As the Nov. 8 election date nears, the City of Williamsburg and the College of William and Mary students prepare for two of the five city council seats to be up for grabs on the ballot. Despite no students running for the open seats, this election has seen a wave of student engagement.
Current city council members up for re-election and on the ballot are Mayor Doug Pons and Council Member Ted Maslin MBA ’80. Rick Overy and William and Mary Law School Professor Stacy Kern-Scheerer are running alongside them.
Caleb Rogers ’20 ran in 2020 and is halfway through serving his four-year term. Rogers says that in the last 14 years when students have been allowed to vote, there has been historically less participation when no College student is running. Since 2010, the last three times a student at the College has run, they have been elected.
“In all of those years, the years in which there has been a student candidate, there’s been a lot of participation. When there hasn’t been, there hasn’t been that same level of engagement. So looking at this year, I think it’s safe to say this is the most engagement the student body has been getting for a council race that does not involve a student, which really is historic.”
“In all of those years, the years in which there has been a student candidate, there’s been a lot of participation,” Rogers said. “When there hasn’t been, there hasn’t been that same level of engagement. So looking at this year, I think it’s safe to say this is the most engagement the student body has been getting for a council race that does not involve a student, which really is historic.”
Candidates may have known this year would be different when an unprecedented high number of students attended a Sept. 12 off-campus debate. As shown in the debate and following student interactions, much of the student vote revolves around housing — a high-stress issue at the College.
As the College undergoes major housing renovations, demolishes many on-campus residence halls and accepts a higher number of freshmen, upperclassmen have spoken out against the shortage of reasonably priced off-campus housing opportunities. Along with contentious town and gown relations — many of which were brought up at the council’s moratorium vote last year — some students feel unwelcome when they do find off-campus housing.
“With housing, you get finished with sophomore year and you suddenly have the ability to live off campus if you want… So then they start looking at the off-campus options and they’ve probably found that there aren’t a ton of options, or when there are they can be expensive,” Rogers said. “So Council has been excited about Midtown Row and open to and appreciative of students who are living in our neighborhoods. That has also led to, as a lot of students know, some consternation in the neighborhoods where you can have student houses living next to long-time owners.”
Our Williamsburg is a new student-run organization on campus, which advocates for students to register to vote in Williamsburg and to get involved with local issues that affect them. With the immediate focus on the council election, Our Williamsburg has endorsed Rick Overy and Stacy Kern-Scheerer.
“We met with all the candidates and we chose two that we deemed most student-friendly based on a couple of issues and so now we’re advocating for those candidates and for people to get registered to vote,” Matthew Berthoud ’25, one of the founders of Our Williamsburg, said.
The idea for the organization began when Berthoud and co-founder Charlie Unice ’25 began looking for off-campus housing.
“We’re looking for places to live next year, and we realized that the housing market is kind of tough around here, and there’s a lot of reasons for that,” Berthoud said. “There’s just sort of a limited supply. We think part of that is due to the three-person rule, which has been on the books for decades and isn’t very effective in our minds. Also, there’s a lot of tension between student renters and non-student homeowners and neighborhoods around campus, which is probably one of the sort of hottest, most divisive issues in Williamsburg right now.”
Blake Batchelor ’23 of Our Williamsburg stated that while he personally has had good relations with his off-campus neighbors, the three-person law has made some students feel unwelcome in their community.
“Especially with the relation to the three-person rule, if they see that there are more than there should be and they’re willing to call the police or use that as leverage over these students,” Batchelor said. “And this leads to a lot of students off campus feeling very disenfranchised and not incorporated into the communities that they live in, which we think is very disappointing and sad.”
Our Williamsburg aims to have students feel respected and represented in Williamsburg, both in regard to City Council and housing.
“Obviously, there’s a subset of residents that feel that students are unwelcome, but there’s also a subset of students that could behave better and don’t respond to criticism or won’t really get in conversations that need to be happening in the neighborhoods,” Unice said. “Because at the end of the day, there’s no laws that’s going to change… But coming to a compromise and just respecting each other, both sides… lends to a healthier neighborhood environment for everybody.”
Along with co-hosting a candidate forum with College Republicans, Young Independents and Theodore Roosevelt Society on Oct.12, the College’s Young Democrats have also been involved in the council election and have been campaigning for Kern-Scheerer.
“As a professor she has a great connection to the College and has demonstrated a genuine interest in students,” Young Democrats President Andrew Hoffman ’24 wrote to The Flat Hat. “She also runs a legal clinic at the law school for immigrants and is heavily involved in community service. So we think she is a great candidate who is firmly in line with our club and the commitments of the Democratic Party.”
Students have also been getting independently involved with the candidates’ campaigns.
Julian Allison ’23 became interested in the election after attending the Sept. 12 candidate forum and began helping current City Councilman Ted Maslin on his campaign.
“I want to help, like however I can, because I think he’s someone who cares about students and I think he will do a good job on council.”
“I want to help, like however I can, because I think he’s someone who cares about students and I think he will do a good job on council,” Allison said.
Allison has been consulting Maslin on student issues and opinions, as well as trying to spread Maslin’s messaging on issues such as housing and transportation.
“I give a lot of the student perspective and like stuff I’ve been hearing on campus and how students are feeling about certain issues, which issues matter most to us, and kinda direct him in that way,” Allison said. “And then I also help design flyers specifically for students that highlight the issues that we would care about as students.”
Gwyneth McGrath ’26 began getting involved in Pons’ campaign as she felt his vast experience qualifies him for the position.
“I decided to help out Mayor Pons, his campaign, just because he’s had a ton of experience in a lot of different industries that are pretty vital to Williamsburg,” McGrath said. “He worked a lot with the hotel industry and has even converted an old motel into apartment buildings. They kind of modernize a lot of the housing here in Williamsburg. And so just because of that, it was like, you know, a very easy way to get involved with a local government.”
Similar to Our Williamsburg’s and Allison’s work, McGrath helps Pons with on-campus events, such as the candidate forum and tabling at the Sadler Center.
“I’ll attend and kind of just talk to people or listen to them about what they have to say that pertains to William and Mary or what they want to see with how the school and the city council work together and see,” McGrath said. “Also just help out with, you know, spreading the word and thinking of better ideas to reach more people.”
The council election will take place Nov. 8, and students can learn more about how and where to vote on the City’s Voter Registrar site. Though voting registration is currently closed, this year’s election will be the first time that Virginia voters can register to vote on election day.
Update (10/26): The College’s Young Dems endorsed Stacy Kern-Scheerer and Ted Maslin for the city council election.