually is, but will vote for said bill anyway. True story.
The other thing that baffles me with our candidates is the written record. Candidates get all indignant when you discover their real voting record, public statements, and decisions. They are offended when we find they were not quite as conservative or even as smart as their new platform reports, and instead of owning up to it and communicating why they took a certain stand, they prefer to say it never happened.
Why would I want to vote for someone who has instantly reinvented themselves and thinks I’m too stupid to notice or, worse, wasn’t aware that when you run for office, all this stuff comes out. This includes personal details as well. News flash: even before you are officially certified as a candidate, your life is an open book. If you planned on running for office and doing the job people elected you to do, could you have considered your professional and personal history a bit sooner?
In discussions with colleagues, I wax on quite a bit about why good people can’t run for office, no matter how trite it sounds. Forgive me, but yes I want my candidates to be honest, caring, and upstanding men and women without weird, complicated secret lives and decisions that make them look like paranoid split personalities. Great people are out there, but are sadly not drawn to public office.
With that said, this particular year I have to make a HUGE exception and plan to extol away and also give kudos to Henrico County for the “home growing” of a stellar young candidate who may very well be the future creator of conservative policy on all levels. I don’t use the term “future of our party,” because he has a rare quality that transcends partisan politics as he talks about his love for his county, and about actual pro-active solutions which benefit everyone.
I’ll also add that these extra-ordinary qualities in a candidate catching my attention are not lessons one can be taught in a seminar, but are a part of an upbringing that went out of style some time ago. In Caroline, we would use the term, “raised right.” If Henrico is wise enough to elect this candidate, you may be witnessing the beginnings of the makings of a statewide candidate for the future who won’t have to worry so much about percentages in a purple state to win. He appeals to anyone who meets and talks with him.
For this year’s local race though, miracle of miracles, this candidate understands that for county government to hold the line on taxing its citizens, keep them safe, and provide great schools, it has to champion and be mindful of the environment which provides the incentive that fuels the machine called business. Without the business machine, the burden of all citizen services falls on those citizens. That he understands the balance that must be achieved to make business feel welcome is incredible in and of itself.
This candidate’s name is Ben Dessart, and he is running for the Republican nomination for Brookland District Supervisor on June 13th.
The Henrico primary has also captured my attention because of “policy” which is the most overlooked animal in Virginia politics at any level. Let me say right now, it is not my intention to down the other two candidates at all who look like nice guys and acceptable, respectable candidates who have the usual broad, appropriate, conservative watch words on their web sites.
Nor is it my intention to be an expert on issues in Henrico County. My intention is to tell you that after a decade of answering the phone in a busy, local supervisor’s office and writing releases, condensing board meetings into citizen newsletters, and helping to steer constituents to the right entity for help, I see a candidate who is extraordinary in his understanding of how this all works. I see a candidate who has solutions and is willing to put them out there.
Note the operative word: solutions. While a plethora of candidates wax on and on about what’s wrong in their neck of the woods, and make sweeping statements about making it better, how many tell you how they will do it?
As I have explained, I’m pretty jaded and a hard sell when it comes to a new face, and I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not well connected to our new millennials although I had been hearing and seeing really good things.
In response to the considerable buzz on Ben Dessart, I approached several friends in Henrico who I respect, and actually asked what the story was. My experience with candidates for local office is that they pop up and rarely have ever even attended a board meeting in the county where they live and are seeking office.
Not so with Ben, they assured me, and added that this is the real deal, and challenged me to contact Ben directly.
Ben has an impressive resume, but that still does not completely set him apart from the crowd. He had his first job at 14 as a fiber optic technician for a small business in Brookland. He received his BA in Politics and History from the University of Virginia, and recently received his Juris Doctor from the University of Richmond’s T.C. Williams Law School. He has also served as a legislative assistant in the Virginia General Assembly, and works now as a contractor at Altria, a Fortune 500 Company in Henrico.
One of the first things I learned researching Ben, even before sending him my test questions, was that he did attend local board meetings, observing the process that goes on there and the issues that are discussed in Henrico. While that’s heads above most would-be supervisors, did he understand what was happening there? Hundreds of issues, from trash collection to dog ordinances to funding for school buses and police cars, to safe drinking water and opiod addiction, cross the desks of the local Board of Supervisors.
Long story short, I sent Ben my version of the third degree and one of the biggest concerns in the way of questions on local government which is a monster called the budget. My jaw hit the desk when I got his answers, and I’ll add he was in the process of taking exams and graduating from law school in the middle of my inquiries.
On education, Ben well understood the make or break relationship between the school board and BOS, and already had the endorsement of the Brookland member of the Henrico County School Board.
He also demonstrated a complete understanding of the overall Henrico County budget and how it works. Below is a part of what he wrote in response to my question about a shift in revenue which would result in a lowering of the threshold on BPOL, with a goal to stimulate business.
I’ll point out that politicians will very often tell you how they are going to alter a tax which provides a local revenue stream, but almost never tell you in the future how they will replace it. Ben already had a plan, and his understanding of how property value affects the tax base is, well … extraordinary. I know supervisors who have been in office 20 years who don’t get this. Ben answered:
“The property values in Henrico have stabilized since the recession in 2008, and increased in FY2016 for the first time in five years. The increased revenue from the real estate tax (which remains the lowest of any large-urban county in Virginia) is expected to out perform the loss of revenue from this tax exemption.
“Additionally, looking at the long-term, these are the kind of policies that help jumpstart new businesses and grow the existing ones by allowing them to reinvest in their business. As a result, we create an environment where everyone wins, especially those living in Brookland.“
Another thing that impressed me about Ben was that he was already plugged into issues which today affect just about every community in Virginia. He is looking at an expanded public/private partnership to help alleviate the opiod addition. In Caroline, our supervisors have recently added to the monies allotted to the McShinn Foundation, a successful drug rehabilitation organization which is saving localities thousands of dollars in jail costs and moving people from addiction back to normal lives.
Ben’s answer on all this also reflects his positive and engaging approach in regard to one of his opponents who presently sits on the local Board of Supervisors and his admiration for the work done in Henrico governance in the past.
This guy isn’t going to bash his prospective colleagues to get elected. Here is what he said:
“Just last week, I attended the Brookland District Town Hall on opioid abuse in Henrico County. Most in the county believe the opioid crisis is confined to the hills of western Virginia, but the scary reality is that it’s right in our backyard. Every week, one person dies from an opioid overdose in Henrico County, and the cross-section of I-95 and I-64 that has provided us with the blessing of economic growth also comes as gateway for drugs to enter our community.
“For years, the McShinn Foundation has worked to rehabilitate those who have fallen into the world of opioid abuse, an effort that is often forgotten, if not ignored, by our local governments. However, their partnership with other localities has saved many dollars by keeping people out of jail and on the path to recovery. Henrico can, and ought, to do more to work alongside organizations like the McShinn Foundation.
“I am proud of Henrico’s longstanding tradition of fiscal responsibility. We have a AAA Bond Rating from all three agencies and are always looking for new ways to keep money where it belongs, in the pockets of families and businesses. The Board of Supervisors has, very effectively, worked with organizations that can provide services such as these at a lower cost. With the opioid crisis on the rise in Henrico, I believe it’s time for the county to re-examine the benefit organizations like the McShinn Foundation has to offer.”
The most important question I saved for last, and was the one which resonated with me the most. In fact, his sincerity and whole tone would resonant with any locality he chose to run in, and with any group of people he delivered his message to — Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, or Independent.
Here was the 54 dollar question, and I pressed it several times and in different ways on more than one occasion. Why on earth would you, and in particular a young person with so many other opportunities, want to do this? Unlike the General Assembly, there is little insulation from the public in local government. You can open your front door on any given day to find a constituent standing on your doorstep. While Henrico is a big place, you will still be meeting people in the grocery store, at church, and at events political or otherwise who want to complain or talk it over. Here was his answer:
“I just grew up being taught that you give back to your community and that this is the right thing to do. Whether it was NHS President in High School, Boy Scouts, Alpha Phi Omega Service Fraternity at UVA, or politics, it’s really all I’ve been doing and want to do it as much as I can. This just seems like the next step.”
I then asked him to be more specific, and I’ll admit as the daughter of the local scout master for many years and the wife of the supervisor who spends all day when it snows on his tractor pushing snow for our town elderly, I knew I had chosen to cover the right candidate, one with a servant’s heart for people. Here is what he said:
“The Boy Scouts of America was one big factor that made me who I am. I’m more proud of being an Eagle Scout than my Juris Doctor. Another thing I want to add is that my parents influenced me a lot. Whenever it snowed, my father taught me to go clear the snow from my neighbors’ driveways. When someone dies, you make a meal or cut their grass. I think I carried that with me to this day, and think that’s exactly what a supervisor ought to be doing.”
You’re so right Ben. These are the qualities and, yes, the skills that great local elected officials can bring to the table, the one-on-one connections and relationships only those engaged in their community can provide. The neighbor that you shovel snow for doesn’t care what party you belong to that day, but on another day, he is more than likely to remember your kindness and trust you when you approach him to talk over issues and give advice on, say, who to vote for in the Governor’s race.
Here is the final part of our interview and really says it all:
“This is simple. Henrico is my home. I’m a product of the public schools, I worship at St. Michael’s, and it’s where I work today. I owe this county and community for every success in my life, and I am looking to give back where I can. I am running to ensure the next generation is afforded the same opportunities I was by growing up here, and more.
“Just as important, local government is where the real work gets done. After all, zoning decisions directly impact your home, and school board decisions change how your children are taught. As conservatives, we understand the importance of local government in making these decisions. It is not a faceless politician, but a member of the community, a neighbor, who is intimately involved in the circumstances and specifically impacted by the result that is ultimately in charge of making the decision.
“Over the years, I have attended Board meetings because they impact my family, friends, and neighbors. While the state and federal government often get the attention in the press, it’s the public servants on the local level that are ensuring Henrico remains an incredible place to live and work. I’m not running to get recognition or a title before my name. I’m running to keep my home going down the right path.”
So Brookland District in Henrico County, good on you. You have an extra-ordinary opportunity in this day and time for your choice of supervisor. You have a candidate who has inherent corporate knowledge of the workings of your government, is versed in your issues, is a planner with solutions who delivers them in a positive message, is young, hardworking, and brings a fresh perspective. Most importantly, he has a huge heart for the citizens of your county.