Elected officials, take heed: You’re all replaceable 

October 24, 2019 12:01 am

A poll worker in Chesterfield had “I Voted” stickers at the ready in 2018. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

I’ll never run for elective office – not that the electorate is pining for me, anyway.

Because when you throw your hat into the ring, private issues suddenly become fair game for public scrutiny. Things the news media wouldn’t cover involving everyday citizens suddenly show up on the front page, live at 6 p.m., or at the top of your social media feed.

Which brings me to Hampton Roads politician De’Andre Barnes. This relatively new school board member in Portsmouth is likely embarrassed because his parenting abilities are now on front street. The Virginian-Pilot reported that Barnes has repeatedly asked the court to reduce his child support payments, and that he said his position on the School Board prevents him from landing decent-paying jobs. 

The latter is very debatable, by the way.

Two things:

First, get your house in order if you’re going to run for City Council, School Board, the General Assembly or Congress. Reporters look at whether you voted, paid taxes on time, have been the subject of criminal or civil court proceedings and more. Readers want to know the character and skills of the politicians they’re voting for.

When I interviewed Barnes about the controversy Wednesday, he said he didn’t understand all the public attention. 

“I really don’t trust you guys,” he told me, referring to journalists. Like his actions are our fault.

Barnes, 33, should’ve thought about his baggage before he ran for office in 2018.

Second, the fact he believes he’s so indispensable to the board’s operations is risible. Few people in politics, in the commonwealth or elsewhere, should even think of making that claim. 

In a statement Barnes has on his Facebook page, he notes: “I don’t do this for the money, I guess there’s a reason I am invited to speak at schools and other places while others are not. We get paid to be knowledgeable of what is happening in our school system.”

Barnes wouldn’t comment much about the questions I asked, including whether he will resign to make it easier to get a job. 

That’s if you accept Barnes’ claim he can’t have one and be on the board at the same time. 

Many city council, school board and General Assembly members in Virginia have full-time gigs along with their elected positions.  Barnes’ school board colleagues include a Portsmouth city retiree, but also career educators and an official who works for the city prosecutor.

Besides, the jobless rate is noticeably low right now in Virginia. It was just 2.7 percent last month, according to federal statistics. It was only slightly higher in Hampton Roads in August.

Barnes earns just $5,500 a year on the board. Again, that’s no secret to anybody running for office in the port city. It’s public service, some fame and little cash. 

Our state, of course, is littered with politicians who overestimated their relative value to the offices they sought or hoped to retain as an incumbent. Many candidates run for local, state or federal office, sometimes overstaying their welcome before voters force them to exit.

Much hand-wringing accompanied then-Rep. Randy Forbes after the Republican decided in 2016 not to run in his longtime seat in the 4th Congressional District following a court-ordered redrawing of district lines. I noted back then that, given his underwhelming record, Forbes didn’t deserve all the machinations to propel him over a party candidate in the nearby 2nd Congressional District in Virginia Beach.

Voters agreed. They picked Scott Taylor in the GOP primary, even though Forbes wildly outspent him. 

Jim Gilmore was hammered in the 2016 presidential primary contest. I had no clue why the former Republican governor ran for the job, given that he had lost so badly to Mark Warner in the U.S. Senate contest in 2008. During his short-lived presidential bid, Gilmore had chided me for a column that questioned his quixotic bid. 

Other candidates seem taken aback when voters say they’ve lost touch or simply aren’t listening. 

Few people are irreplaceable. It’s something School Board member Barnes should consider. 

And get a job while he’s at it.

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Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]