ROCKVILLE — Rockville’s elections are not so peculiar.
Like most elections in the United States, Rockville’s election this year will include two competing sides putting forth candidates. Candidates have grouped themselves with like-minded people. Throw in an independent or an unaffiliated candidate, and you have a normal American campaign.
While most elections — whether they are national, state or local — pit Republican and Democratic candidates against one another, that is not the case in Rockville.
For as long as anyone in the city can remember, elections here have been non-partisan, but that does not mean the city is without its own political divide.
This year, two slates have come forward for the election — Team Rockville and Rockville Forward.
Team Rockville, made up of Virginia Onley, Mark Pierzchala, Cynthia Cotte Griffiths, David Myles and James Hendrick, is the incumbent slate. Both Onley and Pierzchala served on the city council with Julie Palakovich Carr, who served on the council until she stepped down after winning election to the House of Delegates.
“Well, we have both in 2015 and now, we have a very basic set of — it’s just some general themes basically,” Pierzchala said. “No detailed platform or anything like that.”
In reaction to what they see as a political bloc that has ignored their ideas and input on the mayor and council, Rockville Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton and Councilmember Beryl Feinberg have formed Rockville Forward with Kuan Lee, Suzan Pitman and Monique Ashton.
Newton said she rejects the term “slate” to describe Rockville Forward, preferring the word “coalition.” She said the group of five are united only on common principles and policy prescriptions for the city.
“Unlike some other situations, we do not agree to any standards except decency, respect and doing the best we can individually for the city,” Newton said.
Given that each slate stands for general principles, it’s hard to say anything specific about the two groups. Newton and Feinberg have criticized members of Team Rockville for acting as a voting bloc, rejecting their ideas and taking control of city hall when they held onto a majority three votes on the council.
Pierzchala said he formed Team Rockville with Onley and former councilmember Tom Moore in 2013, as a way to counteract a “shadow slate” in the city. Newton said she formed Rockville Forward to counteract the power that Team Rockville has.
The election comes as the mayor and council have delved into a deep divide, which goes beyond the typical issues that usually consume national partisan politics. Whether it is discussing the way the city should develop, fights over removing the city clerk or just a general lack of trust with one another, Rockville’s politics have devolved into a factional fight.
The factions are not the same as political parties.
Neither the members of Team Rockville or Rockville Forward claim to have a unifying ideological vision for the city or specific policy positions they all agree to.
Perhaps most evident of the divide on the mayor and council is the lack of a fifth member. After Palakovich Carr stepped down from the council in January, the mayor and council failed to find a replacement. After interviewing 21 candidates, over three rounds, the mayor and council could not come to a majority decision as to their fifth member.
Rockville’s non-partisan politics are nothing new.
Eileen McGuckian, author of “Rockville: Portrait of a City” — which details the history of Rockville since its founding — said that political slates are nothing new.
Since the late-1940s and early-1950s, slates have been a part of the city’s elections, most notably with the Citizens for Good Government — also known as CGG — which played a pivotal role in the 1954 election and influenced Rockville politics for decades.
“If you were selected to be on CGG’s slate you had a pretty good chance of winning and, you know, running the city for the next two years,” McGuckian said.
Non-partisan elections are quite common. Cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago and Phoenix, Arizona, have non-partisan elections, but that still has not prevented them turning into bitter political fights.
“The bottom line is that in today’s political environment, nonpartisan elections are nonpartisan in name only,” said Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida, who has written about nonpartisan municipal elections. “Originally, they were part of the reform movement, designed to take politics out of local governance and to have voters select candidates based on their credentials and policy proposals rather than merely on party.”
However, nonpartisan elections give a chance to some candidates who may not have a shot.
While candidate for Rockville City Council Brigitta Mullican has been critical of the two slates running, she said she prefers Rockville’s nonpartisan election system. In deeply blue Rockville, Mullican, a registered Republican, she said it is easier for her to run and connect with voters in a nonpartisan election. While many residents are turned off by Republican candidates, city issues tend to not fall into the Democrat-Republican paradigm.
“I would not want to change it,” Mullican said. “I know that others might — but no — I would not want to change it. I think it’s a good thing.”