A bat­tle over 10 votes builds po­lit­i­cal ten­sion

Re­count is in­stru­men­tal in de­cid­ing con­trol of Va. House of Del­e­gates

The Washington Post - - METRO - BY FENIT NIRAPPIL

new­port news — It was “Take Your State Leg­is­la­tor to School Day” in this coastal Vir­ginia city. And two of them showed up.

Del. David Yancey, a Repub­li­can who has rep­re­sented the district that in­cludes Her­itage High School since 2012, barely won re­elec­tion last month, ek­ing out a vic­tory with a mar­gin of just 10 votes. He passed out his General Assem­bly busi­ness cards to stu­dents in a med­i­cal skills class.

But his Demo­cratic challenger, lo­cal school board mem­ber Shelly Si­monds, hasn’t given up and also ap­peared at last week’s event. Si­monds watched teenagers in­ves­ti­gate a fake crime scene in a room down the hall. She re­quested a re­count, which the state will con­duct Dec. 19.

The ri­vals barely ac­knowl­edged each other, save for an awk­ward hello as the three-hour tour wrapped up.

Ten­sion in Vir­ginia po­lit­i­cal cir­cles is build­ing as of­fi­cials pre­pare for a re­count that could de­ter­mine whether Repub­li­cans hold their 51-to-49 ma­jor­ity in the House of Del­e­gates or if Democrats are able to claim Yancey’s seat and cre­ate a rare tie in the lower cham­ber.

Repub­li­cans headed into the Nov. 7 elec­tions with an over­whelm­ing 66-seat ma­jor­ity in the 100-mem­ber House. But a blue wave that pro­pelled Demo­crat Ralph Northam to the gov­er­nor’s man­sion also de­creased House GOP ranks.

If Si­monds wins the re­count, it

will split con­trol of the cham­ber and force Repub­li­cans and Democrats to ne­go­ti­ate an awk­ward power-shar­ing agree­ment, in which they’ll have to de­cide who will chair var­i­ous com­mit­tees, set the leg­isla­tive agenda and serve as speaker.

Re­sults from three other House races are also be­ing chal­lenged. Two were won by Repub­li­cans, in­clud­ing one race in which more than 100 vot­ers were given the wrong bal­lot. In the third case, a Demo­crat won and the Repub­li­can con­ceded be­fore de­cid­ing last week to seek a re­count.

But none are as ra­zor-close as the con­test be­tween Yancey and Si­monds.

A race that had fo­cused on lo­cal is­sues, such as the fu­ture of a river­front prop­erty and school test scores, has now mor­phed into a high-stakes bat­tle that could de­ter­mine the prospects of Med­i­caid ex­pan­sion, gun con­trol and other high-pro­file statewide is­sues.

“I want to win this thing so I can be the hero and save the day,” said Si­monds, who has been at­tend­ing ori­en­ta­tion ses­sions for new law­mak­ers. “I do want des­per­ately to win so we can ac­com­plish goals like pre­vent­ing gun vi­o­lence and pro­tect­ing the en­vi­ron­ment and giv­ing teach­ers pay raises.”

Still, Si­monds is wary about ex­pect­ing too much. “I feel the pres­sure,” she said. “But I’m also aware of the cy­cles of elec­tions and the long run, and I’m con­fi­dent we’re go­ing to get there whether it’s this year . . . or in 2019 when peo­ple get out to vote again.”

As Yancey watched stu­dents mea­sure blood pres­sure as part of a show­case of ca­reer-readi­ness pro­grams, he joked that his should be through the roof. A nor­mally jovial law­maker and high school rugby coach, he tensed up when asked about the com­ing re­count.

“Right now, I’m let­ting the process work it­self out,” he told The Wash­ing­ton Post as he walked out of the school. “At this time, I’d like to just do my of­fi­cial duty and en­gage on top­ics like ed­u­ca­tion.”

In a fol­low-up in­ter­view, his for­mer cam­paign man­ager said she’s con­fi­dent that the re­sults will hold.

“The rest of Rich­mond has moved on and are treat­ing him as the 51st del­e­gate and have asked him to spon­sor leg­is­la­tion,” said Gretchen Heal, who is also Yancey’s leg­isla­tive aide. “He’s the win­ner in ev­ery­one’s minds so far.” Si­monds is not as cer­tain. “It’s go­ing to be a toss-up,” she said. “Just like this district.”

Seem­ingly, the fa­vorite

The 94th District is one of three cross­ing New­port News, made up of ex­pen­sive homes dot­ting the coast line, mod­est in­land neigh­bor­hoods near strip malls and the Christopher New­port Univer­sity cam­pus. With nearby ship­yards, naval sta­tions and a joint Army and Air Force base, the lo­cal econ­omy is closely tied to the mil­i­tary.

Democrats have car­ried the district in statewide and pres­i­den­tial races, but Yancey, a 45year-old real es­tate de­vel­oper, has won in low-turnout, off-year elec­tions. He seemed to be the fa­vorite again af­ter his first Demo­cratic challenger dropped out in July and was re­placed by Si­monds, who chal­lenged Yancey in 2015 and lost by more than 2,100 votes.

“A lot of peo­ple looked at it this year and said, ‘Well, it’s a re­peat of the last go-around,’ and they didn’t think it would be very com­pet­i­tive,” said Quentin Kidd, a po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist at Christopher New­port. “What a lot of us didn’t ac­count for was this wave that made it what it is right now, which is a 10-vote race go­ing into re­count.”

As it ap­peared that the gov­er­nor’s race was go­ing to drive up turnout, the Yancey cam­paign braced for a close fin­ish, Heal said.

The wave came as a sur­prise to Si­monds, a 50-year-old lo­cal Demo­cratic ac­tivist and for­mer Span­ish teacher who was elected to the school board in 2012.

She was hop­ing for a turnout of about 35 per­cent as the best-case sce­nario. In­stead, roughly 45 per­cent of el­i­gi­ble vot­ers came to the polls — mir­ror­ing a surge of vot­ers across the com­mon­wealth, many of whom were Democrats bent on sending a mes­sage of dis­ap­proval to Pres­i­dent Trump.

Si­monds had played down the pres­i­dent dur­ing the cam­paign, believ­ing that he wasn’t as toxic in New­port News as he was in the North­ern Vir­ginia sub­urbs.

Among her rea­sons for run­ning again in 2017, Si­monds says, was to force a con­ver­sa­tion about city­owned prop­erty along the James River, in­clud­ing a pier and mod­est beach, that res­i­dents fear will be sold to de­vel­op­ers. Heal says Yancey has been con­sis­tently op­posed to the sale.

Yancey’s rep­u­ta­tion was not of a hard-line con­ser­va­tive but a com­mu­nity-minded rep­re­sen­ta­tive who was more likely to talk about help­ing Hamp­ton Univer­sity’s pro­ton ther­apy pro­gram than na­tional pol­i­tics.

But that didn’t mat­ter to Democrats re­belling against Repub­li­cans across ev­ery level of gov­ern­ment.

“GOP lead­er­ship is pro­tect­ing and en­abling Trump,” said Bin­tao Feng, a Si­monds sup­porter and leader of a New­port News Chi­nese Amer­i­can group. “Lo­cal peo­ple here prob­a­bly didn’t care about David Yancey or who he is but wanted to send a mes­sage to Repub­li­cans.”

But Heal said Trump rarely came up as Repub­li­can vol­un­teers can­vassed homes in New­port News. “There’s one el­derly woman in a nurs­ing home who oc­ca­sion­ally calls to talk about Don­ald Trump, and that’s ba­si­cally it,” she said. “The key fac­tor in our com­mu­nity — and it’s a bluecol­lar com­mu­nity — is health care.”

‘Should I have done more?’

With only 10 votes sep­a­rat­ing the can­di­dates, ev­ery de­ci­sion and de­vel­op­ment in the cam­paign has been an­a­lyzed, in­clud­ing re­sources — re­cent cam­paign records show Yancey spent $100,000 more than Si­monds — and the fact that a Lib­er­tar­ian can­di­date, Michael Bart­ley, won 675 votes.

Zack Wit­tkamp, the orig­i­nal Demo­cratic nom­i­nee, re­vis­its whether he would have won had he not dropped out be­cause the de­mands of fundrais­ing were too tax­ing as he jug­gled two jobs.

“I don’t have a crys­tal ball,” he said, later grap­pling with his de­ci­sion not to ac­tively cam­paign for Si­monds to give her space to run her own race. “Look­ing back, should I have done more? Could I have found 10 votes? Of course.”

Del. Jen­nifer Boysko (D-Hern­don) and At­tor­ney General Mark R. Her­ring (D), who en­dured close races in the past, called Si­monds to of­fer ad­vice for get­ting through a re­count.

As Si­monds re­lays it, they sug­gested she fo­cus on things other than pol­i­tics, main­tain a pos­i­tive out­look and try not to re­live the past. She takes so­lace in other Demo­cratic women who nar­rowly lost del­e­gate races but ran again and won.

“I’m not go­ing to al­low my­self to dwell on what I could have done,” Si­monds said. That’s eas­ier said than done. As she showed a re­porter the city-owned river­front prop­erty that she made a cam­paign is­sue, Si­monds pon­dered whether she could have won votes from nearby Repub­li­can home­own­ers had Yancey not taken the same po­si­tion dur­ing a de­bate — leav­ing no dif­fer­ence be­tween them on the is­sue.

As she drove past the Christopher New­port cam­pus, she con­sid­ered dozens of stu­dents who showed up at the polls only to find out they were reg­is­tered in other precincts.

As Si­monds fin­ished eat­ing lunch at an Asian restau­rant next to her old cam­paign head­quar­ters, a sushi chef asked her how the elec­tion turned out.

“Un­for­tu­nately, we are in a re­count,” she replied.

And then she started tal­ly­ing how many votes she got from em­ploy­ees at the eatery, be­cause that’s the sort of men­tal math she’s been do­ing every­where she goes. She counted at least a half­dozen.

“How many votes were there in all?” Zhi Chao Lin, the chef, asked.

“I’m 10 votes shy,” Si­monds re­sponded. “Ten?” Lin gri­maced. Cindy Li, a wait­ress, piped up to men­tion that she voted but that some of her fam­ily mem­bers stayed home. Si­monds forced a weak smile. “Well,” she said. “There’s next time.”

“Lo­cal peo­ple here prob­a­bly didn’t care about David Yancey or who he is but wanted to send a mes­sage to Repub­li­cans.” Bin­tao Feng, a sup­porter of Shelly Si­monds and leader of a New­port News Chi­nese Amer­i­can group

JU­LIA RENDLEMAN FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

JU­LIA RENDLEMAN FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Demo­crat Shelly Si­monds talks to a for­mer stu­dent, Aaron Greco, 17, dur­ing “Take Your State Leg­is­la­tor to School Day” at Her­itage High School in New­port News on Nov. 28.

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