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ROANOKE STAR SPECIAL: Pre-Election Interview With Mayor Sherman Lea

Mayor Sherman Lea has long been a fixture in Roanoke’s spiritual, social, and political life. He first entered politics in 2004 at the suggestion and encouragement of several friends including Editor, Stuart Revercomb. 

Lea served the Commonwealth for 32 years in the criminal justice system, first as a parole officer and then in 1992 he was promoted to Regional Director for Probation and Parole Services. He retired from that position in 2012. He also serves as Associate Minister at Garden of Prayer Number 7 Church, and six years ago Lea was appointed to the State Parole Board by then Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) and reappointed by Gov. Ralph Northam (D).

Lea is the only member of that Board who lives west of Richmond, so he handles cases from Bristol all the way to Roanoke and Lynchburg. He also owns his own consulting firm, S.P. Lea & Associates, and is blessed with two children–both of whom are Roanoke City Public Schools’ (RCPS)  graduates–and three grandchildren.

When asked why he is seeking re-election after his first term in office, the Mayor stated that “since 2016 when I became Mayor, Roanoke has had the best four years its ever had. When I took over, we’d just come out from being the laughingstock of America, ” citing former Mayor David Bowers’ 2015 controversy around a comment he made about internment camps and Syrian refugees.  “Roanoke is a welcoming, compassionate city,” Lea added.

Continuing to make his case for why he is seeking and deserves re-election, Lea listed the following set of accomplishments and accolades from his tenure:

  • Roanoke was named an “All-American City” for the seventh time. Roanoke is the only city to have earned that distinction so many times from the National Civic League.
  • In 2018, Roanoke was the first city inducted into the National Civic League’s Hall of Fame.
  • All 28 RCPS schools are fully accredited by the state. “Not many localities can say that.”
  • The high school graduation rate is around 90%. As a former Chairman of the RCPS School Board, Lea says that gives him special satisfaction 
  • Amtrak is now providing passenger service in Roanoke.
  • Roanoker police, fire, EMS, and Sheriff’s offices are all accredited.

Lea added, “We’re doing great things,” while acknowledging that the pandemic has hurt the city and its growth. “Roanoke is one of the better cities in the country to live, work, and play.” 

Recent years in Roanoke have brought a number of challenges and controversies, however. One major point of contention has been Mayor Lea’s and City Council’s decision last year to move local elections from their traditional May date to November, to coincide with national elections.

The decision by Council to add six months to their terms raised some eyebrows and triggered a negative response among other Roanokers, including political opponents who called it “a self-serving power grab.” However, Lea explained that the move was legal and in accordance with Virginia code. “If you move the elections from May to November, you have to extend the terms of council at that time.”

Lea claimed the impetus to move the elections to November was to boost voter turnout and civic participation. He said the May 2016 local elections only drew some 6,000 voters, an anemic number for a city of some 100,000. Lea added: “Local governing bodies are important, but it seemed nobody was coming out. This is abysmal.”

In a 5-2 vote, City Council opted to move their elections from May 2020 to November. By doing so, their terms which normally would have already ended on July 1, 2020 now run until January 2021. All City Council members automatically get paid for those extra six months as well.

I asked why the Council did not move the elections earlier, to November 2019, so their terms would be shortened and not lengthened, and so Roanoke City elections would coincide with state elections for the General Assembly. (A common concern is, putting local and presidential elections on the same day, easily confuses voters and potentially diluting the importance of local issues.)

On that point, Lea was emphatic. He insisted elections had to be moved to the same years as presidential elections, “to get maximum turnout.”

In addition to City Council lengthening their terms of office, another recent hot button issue has been the State Parole Board scandal. In a mere 30 days this spring, the Parole Board  released 95 violent felons, including 35 convicted murderers–a shocking 735% increase over the release rate of 2019.

Of particular concern was the Board’s decision to release Vincent Martin, who had been convicted for murdering a Richmond City police officer, Michael Patrick Connors, by shooting him point-blank five times in the face, head, and neck in 1979.  Criticism was not focused on the actual parole so much as how it was done. By state law and its own policies, the Parole Board must notify victims’ next of kin and local authorities when they plan to release a criminal early, but the Parole Board did not do so. The Board failed to keep minutes of its controversial meetings as well. 

Since Lea has been a member of that Board for six years, I asked him to explain why the Board broke the law to release convicted murderers in that way. Lea responded: “I’m prohibited by the law from talking about parole board cases, whether parole was granted or not granted,” adding that “the Board Chair and Governor have already discussed these matters.” (To learn more about the Parole Board Scandal, please read my August 19, 2020 column.)

As the key elections approach on November 3, Governor, Ralph Northam, visited Roanoke on October 27 to endorse Mayor Lea and the three-member Democrat ticket for City Council. When asked if he feared any blowback or “backfire” by getting endorsed by Northam, who refused to resign over his racist blackface/KKK photo and abortion statement scandals, Lea gave a terse “No.” When asked if he thought the controversial governor should resign, Lea sprang to Northam’s defense: “No, the governor is doing a tremendous job.” 

The economy is always a crucial issue in any election, and especially in this challenging year. When asked if Roanoke City has any specific economic development plans in the works, Lea responded: “We have a great Economic Development Department and they are always talking to potential employers [to bring jobs here.”] 

While much attention has been focused on the epic Trump-Biden contest, local elections are crucial as well. A little-known fact is that, in terms of one’s daily life, local government usually has more effect on citizens than what Washington does. Local governments oversee schools, first responders, trash collection, water supplies, infrastructure, environmental issues, parks and recreation opportunities and a litany of other services that are often taken for granted.

Roanoke City voters get to choose their mayor and three of six City Council members on November 3 making 4 out of 7 seats up for grabs. For City voters, the time to chart the future is now. 

Scott Dreyer in his classroom.

– Scott Dreyer

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