Lynchburg voters reelected three incumbents and welcomed a first-time candidate to city council Tuesday in an unusual election that saw record absentee voting and unprecedented safety precautions amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Vice Mayor MaryJane Dolan won a second term on council by defeating Abe Loper, a finance manager and political newcomer, in the Ward I race. Dolan claimed nearly 52% of the vote compared with Loper’s nearly 48%, according to unofficial vote totals from the Virginia Department of Elections.
In Ward II, incumbent council member Sterling Wilder beat back challenger Larry Taylor by a 13-point margin. Meanwhile, Ward III council member Jeff Helgeson won reelection unopposed.
In neighboring Ward IV, Chris Faraldi, a former legislative aide for local Republican state lawmakers, defeated his opponent Larry Jones by a more than 22-point margin. Faraldi will succeed retiring council member Turner Perrow, who endorsed his campaign.
In an interview, Dolan said she is eager to return to council and focus on securing funding for local education and the city’s public safety agencies.
“I’m thrilled,” Dolan, who cast herself as a political moderate throughout the campaign, said. “I really thought this election was about the soul of our community, and I’m thrilled to be able to go back and finish the things that we’ve initiated.”
More than 8,800 Hill City residents voted in Tuesday’s election, placing voter turnout at more than 16%. In the 2016 election, voter turnout hovered at around 12%, suggesting the pandemic did not depress vote totals in an already low-turnout affair.
The race also saw a dramatic spike in absentee voting, which had been encouraged by local and state officials hoping to keep in-person voting to a minimum. Unofficial figures show 3,278 absentee ballots were cast, which amounts to about 37% of all of Tuesday’s votes. Four years earlier, just 120 residents voted absentee.
Wilder, who easily won reelection to a second term, said he was humbled by the outcome.
“I’m excited to have another term on city council and I’m honored to have the support of a majority of the citizens in Ward II,” he said.
Wilder, Dolan and Jones were endorsed by the local Democratic party. Their opponents were all backed by the city’s GOP committee.
Faraldi, a vocal conservative, said his victory showed voters want representatives who prioritize fiscal accountability and support for public safety agencies. He garnered endorsements from a slew of local politicians and advocacy groups, including Congressman Ben Cline, R-6th, and The Lynchburg Firefighters Association.
“We were successful in this campaign because we put forward a platform that voters were hungry for,” he said. “It’s going to take a lot of work to present the conservative argument on council and at the end of that day that’s what we were sent out there to do. Hopefully we’ll be able to build some camaraderie and push away some of the political divisions.”
With the threat of the coronavirus pandemic still looming, Tuesday’s election unfolded under unique circumstances.
Voters were asked to maintain strict social distancing guidelines and limits were placed on the amount of people who could enter each precinct at one time, which occasionally caused small lines to form in the rain. Inside the buildings voters encountered makeshift windows built out of shower curtains and PVC pipes meant to protect poll workers from the virus.
At the Bedford Hills Elementary School precinct in Ward I, George Pabis was one of nearly 800 people who cast a ballot in-person. He said he felt the election workers took the necessary precautions and that the steps local officials took could be a model for future elections next month and in the fall.
“I just live up the street so it was convenient for me to come down here and vote in-person,” he said. “And I felt comfortable with it but I think it’s just personal preference.”