Republicans call for investigation into School Board race ‘trickery;’ Democrats to question past Chairman

PRINCE WILLIAM COUNTY — Stanley Bender was the independent third-party candidate in a Special Election on Nov. 6 for Prince William County School Board Chairman At-large.

He was a long shot, having raised no money, erecting no campaign signs, and participating in just two of three election forums held prior to the vote.

Bender won nearly 15,000 votes, 10 percent of the total vote in the three-way race with victor Dr. Babur Lateef, endorsed by Democrats, and Alyson Satterwhite, endorsed by Republicans.

While the candidates received endorsements, they run as independents not affiliated with any political party under Virginia law.

Satterwhite and other Republicans attribute Bender’s success to bright red signs erected outside polling places on Election Day that stated “Republicans for Bender.” Also printed on the signs: “Authorized by Republicans for Stanley Bender.”

A search of public records at the Virginia Department of Elections showed Immediate Past Chairman Prince William County Democratic Committee Chairman Harry Wiggins on Oct. 24 filed for the creation of a political action committee of the same name.

Satterwhite appeared at a press conference outside of the Prince William County Public Schools headquarters at Kelly Leadership Center the day after Election Day to announce the end of her campaign. She added the Bender signs confused voters and amounted to voter suppression.

Jeanine Lawson and Ruth Anderson from the county’s Board of Supervisors joined Satterwhite and called for the county’s Electoral Board — comprised of three Democrats — to investigate the signs and bring charges against Wiggins if it uncovers evidence of election meddling.

“This is certainly not the tone we want in Prince William County,” said Lawson. “This is an assault on the integrity of the vote.”

Wiggins, nor any member of the county’s Electoral Board have returned a request for comment for this story.

Potomac Local first reported on the Bender signs on Election Day. Satterwhite slammed her opponent Lateef for not condemning the signs while voters were still lining up at the polls Nov. 6.

“Silence is complicit,” she said.

Prior to Satterwhite’s post-election press conference the next day, Lateef told Potomac Local, “My campaign does not condone those actions and we strongly condemn them, period…The alleged individual did not have a role in our campaign.”

Don Shaw, the current Prince William County Democratic Committee Chairman issued a statement denouncing what Republicans called “trickery” at the polls.

Shaw told Potomac Local that Wiggins still has a non-voting role in the county Democratic Committee until at least next month when his title of Immediate Past Chairman expires. Shaw said he plans to interview Wiggins after Thanksgiving to ascertain his involvement in the incident.

“It’s going to be a long discussion,” said Shaw. “This is not something we take lightly.”

In an interview, Stanley Bender appeared to have a sore spot for Democrats in Prince William County.

“Democrats are rotten. Period,” he said.

The retired engineer said he had no advance knowledge of the Republicans for Bender PAC, or that the signs had been created. He says he knows of Wiggins but says the two are not close.

Bender, who says he didn’t seek an endorsement from either party, said most “people don’t know who they’re voting for” in local political races and tend to vote by party ticket.

“I didn’t feel I should put any [his own] campaign signs up… If I had, and I had put signs up in places that I know, I would have won the battle,” said Bender.

As for his nearly 15,000 votes?

“I just got lucky,” he said.

While it’s not illegal to form a PAC and erect signs for any candidate, benefitting candidates are required to sign off stating they are aware of the organization.

This case is tricky should it ever proceed to court.

“The legal system gives a wide latitude to something like this,” said Dr. Steven Farnsworth, Professor, and Director at the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at Mary Washington University. “It’s an uphill challenge to deal with this. You’ve got the first amendment, and that’s a tough hurdle to overcome.

The professor says this case is unprecedented in Virginia politics, but with a growing partisan divide in the state, it could become politics as usual.

“Both major parties have ramped up endorsements for non-party offices,” said Farnsworth. “Maybe the Republicans should have been more vigorous for their candidate.”

Prince William County voters next year must go back to the polls to elect a School Board Chairman At-large to a new four-year term. The Special Election on Nov. 6 filled the seat vacated by former Chairman At-large Ryan Sawyers.

Lateef was appointed to the At-large seat following Sawyers’ departure.

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