They say politics makes strange bedfellows – and it couldn’t get much stranger than pro- and anti-Trump contingents presenting a united front right here in Front Royal, Virginia. But that could be the outcome if the Town of Front Royal pursues an initiative brought forward by some downtown, East Main Street business interests to try and move political demonstrators out of the Town Gazebo Village Commons area at the intersection of East Main and Chester Streets.
It is there on both sides of Chester Street that dueling political perspectives regarding the persona and agenda of the 45th president of the United States have been expressed for one hour, once a week over the past 18 months.
The rationale on removal from the center of Front Royal’s Historic Downtown Business District cited by town officials in communication with local Business Forum representatives is that the demonstrations are scaring potential customers away. See Related Story
A council majority and the mayor appeared reluctant to tackle the issue without more substantive evidence of that alleged disruption of local business or tourism. Town Attorney Doug Napier suggested caution in any attempt to alter the nature or space of the demonstrations due to First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly regarding political opinions written into the U.S. Constitution.
However, while expressing unfamiliarity with the dueling demonstrations Vice-Mayor Eugene Tewalt volunteered to approach leadership of the two sides about the possibility of relocating to a less obtrusive spot than the town’s public square and nearby public property under the town clock. A public space between South Commerce Avenue and Happy Creek south of the Pavemint restaurant was mentioned as a possible destination.
From an initial polling it appears the vice mayor’s initiative was met with less than an enthusiastic reaction from both sides of the political street.
“Sure, we’d do it with them – they’re not going to push us out of here,” original pro-Trump demonstrator Ralph Waller told Royal Examiner around noon on September 5, when informed of the business forum initiative brought to council the previous evening. “Them” are the anti-Trump contingent across Chester Street from both pro-Trump demonstrations AND his Main Street Pawn Shop in front of which he initiated those demonstrations some 17 months ago.
Waller’s business is essentially at ground zero of the dueling demonstrations, and he does not believe those demonstrations are deterring anyone from doing business downtown. Told a jewelry shop owner across East Main Street was the closest business represented in support of the business forum initiative, Waller observed, “This is a tough time for the jewelry business everywhere. Our jewelry sales are down but I don’t think it has anything to do with one hour, once a week out here,” he said gesturing toward the door to his shop from behind the counter.
Waller’s expression of potential legal unity with those of a different political perspective was not the only one we encountered that day.
“I’ll be proud to stand next to the Democrats for our right to be out here,” teenaged Trump supporter Joel Simmons told Royal Examiner later that afternoon as Republicans gathered at party headquarters near the Chester Street political divide for an appearance by Virginia Congressional candidate Corey Stewart between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. on September 5. In fact, during a brief media interview Stewart expressed support of the dueling downtown Front Royal political demonstrations.
‘Turf war’ revisited
That late-afternoon September 5 Republican gathering coincided with the first Wednesday in which the pro-Trump contingent had permitted the gazebo area for their demonstration. That permitting is for six weeks, the maximum length of time a space may be permitted by the town government. Consequently, as we spoke to Ralph Waller around noon on September 5, the space in front of his shop was empty while Len Sherp’s anti-Trump Vigil for Democracy was back to its earlier fall-winter noon to 1 p.m. timeframe, perhaps six weeks earlier than anticipated.
Warren County Republican Committee Chairman Steve Kurtz verified to Royal Examiner that he had initiated the permitting location change for the pro-Trump side some six weeks after initially being removed by town police from the gazebo during the July 25 pro- and anti-Trump demonstrations. See Related Story
“I went in and asked about its availability and was told it was available as of September 5. I said they’ve been there what, a year and a half – that’s long enough,” Kurtz said as he prepared for the first Wednesday afternoon occupation of the gazebo area by Republicans on September 5 for the Corey Stewart visit.
Asked if the pro-Trump contingent had maintained permitting for both sides of the street, Kurtz said, “No, I wouldn’t do that to them” – indicating he just wanted the demonstration “high ground” for the pro-Trump side for a change.
Asked if he wanted to comment for this story, Kurtz declined, saying he believed that those Republicans cited in the article – Ralph Waller, Joel Simmons and Dean Peterson had done a good job in representing the local committee’s stance.
Faced with a 4-1/2 hour gap between the two demonstrations (Kurtz’s gazebo area permit is from 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m.) when we talked to him on September 5, Waller laughingly bemoaned that gap – “Now we don’t have anyone to yell at” – though in ensuing weeks the initial pro-Trump contingent of Ralph Waller and his nephew Michael have reappeared at the noon hour with another supporter or two to keep the dueling perspectives in the same time slot.
Both Waller and Vigil for Democracy organizer Len Sherp have noted that for gatherings of less than 50 people, no permit is required other than as a securing of a location. One of those we encountered with the Wallers on the traditionally Trump and pawn shop side of Chester Street at subsequent noon-hour pro-Trump gatherings was Page County Republican Committee member Dean Peterson. Peterson has been helping the Warren County Republican Committee with its pre-Congressional mid-term campaign headquarters and has consequently become a familiar face on the pro-Trump side of the street.
Divided we demonstrate …
Peterson, like Ralph Waller and even Simmons on occasion, have been among those hurling pro-Trump, anti-Democratic Party vocal challenges across Chester Street toward the anti-Trump Vigil for Democracy demonstrators. We asked his opinion of any potential business-driven municipal initiative to move the political demonstrations from the town center.
“Well, that’s just wrong to start with – the gazebo is the center of town and we’ve always used this for the community, that’s what it’s for. And even if someone has something that we disagree with, I will still support their right to protest, just as I would want them to support my right to do the same,” Peterson said, adding he believed that to be “a mutual attitude” across what has become Front Royal’s weekly political divide.
Identifying that opposing, anti-Trump side as “socialists” philosophically, Peterson added, “I can’t stand socialism – people call me the most anti-socialist person they’ve ever met. Yet, I will still stand for their right to protest, even if I disagree with them.”
United We Stand
Vigil for Democracy organizer Len Sherp was away on an extended Labor Day holiday when the downtown Business Forum initiative was brought before council on September 4. Back for the September 12 Vigil for Democracy, the second of this season at the noon to 1 p.m. time slot, we approached him about that initiative.
“If people say this is affecting their business, I respond I am doing business – I am doing the people’s business,” Sherp began. “Our freedom of speech and our freedom of assembly are not meant to be pushed off to a corner. The very nature of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly is that it should be available to the public. This is our town square – the gazebo is the town square. It was set aside as the public space. So, as I said I believe we are doing the public’s business, as I believe the other side is doing their version of the public’s business.
“So, I would be unlikely under any circumstance to voluntarily move from an area that is actually designated the public commons. As I’ve often said, this is an open forum. And if our forum has to change to an immediate question on defending free speech and freedom of assembly, I would welcome all allies,” Sherp concluded of a potential alliance with the pro-Trump contingent on both sides’ Constitutional right to express their political opinion and be heard in that expression.
Sherp began his Vigil for Democracy at the Town Gazebo space on March 8, 2017 to express opposition to Donald Trump and his agenda, which to Sherp seems to be in large part self-promotion and the self-enrichment of his, his family and friends’ business interests. Sherp often appears at his vigils supporting a one-word “emoluments” sign – emoluments being the section of the U.S. Constitution prohibiting self-profit from the office of the presidency.
Waller, Simmons, Peterson and their allies from the local political right have often reflected the national defense of President Trump – essentially that negative information about Trump or his past business dealings; Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election on behalf of Trump; possible knowledge of or collusion with that foreign agenda by Trump, his campaign team and even cabinet appointees is “fake news” disseminated by sour grapes Democrats and/or the “Deep State” that has corrupted the federal apparatus to the point that its intelligence and law enforcement agencies that are often the source of negative information about Trump can’t be trusted.
Sherp and his allies from the political “left” have reflected what is sometimes called “the loyal opposition” to those in power – at this point the Republican Party’s control of all three branches of government – the executive, legislative and judicial.
Sherp notes that the loyalty in “loyal opposition” is to America as a nation and the Constitutional system of legal accountability, checks and balances upon which the nation has been built; rather than to power itself or a cult of personality built around any individual elevated to the presidency – even one elected by a nearly negative three-million vote margin.
On March 8, 2017, at his first Vigil for Democracy Sherp said of its impetus, “The government still works for us – ‘of the people, for the people’ – and just because one Party has achieved a majority doesn’t mean they shouldn’t show the same reverence for the democratic principals and values of honesty, openness and fairness which have made us a beacon for two centuries. This administration, in eight weeks, has shown that it doesn’t understand the rule of law; does not respect the separation of powers; and has a Republican Congress that for some reason refuses to stand up and be adult.”
And you didn’t think you’d ever see these two disparate sides threatening to join hands in mutual cause – their Constitutional right to be heard in opposition to each other.
I’m not sure that’s a fight the Front Royal Town Council wants to take on – but I could be wrong …
WCPS starts new school year staring down COVID-19 related challenges
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic did not prevent Warren County Public Schools (WCPS) from starting off the 2020-2021 academic year, although some issues did crop up during the first week, according to WCPS Superintendent Chris Ballenger.
On day one at the elementary schools, for instance, Ballenger said there were some long lines getting parents through, as well as a few backups and traffic congestion on some roads. But he explained that such issues were simply due to it being the first day of school, and “of getting everybody in and being able to make sure we got them to where they were going, and getting the buses in, and getting the buses sanitized so that they could go do their next run.”
“But when you entered the buildings and you saw the interactions of the teachers and the students… you could see the students smiling underneath their masks,” said Ballenger. “It was nice to see the students there, and they wanted to be there.”
For virtual learners, technology challenges took precedent on their first day, the superintendent said, but the WCPS Technology Department worked quickly to rectify the issues, which were partly due to en masse sign-ons to the school division’s network — basically an online traffic jam of sorts.
Ballenger said that during the first week of school, WCPS corrected, made changes, and streamlined processes to solve the challenges. “Schools are getting that cycle going, so, we’re moving in some positive directions,” he said. “We still have some issues, but we will continue to address those.”
WCPS Technology Director Timothy Grant — who received a round of applause from Ballenger, the School Board, and WCPS Central Office staff for the work he and his team have accomplished to get the school year going — reported that more than 2,200 Chromebooks and tablets are expected to arrive “any day now,” and once delivered, they will be configured and deployed as soon as possible to the schools for student use.
At the same time, the WCPS Technology Help Desk has been very busy. “I can’t tell you how many calls we get, but it’s busy. It’s ringing all the time,” said Grant. “All  of our techs are on the help desk until it settles down.”
Technology staff also have deployed 60 hot spots around Warren County, with most of them being used in the Browntown and Bentonville areas. Grant said WCPS still has 30 more hot spots to configure that will provide teachers and students with free internet access for virtual learning.
Grant also said the tech staff is working diligently “to stay ahead of the curve” on security, and thus far has not experienced any breaches on the WCPS network and will continue to regularly monitor the network.
“I know you’ve worked a lot of hours and I think I can speak for the board — we all greatly appreciate the effort that you and your team put in to keep everybody up and running, so thank you very much,” said School Board Chairman Arnold Williams, Jr.
Along with new bus runs, for example, WCPS transportation employees yesterday started delivering seven-days-worth of free school meals (breakfast and lunch) at its summer stops around the County. Some 850 students on Wednesday received meals, which will continue to be delivered through December 31 unless the program gets extended, Sheppard said.
“We’ll adjust if we need to,” she said. “We’re trying to make sure all of our students are eating.”
Additionally, more custodial employees are now working day-time hours to regularly wipe down high-touch surfaces throughout the school day, said Sheppard.
WCPS Special Services Director Michael Hirsch said that school health and wellness efforts have been followed diligently by WCPS staff and families, who have adhered to daily pre-screening and other health checklist items. “It’s been crucial for ensuring students are healthy before they enter school,” he said.
During the School Board’s work session portion of its meeting, Ballenger also provided a school enrollment update as it pertains to the WCPS budget, noting that the current population of 4,957 students is down by 60 students.
Once the school district contacts these 60 students, the population could increase to 5,017 students, which is still lower than what the current WCPS budget is based on of 5,202 students. This would reduce the district’s budget by $916,886, Ballenger reported.
“In this year’s budget, we have a contingency of around $531,366 so right now we are looking at what we need to do as far as financials,” he said. “We do have a lot of things on hold. We’re still trying to find those students.”
Currently, Ballenger also said that there are 89 students total who attended WCPS last year who now are under home instruction status, which removes them from WCPS rolls, also consequently impacting the budget. While some of these 89 students may physically return to school once the buildings open back up, “we don’t know when that may be,” said Ballenger.
At the same time, because WCPS now operates a hybrid-learning model consisting of in-person and virtual education, some numbers of students may be recovered at the high school and middle school levels once they work out scheduling, Ballenger said. “Principals and schools are calling and making contact with students that have not shown up yet to see where they are at,” the superintendent said.
To watch the entire School Board meeting, watch the Royal Examiner video.
Town Talk: A conversation with Congressman Ben Cline
In this Town Talk, our publisher Mike McCool speaks with Congressman Ben Cline. Cline was in town for the Warren County Republican “Pig Roast” held at the VFW grounds in Front Royal. Topics in this Town Talk includes 2nd Amendment and Sanctuary Cities, Supreme Court appointment, supporting law enforcement, civil unrest, monument removals, elections, and COVID response.
Ben Cline represents Virginia’s 6th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he is a member of the House Judiciary Committee and the House Education and Labor Committee. He previously served as a Member of the Virginia House of Delegates, representing the 24th District from 2002-2018. In the Virginia House, Cline chaired the Committee on Militia, Police, and Public Safety.
Prior to his election to the House of Representatives in 2018, Ben was an attorney in private practice. From 2007 until 2013, he served as an Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney for Rockingham County and the City of Harrisonburg.
Ben also worked for Congressman Bob Goodlatte, beginning as a member of his legislative staff in 1994 and ultimately serving as the Congressman’s Chief of Staff.
Ben grew up in Rockbridge County, Virginia, and is a 1990 graduate of Lexington High School. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Bates College and his law degree from the University of Richmond. Ben and his wife Elizabeth live in Botetourt County with their two daughters.
Town Talk is a series on the Royal Examiner where we will introduce you to local entrepreneurs, businesses, non-profit leaders, and political figures who influence Warren County. Topics will be varied but hopefully interesting. If you have an idea, topic, or want to hear from someone in our community, let us know. Send your request to news@RoyalExaminer.com
Virginia House bill to guarantee free school meals to students advances to Senate
The Virginia House of Delegates passed a bill this month to provide free school meals for 109,000 more public school students in the commonwealth.
House Bill 5113, introduced by Del. Danica Roem, D-Prince William, passed the chamber unanimously. Roem’s bill requires eligible public elementary and secondary schools to apply for the Community Eligibility Provision through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service.
“School food should be seen as an essential service that is free for everyone regardless of their income,” Roem said.
The program allows all students in an eligible school to receive free breakfast and lunch. Currently, 425 schools are eligible for CEP but don’t take part in the program, according to a document that details the financial impact of the legislation. More than 420 schools and 200,000 students participated in CEP during the 2018 to 2019 school year, according to the Virginia Department of Education.
The bill allows eligible schools to opt-out of the program if participating is not financially possible.
Most Virginia food banks have purchased twice as much food each month since the pandemic started when compared to last year, according to Eddie Oliver, executive director of the Federation of Virginia Food Banks.
“We’re just seeing a lot of need out there, and we know that school meal programs are really the front line of ensuring that kids in Virginia have the food they need to learn and thrive,” Oliver said.
Virginia school districts qualify for CEP if they have 40% or more enrolled students in a specified meal program, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). It also includes homeless, runaway, migrant, and foster children, Roem said.
Sandy Curwood, Director of the Virginia Department of Education Office of School Nutrition Programs, said school districts receive federal reimbursement based on a formula.
“Making sure that children have access to good healthy food, and particularly through school meals I think is a great opportunity,” Curwood said.
The federal government will reimburse schools that have more than 62.5% of students who qualify for free meals, Roem said. Schools with between 55% and 62.4% of students enrolled will receive between 80% and 99% reimbursement.
“If HB 5113 is the law, how their children will eat during the school day will be one less worry for students and their families,”, said Semora Ward, a community organizer for the Hampton Roads-based Virginia Black Leadership Organizing Collaborative. The meals are available whether children are physically in schools or attending virtual classes.
The Virginia Black Leadership Organizing Collaborative has raised $8,000 in the past three years for unpaid school meals in Hampton and Newport News, according to Ward.
“While we are pleased with these efforts and the outpouring of community support, we should have never had to do this in the first place,” she said.
Roem was one of several legislators that took on the USDA earlier this year to not require students to be present when receiving free school meals during the pandemic. The Virginia General Assembly passed Roem’s bill earlier this year that allows school districts to distribute excess food to students eligible for the School Breakfast Program or National School Lunch Program administered by the USDA.
HB 5113 has been referred to the Senate Education and Health Committee.
By Aliviah Jones
Capital News Service
Governor Northam casts vote in November General Election on first day of early voting in Virginia
Governor Ralph Northam voted early Friday morning, September 18th, in person at the Richmond general registrar’s office on the first day of Virginia’s 45-day early voting period.
New laws allow all Virginians to vote absentee by mail, or in person at their local registrar’s office or satellite locations. The Governor signed legislation this year removing a previous provision that required absentee voters to provide a reason for voting early, so any Virginia voter may vote early without providing a specific reason.
“Virginians can be confident their vote is secure and will be counted,” said Governor Northam. “While the pandemic has made this an unprecedented election year, Virginia voters have several safe and easy ways to exercise their constitutional right to vote. Voting is an essential part of our democracy, and I encourage every Virginia voter to know their options and make a plan for safely casting their ballot.”
Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, a higher number of Virginians are expected to vote by mail in the 2020 election. As of Thursday, the Department of Elections had received 824,000 requests for absentee ballots by mail. For comparison, 566,000 votes were cast absentee in the 2016 General Election—half by mail.
Virginians have several options for safely casting their ballots for the November General Election.
Absentee by Mail
Beginning today, September 18, Virginia general registrars will mail absentee ballots to voters who request them. Virginians can request a ballot online at elections.virginia.gov. The last day to request an absentee ballot by mail is Friday, October 23 at 5:00 p.m.
All absentee ballots will include a return envelope with prepaid postage. Ballots with a postmark of November 3 or earlier will be accepted until noon on Friday, November 6.
As an additional layer of security, every absentee ballot envelope is required to have an intelligent mail barcode and an election mail insignia. The insignia tells the United States Postal Service that this piece of mail is a ballot and should be prioritized. The barcode lets voters track their ballot once it leaves the registrar’s office—so a voter will know when their ballot has been mailed to them, and when it is delivered back to the registrar. Voters can track their absentee ballot using the absentee ballot lookup tool available here.
Absentee ballots may also be hand-delivered to your local registrar’s office or returned to a secure drop-off location, which includes any satellite voting location. A list of drop-off locations is available on your county or city’s official website. On Election Day, you can also drop off your completed absentee ballot at any polling place in the county or city in which you are registered to vote.
For voters who prefer to vote in person, there are two options.
Early In Person
Starting today, September 18, Virginia voters can vote absentee in person at their local registrar’s office as Governor Northam did. Voters can simply go to their local general registrar’s office or a satellite voting location identified by the registrar’s office and cast their vote. Voters may use this option through Saturday, October 31—one of the longest early voting periods of any state.
The other option is the traditional one: voting in person on Election Day, Tuesday, November 3, at your polling place. Polls will be open from 6:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Virginia has allocated federal CARES Act funding to ensure that all election officers have personal protective equipment, and Virginia Medical Reserve Corps volunteers will assist at polling places to ensure social distancing and sanitization measures are followed.
Virginia considers election security to be a top priority and has made significant progress in recent years to ensure a secure election process that places election integrity and voter confidence at the forefront. Additional information about election security in Virginia can be found here.
To register to vote or learn more about absentee voting in Virginia, visit elections.virginia.gov/absentee. Answers to frequently asked questions can be found here.
Follow the Department of Elections on Twitter at @vaElect, on Facebook at @VirginiaELECT, and on Instagram at @va_election.
See below for photos of Governor Northam casting his ballot at the Richmond general registrar’s office today.
Warren County Department of Fire and Rescue Services awarded a $1.2 Million SAFER Grant
The Warren County Department of Fire and Rescue will receive $1,216,724 in Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER). This grant award is from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for 100% of salary and benefits for six new firefighters for three years. Generally, SAFER grants require a local government match or contribution during the award period which was waved this year due to the effects of the COVID Pandemic on localities.
SAFER grants help local fire departments and volunteer firefighter organizations to increase or maintain the number of frontline firefighters to comply with standards established by the National Fire Protection Association. These new positions will be utilized to staff the newly constructed Rivermont Fire Station with two 24/7 responders. The fire station replacement and construction project is slated to be completed by the end of the year.
“We are honored to have been selected to receive this highly competitive grant, and for the opportunity to bring on these additional firefighters to the department,” Fire Chief Richard E. Mabie said. “This is a great day for the residents of our community.
“In awarding such a large SAFER grant, FEMA recognized the critical need for additional safety personnel in Front Royal/Warren County to adequately meet the increasing service demands from our growing community,” Mabie continued. “With grants such as this, we will be able to continue to exercise fiscal responsibility while delivering improved services.”
“Incredible news,” stated the Board of Supervisor Chairman Walt Mabe. During my tenure on the Board of Supervisors, residents have sent a clear message that they expect excellent public safety services using creative funding mechanisms. This is an example of the fire department once again rising to that mandate and improving service for our residents. The ability to replace all Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus throughout our stations with a recently awarded $725,000 grant was a success in itself. Now the ability to increase staffing without affecting the pockets of our citizens is simply amazing.” These two grants saved the County a total of $1,950,000.
The Department of Fire and Rescue Services expresses our appreciation to the Fire Chief, Captain Gerry Maiatico, and General Services Director Brandy Rosser for their hard work in this process. Additionally, special thanks go to our elected officials for their continued support to these Grant Requests. The Department of Fire and Rescue Services Grant Committee will meet with the Warren County Board of Supervisors at its October 6, 2020, meeting to formally accept the grant.
VDOT: Warren County Traffic alert for September 21-25, 2020
The following is a list of highway work that may affect traffic in Warren County during the coming weeks. Scheduled work is subject to change due to inclement weather and material supplies. Motorists are advised to watch for slow-moving tractors during mowing operations. When traveling through a work zone, be alert to periodic changes in traffic patterns and lane closures.
*NEW* or *UPDATE* indicates a new entry or a revised entry since last week’s report.
No lane closures reported.
No lane closures reported.
No lane closures reported.
Various roads – Flagger traffic control for utility tree trimming, Monday to Friday during daylight hours.
Vegetation management may take place district wide on various routes. Motorists are reminded to use extreme caution when traveling through work zones.
Traffic alerts and traveler information can be obtained by dialing 511. Traffic alerts and traveler information also are available at www.511Virginia.org.
The VDOT Customer Service Center can assist with reporting road hazards, asking transportation questions, or getting information related to Virginia’s roads. Call 800-FOR- ROAD (800-367-7623) or use its mobile-friendly website at my.vdot.virginia.gov. Agents are available 24 hours-a-day, seven days a week.