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Historic City Council Election in Roanoke

Photo: left to right: Robert Jeffrey Jr, Joe Cobb, Djuna Osborne, Mayor Sherman Lea, State Senator John Edwards.

Two newcomers will join holdover Bill Bestpitch after the May 1 municipal election in Roanoke. Democrats Joe Cobb and Djuna Osborne were the top two vote getters, part of a three person ticket endorsed by Mayor Sherman Lea, State Senator John Edwards and Delegate Sam Rasoul in April.

Lea said he had “mixed emotions” about the defeat of two-term incumbent independent Ray Ferris, who finished fifth behind the other Democrat, Robert Jeffrey Jr. The magazine publisher had a strong showing, finishing just two percentage points behind Bestpitch, who also ran as an independent in winning a fourth term.

“You really have to assume that the people have appreciated what you have done,” said Bestpitch on election night, “that they support the direction you have tried to move the city in and that they want to see that continuing.”

As for fellow incumbent Ray Ferris, who campaigned in tandem with Bestpitch on the same theme that the city is headed in the right direction: “I’m going to miss Ray’s insightful judgement and his attention to the details. I think the people of Roanoke may not have recognized how much good he has done for all of them.  My goal is to have as positive a working relationship as I can with our new Vice Mayor-elect and our new Council member-elect.” Bestpitch called Cobb and Osborne on election night to offer his congratulations,

Here’s the historic part: Cobb, the top voter getter and now the Vice-Mayor elect, will be the first openly gay member of Roanoke City Council when he is seated in May. Cobb was the long time pastor for the Metropolitan Community Church of the Blue Ridge in southeast Roanoke and a champion for inclusion, often focused on the LGBT community. “I’m very honored and humbled by this election,” Cobb said as he nursed a celebratory glass of wine, “and so grateful to the city for welcoming me to their doors … and trusting me to be their representative.”

Cobb said it was hard for him to describe his feelings on finishing with the most votes of any of the 7 candidates who ran. During a short speech he vowed again to extend Valley Metro bus hours and said more neighborhoods in Roanoke must share in the city’s recent economic gains. As for what he brings to the mix: “a strong people connection, a sense that everyone’s voice matters … to create a healthy and strong Roanoke.”

Meanwhile Djuna Osborne will make it three women on City Council – another first for Roanoke.  Her unsuccessful run for the House of Delegates six months ago may have put her on the radar screen but the social worker also pointed out that she ran well in precincts that were not part of that House district in November. “It did take a lot of door knocking and getting out in the community, really connecting with the voters. I bring a fresh perspective – I haven’t done this before. I can think outside the box.”

As for becoming the third women on City Council as of July: “clearly there has been a surge in women running for office and stepping up in arenas where they have not been before. For me this has been about pushing the needle forward.” Osborne said it’s a good example for her two little girls at home.

At a post-election celebration held at 16 West Marketplace, Lea exhorted the Democratic “Blue Wave” he said is sweeping the country in the post-Trump election era and is now coming to Roanoke. He said he was “pleased and excited” at the prospect of working with fellow Democrats Cobb and Lea once they are seated.  “They’re both people in the community, engaging [residents]. Lea added that “Ray [Ferris] is a good friend of mine. He did a good job. But this is the voice of the people.”

Two other independent candidates, Hope Center co-founder Grover Price, and Peacemakers founder Shawn Hunter, finished well back of the top 5 contenders during an election which saw an uptick in the number of voters that came out to cast their ballots. Both Hunter and Price were advocates for northwest Roanoke, calling for more investment there and strategies to lower the crime rate.

There were changes in Salem as well as incumbent Mayor Randy Foley will return to its City Council on May 1. Salemites also elected John Saunders who is a well known commodity in the community and worked for the Salem Civic Center for more than three decades.  “There’s a feeling that something needs to change,” said Saunders after he bested third place finisher Renee Turk and other contenders for one of two open seats. “I heard that many times while walking in the neighborhoods.”

Gene Marrano

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