A healthy turnout is good to see

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 9, 2007

It’s refreshing to realize that local politics can still light a fire under voters.

Wednesday night, we were reminded of that, when an unexpectedly large turnout at The Smithfield Center for a candidates’ forum sponsored by the Isle of Wight Citizens Association and The Woman’s Club of Smithfield drew more people than volunteers had chairs prepared for them.

The forum featured 10 candidates in four races: The Virginia State Senate, Smithfield District supervisor, sheriff and clerk of the court.

The format was passive: Each candidate was allowed about four minutes to speak from the podium to state his or her case (unfortunately, there was only one “her” among the candidates) to the audience, then return to the dais and sit in assigned locations to answer questions from the audience.

Two candidates for State Senate were first on the docket. Then the eight candidates running for three distinct offices took center stage at the center, a beautiful venue with plenty of room, good sound (even if the microphone wires along the dais were a tad short to share) and plenty of storage room from which to fetch extra chairs, which were needed at least twice.

About 120 people were on hand at the 6 p.m. start and within the hour, about 40 or so chairs were put out to handle the late-arriving listeners. Add campaign volunteers, those listeners who preferred to stand along the walls and volunteers on hand to help stage the event, and there were easily 200 at the event.

That’s a healthy turnout for a midweek civic event.

For the most part, the exchanges were civil, keeping in what candidate Thomas Mayes called a “Southern Gentleman’s campaign,” but there were some exceptions.

Perhaps the most diverse group of candidates are those running for clerk of the circuit court. There is Sharon Nelms Jones who is trying to succeed her retiring boss of more than 30 years; Mayes, who made a point of discussing his family heritage and its close ties to Isle of Wight and surrounding areas; and Curtis Hardison, the former Secret Service Agent now a lieutenant in the Virginia State Police force who was collected and calculated, as one might expect a former Secret Service Agent to behave.

Jones had the quick-witted line of the night, however. She was asked by moderator John Edwards why she didn’t run before this year and challenge longtime clerk — and her boss — William Maine. Jones paused for just a split-second before answering, “I’m not stupid.”

The response drew laughter and them a robust round of applause from the huge audience.