This has been hard to write for several reasons: the institutional mission of PortsmouthCityWatch.org; the absence of mainstream media coverage of this contest and the resulting dearth of objective information about the candidates’ qualifications; and the racially-charged climate in our community and our country as this campaign season has progressed. (The last item will be the topic of a subsequent article.) Of course, I could exercise the option of keeping my own counsel on this subject to avoid controversy and bruised feelings, but if our community is to achieve its full potential as a nurturing “village”, people of good will have to engage with each other candidly on tough issues. This is a time for such engagement.
At the outset, I had intended PCW to serve as a forum for community discussions. In furtherance of that goal, I wanted to make publicly available documents, video recordings, and other factual information which would aid the citizenry in conducting informed discourse on municipal policy and priorities. Although I have not discarded those objectives, I have learned that the collection, processing, and dissemination of relevant material could well be a full-time job for multiple individuals. The resources necessary to fulfill the vision have been greater than what I have marshaled thus far.
Educating the Portsmouth electorate about candidates and civic matters, albeit imperfectly effected, remains central to the PCW mission. In that vein, we endeavored to broaden our offerings by conducting individual on-camera interviews with each candidate for Commonwealth’s Attorney in the upcoming special election. Since the time frame for campaigning was so abbreviated, we were uncertain as to how many, if any, candidate forums civic leagues and other interested groups might put together. Sadly, the Morales campaign, numerous invitations to meet with us notwithstanding, did not give us an opportunity to capture the candidate’s views for subsequent dissemination. Fortunately, the Portsmouth Democratic Committee hosted an open forum in which all three candidates participated, and our camera was there to record it for the public.
PCW has not aspired to be a replacement for the mainstream media but rather a credible supplement. Our local print and electronic news outlets do not focus exclusively on this city, so alternative media still have opportunities to present stories, many of them significant, about events in and around town. Regrettably, we do not yet have enough of a following to bring major occurrences to the attention of a majority of our neighbors; on more than one occasion, therefore, we have elected to pitch significant stories to the establishment press rather than serve as the lead. In regard to covering the present special election, we appear to be the only game in town, not our first choice for something of this magnitude.
Although PCW has endorsed candidates for local office before, our collaborative decided not to do so on this occasion. The endorsement of Ms. Sprinkle as Commonwealth’s Attorney, therefore, is mine alone rather ours as an entity. Some might scoff at this as a distinction without a difference, but I claim this as one of my few perquisites as publisher. Receiving no salary and no bonuses in that capacity, I have a sense of entitlement to this minimal compensation for paying the bills.
With the foundation now laid, I assert that I originally had expected to climb on the bandwagon for Ms. Stephanie Morales. Her supporters and shared interests brought the two of us together on several occasions before the vacancy officially occurred and the judges set an election date. Many people I like and respect gravitated toward her; they invited me to join them in declaring my own support. A number of her advocates are also people with whom I had worked on other campaigns relatively recently. Consequently, I was predisposed to align with them.
What caused me to hesitate, though, was a lack of information about who else might be interested in running and an incomplete picture of Ms. Morales’s qualifications. The fact that she already worked as an assistant commonwealth’s attorney was a positive. She would not be coming to the position cold, but details of the resume matter. Furthermore, I believe in competitive elections, not coronations. As more information came my way, I began to sense that Ms. Morales had been handpicked by power brokers whose agenda is not necessarily that of doing the greatest good for the greatest number. I knew I needed to do more research.
As previously mentioned, once the three candidates — Ms. Morales, Ms. Ali Sprinkle, and Mr. Michael Rosenberg — qualified for the ballot, PCW contacted them to set up interview appointments. We concluded our sessions with Ms. Sprinkle and Mr. Rosenberg within two weeks of the initial solicitation, but Ms. Morales danced around us. Once the Democratic Party Committee forum video went up on our site, we also posted the two individual interviews we had completed. We left the door open for Ms. Morales’s until late January. Her failure to make a date suggested something amiss.
With the best available evidence in hand, then, I have assessed the respective qualifications of the candidates. Each exceeds the minimum legal requirements for the position: eligible to vote for and hold the office sought; resident of Virginia for at least a year; a current resident of Portsmouth; and admitted to membership in the Virginia bar. In terms of legal experience, Mr. Rosenberg asserts he has practiced law for 28 years; Ms. Sprinkle, for 13; and Ms. Morales, for five. Both Ms. Sprinkle and Ms. Morales have worked as lawyers in the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office, which Mr. Rosenberg has not. He has served, however, as a special prosecutor on occasion. In the terms of time in the field, Mr. Rosenberg holds an advantage over his fellow candidates.
In addition to litigating cases, the Commonwealth’s Attorney hires, manages, trains, assesses, and, if needed, lays off or terminates staff members. The number of people working in the Portsmouth office is around 30, a complement that includes attorneys, paralegals, and administrative personnel, all with various degrees of experience. As someone who for several years supervised staff, first in the military and later in the private sector, I know what an art that is. For a team to work effectively, the leaders have to understand the capabilities of each member and how to empower and deploy their people effectively. Such leadership is an acquired skill that has to be cultivated and refined continuously. Having served as office manager in her legal firm for a number, Ms. Sprinkle seems the strongest prospect of the three in this aspect of the job.
The bottom line appraisal, then, is at the gut level. Never having seen any of the candidates perform as legal counsel in a courtroom or office setting, nor having witnessed their day-to-day interactions with peers and subordinates in supervisory or managerial roles, I am relying on a combination of mathematical and instinctual determinants. My sense is that Ms. Morales lacks the seasoning for a position of this importance at this point in her career. Considering whatever absences she may have had on either side of her youngest children’s birth, the remaining time in job does not seem sufficient to have the breadth or depth of experience to fill the role of chief prosecutor for our city. She comes across as highly intelligent, articulate, and motivated, so I believe that with additional experience, she will an exceptional candidate. Mr. Rosenberg’s years as a practicing attorney suggest he would be a formidable litigator, but he does not strike me as someone who would find a concentrated managerial role personally satisfying. So, at this juncture, given the current field of candidates, I am most inclined toward Ms. Sprinkle as having the best blend of personnel management and legal experience for the job at hand. That is why I have chosen to support her and have been recommending her to those seeking my opinion.
Whatever factors influence your decision, I vigorously encourage all eligible voters to use the Commonwealth’s Attorney Election Resources article and other pertinent information to inform your choice. Then get to the polls on Tuesday, February 10, to vote your conscience.