VIRGINIA BEACH — A new voting system in Virginia Beach likely played a role in creating the most diverse city council in the city’s history. In January, four black members will take their places on the podium.
They include newcomers Jennifer Rouse and Chris Taylor, as well as Amelia Ross-Hammond, a former member, and Sabrina Wooten, who is serving a term until 2024.
“I didn’t think I was going to experience that,” said Louisa Strayhorn, 74, the first black woman elected to the city council. She served from 1994-98.
“It’s going to be a new day,” Strayhorn said.
Rouse, 36, an assistant professor at Tidewater Community College, didn’t raise as much money as her non-black opponent but was able to engage with voters face-to-face on a tight budget. She was elected in one of the new districts where minorities form the majority.
“Big money, big power doesn’t shape elections,” Rouse said. who is married to Council Member Aaron Rouse said by phone the day after the election. “I was overwhelmed and spent; For me it was all about the ground game.”
Earlier this year, the city introduced 10 single-member constituencies while awaiting an appeal against a court’s opinion on a case arguing that voting at large to elect city council members is diluting the votes of minority voters.
A judge ruled in favor of the plaintiff, but the city appealed.
The U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the case was moot because the Virginia General Assembly had already passed legislation abolishing universal voting for most seats on the council.
Virginia Beach may be able to restore some seats at-large in the future, but ran out of time to make changes ahead of this year’s election.
Taylor, 38, co-owner of a local chain of Smoothie Stop Cafes, won in the city’s most affluent neighborhood, where blacks make up about 6% of the voting population. He decided to run before the new voting system was introduced but believes it helped him win.
“I could just go and talk to people and the message got through,” he said.
Interaction between candidates like Taylor and voters likely broke down racial barriers, Strayhorn said.
“People get to know you when you can talk to them,” she said. “It is clear that they (the voters) saw them (the candidates) as human beings.”
Taylor’s family has lived in Virginia Beach for centuries, and many of his ancestors did not have the opportunity to serve in public office. He is proud of his achievement and the other black contestants who won.
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“For me, it’s a sense of how far our city has come,” he said. “Being on the Council is something special.”
The first black member of the Virginia Beach City Council was John Perry, who served from 1986 to 1990. Strayhorn followed a few years later.
Ross-Hammond represented the District of Kempsville from 2013 to 2016. She ran unchallenged this year. Wooten was elected to the council in 2018, filling the unexpired term of Bobby Dyer, who was elected mayor. Wooten was re-elected in 2020.
Aaron Rouse has been in office since 2019. His term of office ends on December 31st. He is running to fill a seat in the state Senate.
Jennifer Rouse looks forward to taking her seat in the Council Chambers in January.
“This is an incredible moment in the history of our city,” she said. “I hope that we will continue to make progress.”
Stacy Parker, 757-222-5125, [email protected]