NEWS- Anatomy of an upset: Voters yank Camblos, choose Lunsford

Commonwealth's Attorney Jim Camblos calls a press conference November 8 to talk about his loss.

Two days after the November 6 election, Commonwealth's Attorney Jim Camblos strode to the front of the Albemarle Courthouse, greeted by bunches of balloons and a crowd that included Democratic Delegate David Toscano.

The festive scene was a jarring note for the Republican incumbent so recently resoundingly rejected by voters. But in fact, Toscano, a lawyer, was there for an adoption he was handling, and the celebration just happened to coincide with what would be one of Camblos' last press conferences, this one to talk about his ouster from the office he'd held for nearly 16 years.

Even Democrats were stunned that challenger Denise Lunsford so handily took the commonwealth's attorney's job with 53 percent of the vote over Camblos' 47 percent.

"It was a surprise," says Lunsford. "I knew we'd done everything, had run a good campaign and got people out." But, she notes, "He was a four-time incumbent." The margin, she says, "was a surprise."

"Not a great year for Republicans"

Standing in front of the courthouse where he's held so many press conferences– including the announcement that he would seek a fifth term as commonwealth's attorney back in March– Camblos conceded that election night was "a difficult time." 

Citing George Bush and the war in Iraq as factors in the election, he said, "It wasn't a good year to be a Republican." The war shouldn't have affected the race for the constitutional office of Albemarle's top prosecutor, he said. "It did."

Others point out that Republican Chip Harding topped his Democratic opponent, Larry Claytor, in the sheriff's race by an even greater margin– 54 percent to 45 percent.

"It was the Democratic party that beat me," said Camblos. "They did a great job getting the vote out."

Some citizens, however, see less of a get-out-the-vote effort and more of a stinging rebuke.

 "I wish I could say it was an endorsement of Denise Lunsford, but it was an indictment of Jim Camblos," says local blogger Waldo Jaquith, a vocal Camblos critic who compiled a list of what he considered mishandled cases, called "Jim Camblos' Greatest Hits."

Jaquith can't point to one single decision that tipped the scale for voters. "On the contrary, I think it was a pattern," he says. "There was something for everyone. If you believe the county acts foolishly over underage drinking, there's that couple."

Several people the Hook spoke with mentioned the notorious case in which Elisa Kelly and her-then husband, George Robinson, were sentenced to eight years for buying booze for their then-16-year-old son's birthday party. They're now serving  a 27-month sentence. 

Ironically, as much as people may associate that case with Camblos, he sought just a 90-day sentence– although any time behind bars was then novel. It was Judge Dwight Johnson who slammed the gavel down calling for eight-years, and now-retired Judge Paul Peatross who, on appeal, thought more than two years was a reasonable sentence.

"I think it was a number of things," says Lunsford. "The lack of responsiveness, his level of competence, his attitude and behavior. By and large, people were ready for a change."

"I think I've done a good job, and done it with dignity," said Camblos at his press conference as he thanked his supporters, citizens, the police, and even the media. And while promising an orderly transition, he admonished assembled reporters to "keep tabs" on Lunsford to ensure she fulfills her pledge that citizens leave her office satisfied.

"I'm not sure she really understands what she's getting into," said Camblos. "It's a big, complicated job, and not just going into court every once in a while."

Camblos disavowed any connection with a negative ad published in the November 2 Daily Progress. Paid for by United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400, the ad targeted Lunsford's domestic partner, Richard Brewer, and his management of Mayfair House assisted living.

Camblos blasted negative campaigning and a "misleading" television ad directed at him too. The ad created by Crime Victims United of Virginia– a recently formed political action committee that endorsed Lunsford– was "a total lie," Camblos said. [See accompanying story, "'Total lie'? Crime victims' group claims credit."]

Albie Tabackman, husband of Crime Victims' board member Joan Fenton, filmed the press conference and asked Camblos for specifics. "Who are you?" asked  Camblos.


Crime Victims United of Virginia 

The hastily formed PAC started out with five members: businessperson Fenton, former Albemarle cops Karl Mansoor and Roger Mathias, former U.S. attorney Tim Heaphy, and high-profile 1984 UVA rape victim Liz Seccuro.

The State Board of Elections shows the PAC officially registered October 23. The group appears to have focused on just this one race. It requested the two candidates return questionnaires by October 25, and on October 26 the PAC endorsed Lunsford.

At that time, Camblos called the PAC's move "basically an endorsement by five people." That would soon become an overstatement.

By November 2, just four days before the November 6 election, the ad began running, and Heaphy and Seccuro promptly resigned.

"Our aims were quite disparate," Seccuro writes in an email. "My work at this particular stage is solely as a victims' rights advocate and not to be involved in local political races that I am not intimately aware of."

Camblos declined to comment further about the PAC and its role in the election, except to urge a reporter to talk to Heaphy, who did not return repeated calls.

The PAC spent between $6,000 and $7,000 on ads, according to Fenton, and she believes the ads influenced the race.

"It presented accurate facts," she says. "There are a lot of stories about Jim. The right person came forward to speak out. I think it had a huge impact."

And Lunsford's win, says Fenton, indicates "a lot of Republicans are dissatisfied, no matter what they say publicly. When they get in the voting booth..."

Like Jaquith, she doesn't believe any one incident brought Camblos down. "I think it was individuals who each had a personal story that they were afraid to come forward with. A lot of people have been impacted by a case or had a friend impacted."

Despite the shrunken board, Fenton foresees the Crime Victims United as a statewide organization. "I think to unseat an incumbent, our PAC had an influence," she says.

Republican vice chair Christian Schoenewald agrees, at least on the ad's impact– "that negative, negative ad," he says. "It shows the power of negative campaigning."

However, Democratic chair Fred Hudson thinks the Crime Victims ad came too late to have much influence. "My belief," he says, "is most people already had decided what they were going to do." 

Hudson disagrees that there was a negative campaign. "[Camblos] may say so," Hudson says, "but talking about his record is not negative."

"I think [the election] was clearly an indictment of Jim Camblos," says Fred Newsom, whose son was one of four teens charged in last year's notorious "smoke bomb" cases, in which four county teens were alleged to have conspired to blow up schools. While the oldest boy pleaded to a juvenile charge, no bombs or specific evidence of a plot was ever found, and the only one of the cases to go before a jury resulted in an acquittal.

Arguably the highest profile prosecutions last year, the "smoke bomb" cases featured four teens– some of whom didn't even know each other– held for months in detention on scanty physical evidence primarily from Newsom's locked gun safe. And when it was over, Newsom found himself defending a contempt of court charge that even the judge declined to punish because all that was alleged is that he violated a gag order in asking the public school board to let his son back in.

"I met a lot of people I didn't know who told me their own Jim Camblos story," says Newsom, who confesses, "This is the first time I've ever voted for a Democrat."

Howard Barnett, father of another of the bombless teens, ticks off a list of reasons: "abuse of power, lack of competence, lack of respect for the Constitution."

Barnett, whose then 13-year-old son was acquitted on appeal, scoffs at the notion Camblos lost because of negative campaigning. 

"People were intimidated," he says. "Once some of us spoke out, people became less fearful."

Barnett says he became a Lunsford supporter after checking into her reputation, competence, and integrity. And he liked the fact she didn't seem to be looking at higher office. "It was not a stepping stone to higher office, like judge," he notes.

Camblos, however, sought a judgeship twice, most recently earlier this year when Judge Peatross announced he was stepping down from the bench. In 2004, Camblos teamed up with Public Defender Jim Hingeley to file a complaint to have Peatross removed because of "improper conduct."

Barnett believes the smoke bomb case "started the pendulum swinging."

Albemarle Supervisor Lindsay Dorrier used to be commonwealth's attorney. He calls Lunsford's victory "an upset," but observes, "It's hard not to make enemies in that job. Fifteen years is a long time for anyone to remain in that job."

For Barnett and Newsom, Camblos' defeat is a little more personal. Says Newsom, "To paraphrase Jim Camblos after the smoke bomber persecution plot, 'We are happy with the outcome, and the system works.'"



Update from yesterday: The dismissed Debbie Wyatt embracery charges can now be added to "Jim's Greatest Hits". :)

What a loser Camblos is. Somebody ought to write a book. John Grisham, perhaps?

I'm so happy he lost re-election, it was time for new blood in that office.