2017-12-27 / Featured / Front Page

In 2017, Chesterfield’s political landscape shifted – dramatically


Protestors stood along Bailey Bridge Road, above, outside of Clover Hill Assembly of God, where U.S. Rep. Dave Brat and state Sen. Amanda Chase, both Republicans, hosted a town hall meeting in May. The contentious town hall, below, was held less than a week after the House of Representatives passed the American Health Care Act. 
JAMES HASKINS Protestors stood along Bailey Bridge Road, above, outside of Clover Hill Assembly of God, where U.S. Rep. Dave Brat and state Sen. Amanda Chase, both Republicans, hosted a town hall meeting in May. The contentious town hall, below, was held less than a week after the House of Representatives passed the American Health Care Act. JAMES HASKINS The silence was deafening. During one of the county’s marathon budget meetings in mid-

March – six hours of department heads parading in front of the Board of Supervisors on a weekday afternoon – the conversation shifted to focus on schools.

Weighing in on local funding to reduce the pupil-teacher ratio, and the school system’s decision to use some of that money in special classrooms to teach immigrant children to speak and write in English, Dorothy Jaeckle, the board’s chairwoman, offered her thoughts.

JAMES HASKINS JAMES HASKINS “This is what is creating the division. It’s not that people don’t like immigrants,” she said. “You talk about what attracts people to Chesterfield schools. It’s not that they’re prejudiced against [immigrants], but they want their child to be in a classroom that’s more English-speaking.”

She added that during the nationwide “Day Without Immigrants” in February, when many immigrants stayed home from work and school as an economic protest to newly inaugurated President Donald Trump’s tough immigration agenda, she heard from county teachers who said it was “so nice to have a whole class that understood English.”

The president of the local education association later criticized Jaeckle for her remarks and insisted she didn’t speak for Chesterfield’s teachers. An official with the county’s branch of the NAACP called for Jaeckle’s resignation. (She declined).

But for a few seconds at that March meeting, there was nothing but silence. Until School Board Chairman Javaid Siddiqi spoke up, himself the son of a Pakistani immigrant, it seemed that nobody knew quite what to say about an issue that had figured so prominently in the prior year’s presidential campaign.

Two months into Trump’s polarizing presidency, that episode offered an early hint that Chesterfield, long a sleepy, staunchly conservative suburb, was shifting politically. If 2017 was shaping up to be a year of political chaos in Washington, the tension surrounding Jaeckle’s comments was a sign that Chesterfield wasn’t immune from the fallout. It wouldn’t be the last.

Indeed, to Jaeckle’s dismay, the brief furor overshadowed the context of the conversation. The school system has seen a dramatic increase in its Latino population, particularly along the northern Jefferson Davis Highway corridor, which is part of Jaeckle’s district. That has meant more non-English speaking children entering the school system.

When the Board of Supervisors began allocating additional money to reduce class sizes three years earlier, Jaeckle had pointed out, it did so with the intent that the money be spent in regular classrooms – not special classrooms for non-English speaking students.

Still, her comments spoke to a larger socioeconomic shift taking place in the county. Chesterfield is far more diverse than it was even 10 years ago. While the economy remains strong overall, the local government now finds itself dealing with challenges more closely associated with urban environments.

The school system has taken on a larger-than-ever role in addressing the impact of poverty on academic achievement, equitably allocating resources and promoting understanding with regard to students from different racial and religious backgrounds. It also is making progress on a joint effort with the county to revitalize aging schools as a magnet for redevelopment in their surrounding neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, county leaders face mounting political pressure to address transportation deficits and help people who can’t afford their own vehicles to access job centers. Dale District Supervisor Jim Holland proposed in April creating a Greater Richmond Transit Company bus line that would operate on Routes 1 and 10 and Chippenham Parkway. It’s unclear whether that plan has any support within the Board of Supervisors, but the county did commission a study of public transportation options through a state agency. Findings of the study are due in spring 2018.

While historically there has been resistance to mass transit in the county, “I think [the supervisors] realize they have to do something about this issue,” said retired state Sen. John Watkins, who focused heavily on transportation during his time in the General Assembly. “I don’t know how much they can do in two years [before the next local elections in 2019], but it’s clearly on their plate.”

Politically, this is no longer your father’s Chesterfield. U.S. Rep. Dave Brat, a Trump-aligned Republican in the 7th District who easily won Chesterfield in 2016, returned in May to a town hall teeming with angry Democrats.

En route to beating Ed Gillespie in the gubernatorial race last month, Ralph Northam became the first Democrat to win the county since 1961. Jenefer Hughes – a member of the group Liberal Women of Chesterfield County that formed in response to Trump’s election – stunned the local GOP establishment by knocking off Timothy McPeters in the race for commissioner of the revenue, breaking a Republican stranglehold on countywide offices.

Dawn Adams upset incumbent Republican Manoli Loupassi in the 68th District, which includes part of Chesterfield, and will become the first open lesbian to serve in the General Assembly when the 2018 session begins Jan. 10.

Her victory was part of a wave election that flipped at least 15 seats in the Virginia House of Delegates and could give the Democrats control of the House for the first time in 17 years.

Henrico County’s Board of Supervisors is now controlled by Democrats. With Trump’s approval rating hovering in the mid-30s, Democrats are increasingly confident about their chances in Chesterfield, as well.

According to longtime Richmond political analyst Bob Holsworth, it’s no longer “out of the question” that Democrats could secure a majority on Chesterfield’s Board of Supervisors.

After years of “almost a fatalism on the behalf of the Democrats,” Holsworth added, the county is now much more in play.

“I think [the 2017 statewide election] is just going to energize Chesterfield Democrats,” he said. “Certainly with the ongoing demographic shift, they have reason to be optimistic for the first time.” ¦

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