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Introducing Shenandoah Sunshine

May 16, 2011 1 comment

UPDATE: I noticed that a number of people are landing here when searching for Shenandoah Sunshine. At the time of this post the blog wasn’t up, so no link. Of course, the blog is now rolling, and you may find it here.

During my time at the University of Virginia, I first became interested in the art of blogging. At the time, blogging was just getting established as a media platform. There’s not much to it, really–essentially, a blog is really just a website that is updated very frequently, with the newest material presented first on the front page. They’re really not all that different from the earliest websites around–in fact, some of the earliest blogs came online around 1994. What really put blogging on the map was a change in accessibility and tone.

These two changes occurred around the same time. Previously, maintaining a blog required a modicum of web design and maintenance skills, depending on what you were trying to accomplish. During the late 90s and early 00s, however, enterprising web gurus develop software and services that allowed pretty much anyone with the most basic of word processing and web surfing skills (i.e. click here to publish) to start a blog. Additionally, they even offered to host it for you, meaning there was no investment other than time. It was on par with other developments in publishing: first came hand written texts, which was limited to those with the ability and time to expend in copying them. Then there was the printing press, which suddenly made republication even easier, but still that was limited to those who could afford a press (or those who could convince there was money to be made by the owners in selling their work). Then came mechanization, Xerox, and then finally, blogging–pretty much anyone can be read by others now (though you still have to get people interested). Understandably, each of these methods was taken advantage of by those with political interests, in spreading a message about government and politics. Blogging is no exception.

Certainly there were political bloggers before 2002, but it was in that year that a blogger played a key role in forcing then Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS) to step down following remarks that he made regarding how the nation would have been better off had it elected then Southern Democrat Strom Thurmond during his explicitly segregationist presidential campaign in 1948. Media had been present at the event the comments were made at, but they went unreported. It was this new intrepid group of bloggers, who both had a motive but could also find an audience within the media that shamed them into making a bigger deal of the store, that kicked off a major change in the Senate’s leadership. Blogs further came of age when a group of right leaning bloggers cast light on CBS’s Dan Rather’s reporting on documents that put President Bush’s National Guard service in a dim light. Those documents were proved through blogger’s efforts to be forgeries. The controversy ultimately ended with Dan Rather stepping down from his post as anchor of CBS’s Evening News after 24 years. The message of these incidents was clear: a new generation of reporters and analysts was emerging thanks to the rise of a new form of media with very little cost to entry (both in terms of experience and monetary resources) and access that even TV and newspapers could be jealous of. More importantly, the media, even if they claimed to loathe the competition, was paying attention, and now, they were not the only ones who would decide what stories mattered.

What was there that DIDN’T appeal about blogging to a young political activist with an interest in writing, the internet, and well, making a difference/stirring up trouble (depending on your opinion of my efforts)? I started primarily writing about state politics and blogged off and on about it under both my name and pseudonyms through 2006. During my bout with cancer, I also used blogging as an outlet, though for a much more personal reason. In 2008 and 2009, my interests changed, and I ran first a blog for the Shenandoah County Republican Committee and this humble blog right here.

These efforts were meant to bring a blogging presence to Shenandoah County, but they largely failed for a number of reasons. For one, I just didn’t promote them right. Two, I never quite delivered on my promise of providing news and commentary for the County. Commentary, yeah, commentary that I frankly got some grief for. But this commentary never developed a following outside of a very small political class, and the news just wasn’t there. I wasn’t aggressive enough in either pursuing stories or just plain providing coverage. The opinion I did offer, and that seemed to draw more attention, was on state and national issues.

Still, for reasons I’ll get into below, I continue to see a real need for a new media resource for Shenandoah County and for political and public affairs coverage in the locality. My professional and personal position has changed over the last few months, and after continuing to play with the idea, I’ve finally decided to stop complaining and deliver.

It is with that background that I announce a new project of mine: The Shenandoah Sunshine Project. What is Shenandoah Sunshine? This project is intended to create a free, citizen powered resource for political and government news driven by the power of new media (including blogging, video and social networking). That, however, sounds supisciously like a simple pitch for advertisers, or a (albeit long) Twitter post. So, in that grand jouralistic tradition, I present the who, what, when, where, why and how of Shenandoah Sunshine.

So who are we? Well, for right now, you’re reading his words. Yes, at the present time, Shenandoah Sunshine is a one man band. However, because of the unique platform of new media, we hope that to be relatively short lived. We want to get other citizens involved in reporting on local politics and government. Even if you don’t have the time or interest in lugging a camera (or even pad and pen) to a local government meeting, we still want to hear what you’re interested in. Every platform we use will include some way for you to interact with us and provide us with tips, suggestions, and story ideas. Beyond that, we also hope to be a platform not only for reporting but for commentary and analysis as well–left, right, center, progressive, conservative, we want to hear from you, and provide you with a platform beyond the limitations of the letters to the editor section of the local papers in which to do it. For my part, I plan on restricting myself to a reporting role, covering meetings and reporting just the facts. If I step beyond that to offer opinion, I’ll be clear to label it as such, but I hope to control myself in that regard. But if my reporting appears to be biased, I certainly want to know that as well.

And just what are we going to provide? Well, think of us as CSPAN for Shenandoah County. We’re going to provide news and analysis about Shenandoah County Government and Politics across various social media platforms (video, twitter, facebook). Again, we are strictly limiting ourselves to just government and politics in Shenandoah County. If you’re looking for box scores, the line-up of acts for the Shenandoah County Fair, or what happened at the Relay for Life, sorry, we won’t have it–that’s not what we’re about. We are purposely focusing on the realm of public affairs within a limited geographic area. In short, we hope to be the C-SPAN of Shenandoah County. We want to provide citizens with a front row seat to government and politics in action. We will provide reporting and yes, film of town council and Board of Supervisor meetings and political events. Even CSPAN could be accused of being biased to a certain degree–even a camera angle or selection could be considered a form of bias–but we feel by providing the source material in a way others haven’t, we will be able to provide both a more comprehensive and less biased form of coverage than has ever been attempted in Shenandoah County.

When are we kicking this off? Well, that’s a bit trickier. In a sense, it starts today with the announcement. We want to hear your feedback starting now. What do you want to hear about? Where do you want us to be? Think we’re full of crap and aren’t needed at all and we should be ashamed of ourselves for even suggesting this project? Let us know….even if that won’t call us off. Again, this is all about getting citizens involved in the process, and that includes us, the media. Yet, today, we aren’t launching any stories. We’ve reserved a spot on the major platforms we’ll be using (YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, WordPress), but content will roll out slowly, because, right now, we haven’t started the heart of the project. That will come soon, though. Our first target: redistricting in Shenandoah County. Look for stories and information beginning tomorrow, and full coverage of next week’s public hearing on the issue before the Board of Supervisors.

Where will we be? This is not a traditional media project. Again, we have a narrow focus, and a different platform. We conciously will not have a traditional press outlet, for several reasons. One, for the kind of coverage we’re providing, we just don’t think that our model is an economically viable one. Other projects that have had a larger community focus have folded–there’s been multiple new printed outlets through the last decade that have come and gone. We just don’t have the financial resources to try, and we don’t think its worth it. Beyond that, we think the present outlets do a good job as printed resources for the community writ large, and we don’t see competing wtih them. More to the point, we hope to do something a little different here. As we’ll outline below, we see a gap in local government and political coverage, and I feel that, frankly, county politics is not taken a s seriously as it could be. To try and change this, I hope to go to where the dialogue is–social media. If the announcement of a public official’s child being born or their engagement can draw people’s attention, why can’t coverage of important issues do so as well? I have a hunch that its because nobody’s tried hard enough, and I want to give it a whirl. It might work, it might not–but it won’t be known until its tried.

So that leads us to another question–just why am I doing this? Well, for starters, I think that, quite frankly, there’s just not enough engagement regarding politics in Shenandoah County. Too often we’ll see public hearings regarding property taxes or school spending packed to the gills, but then at the very next meeting there will be one or two people. Same thing with letters to the editor–there will be a deluge when there’s big issues at hand, but then nothing for weeks or months. Should we just live with this? After all, those are important issues–why not let people live their lives the rest of the year? Well, there’s something to that argument–but the problem with that logic is that these issues often become problems only because of decisions that were made in the past, when people weren’t really paying attention. We don’t blame the citizens directly–people often just don’t have options to hear about this stuff. But we think it matters. Too often, as a political office, I’d ask people about who they were planning to vote for in local elections and I’d get the answer, “sorry, I only vote in presidential elections, the only one that matters.” The problem there is that the vast majority of government operations that affect us in our daily lives, from police protection to public schools to, yes, even turning on the water to brush your teeth in the morning, are the function of local government. It might not be the sexiest or most compelling part of politics, but local politics matters. Right now, I just don’t feel that the local media outlets do as good a job as they good. The Hearld, despite being just focused on the county, has unfortunately curtailed in-depth coverage. The Free Press, while far more in depth, has a clear agenda, and the lines between reporting and opinion are far too often blurred in their coverage. The Northern Virginia Daily does good coverage on occasion, bu they cover Winchester and Front Royal as well and therefore have to manage their reporting and don’t get to cover every meeting as they should. We also don’t think that government itself does as good a job as it should. We want to change that. There may be some that see us “attacking the powers that be” on that front, but we don’t see this as an agenda driven effort. If we have any agenda, its on the side of government transparency and civic engagement. That’s all we care about–we hope to be a platform for political discussion, but before we do that, we want to get people talking through unprecedented political coverage.

To expand on that just for a moment–we realize that we may not have a readership that is a cross section of Shenandoah County at first. Likely, our first readers will probably be those already deeply invested in the political process to begin with. That’s ok–that’s why we’re focusing on social media. We want to start a dialogue, and we feel the quickest way to do that is to give people an easy way to disseminate information regarding local government. Again, it may work, it may not–maybe people really just don’t care, and information on redistricting will never be as popular as baby photos. Someone needs to try, though, and it might as well be the nerd who awaits census data more than word of a classmate’s newborn…..I make no apologies on that front, but as I’ve always felt–somebody’s gotta be that guy in a successful society. It might as well be me.

So how are we going to pull this off? Social media is at the core of this project. A blog, twitter, YouTube and Facebook are at the center of this project. You will find us across all three platforms, and for right now, its going to be heavy lifting on my part. But I want this–I see a real need for this sort of coverage, and I feel compelled to try. There will be more coming across the next few days, and we encourage you to stay tuned. Above all, get involved: talk to us, let us know what you want to hear about, critique us. Because this project is ultimately about you, the citizens, and we believe that we can shine new light on the often confusing but always important nature of local government.

God bless this beautiful land we call the Shenandoah Valley, and god bless America.

Regards,
Craig L. Orndorff

Editor, Shenandoah Sunshine Project

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Tea Parties Go Local

November 25, 2009 Leave a comment

In my eight years of political involvement, one issue has continually caused me a great deal of consternation: voters perpetual lack of focus on local politics. Certainly given where I’ve been (field work) I’ve heard more of it–the usual moans of “I only vote in presidential elections.” And why not? It’s that quaddrenial affair that gets the most coverage in the mainstream media, a focus that begins almost the minute the final votes are counted in Hawaii. Heck, in 2004 people were already talking about Romney in 2008 BEFORE ANY votes were cast.

I wouldn’t have much of a problem with this if it weren’t for the fact that my anectdotal evidence jives up with the hard fact that turnout is nearly always way down in non-presidential elections. Even here in Virginia, where political conflict is a way of life for many, turnout was down a full 33% from last year. Even in 2006, when the Allen-Webb Senate race got a great deal of national attention, turnout was just 52%, up 7% from the Gubernatorial race the year before but down almost 19% from the 2004 Presidential election.

This trend can play out differently locally. In 2003 in my own Shenandoah County turnout for the five way Sheriff’s race (one Republican, one candidate who had gotten the nomination four years prior, and three who liked to tout their various Republican credentials) was nearly 49%, which was roughly 4% higher than the State Senate race that same year. Yet even given an oddball race where a substantial number of voters turned out given personal connections to the candidates and just didn’t vote in the other races, turnout was still down a full 23% from the prior Presidential election in 2000.

Again, I certainly understand the perspective of voters who stay at home during local races. Some may just not know the candidates that well, given that they may not be natives. Some simply have the perspective that the President, for lack of a better phrase, is leader of the freaking free world, and therefore their vote in that race will have more effect on their lives than any other. More troubling, though, is those who just don’t care about local politics at all.

Yet it is at the local level where the parts of governing that most affects our everyday lives happens. Police, trash pickup, firefighters, building and zoning, business permits–all of these things that intensely affect our day to day living all occur at the local level. Notice anything that I left out? Ah yes–education. Though the influence of state and federal politics on public schools is undeniable, most school districts receive most of their funding at the local level and in many places take up the largest share of the local budget.

That’s why in my recent post about what to do with the tea party movement I showered plaudits upon those groups who have taken it upon themselves to serve as watchdogs ACROSS the spectrum of government. Conservatives understand that local government can nickel and dime us just like any other level of government and that despite their responsibility to “keep the trains on time” they still have a moral obligation to ensure the prosperity of their citizens by not unduly interfering with our lives to a point as to hamper individual initiative. Certainly, these groups have existed before–indeed, an entire book could be written on the history of watchdog groups in both Shenandoah and Augusta counties and how these groups intersect with inter-party conflict. Yet the increased awareness of government intrusion in our lives has brought new life to many of these groups.

That’s why I’m very excited to hear of this development in Staunton. From the Augusta Conservative:

According to the News Virginian, Tea Party Director Richard Armstrong has thrown in his hat for the Staunton City Council seat vacated by now State Delegate Dickie Bell. The Tea Party has gotten much more active as the political atmosphere has become more charged. Armstrong, 63, is a former Detroit police officer and Navy veteran. He stated that Staunton is not friendly to business and he wants to work toward fixing that. The Staunton City Council is interviewing people to fill the seat until a special election in May 2010.

The Augusta Conservative himself is in the running for a local Board of Supervisors seat. I make it my rule not to become too involved in races outside of where I live, as I feel its up to both primary and general election voters to decide who they think best represents their views. However, I think it should hearten any conscientious conservative to see their like minded brethren put their money where their mouth is in local government. I applaud anyone who takes on this challenge.

I still don’t know entirely what to make of the Tea Party movement as a whole, but as long as they are awakening citizens to government’s role at all levels, they’re doing good work.

BREAKING: Delegate Gilbert to be Challenged

April 11, 2009 2 comments

From Winchester Report and Rappahannock News, we have word that Delegate Todd Gilbert has drawn a challenger: Democrat John Lesinski. Mr. Lesinski decided to announce at the Rappahannock Board of Supervisors meeting. So far, only Rapp News has carried the announcement. The announcement was just stuffed into a report on the Board meeting. However, the editors had harsh words for the Delegate, who also happened to be at the meeting to give Board members an update on the legislative work he has done on behalf of the county. 

Then, county resident John Lesinski, a Democrat, announced that he would be running against Republican incumbent Todd Gilbert for the 15th District delegate seat. Why Mr. Gilbert would show up at this BOS meeting, instead of all the other ones he didn’t attend, seemed only slightly coincidental.

But, coincidence aside, that was not all. Toward the end of the meeting, several supervisors made a point of praising Mr. Gilbert’s championing the county in Richmond, and that they were very grateful for all his effort. Not a word was said in support of Lesinski’s candidacy even though he is a resident and Gilbert is not.

It’s not the sentiments we object to, but the timing and the venue and the appearance that the county Board of Supervisors publicly supports one candidate over the other, and on the day one chooses to announce.

Let’s put aside for a second that Delegate Gilbert has a good working relationship with county officials and has welcomed them multiple times in his Richmond office. In terms of his legislative work, he has been a staunch advocate for the tiny county that constitutes just about 10% of his district. He patroned HB936, which allows the sort of cost sharing agreement that the county just entered into with Madison County that will help guarantee up to a quarter of a million more in school funding, and introduced a budget amendment that would have granted $50,000 to the Scrabble School Foundation (although the amendment did not make it into the final budget). Outside of his official legislative duties, he has also been a leader on other issues confronting the county, including fighting Dominion Power on the planned line through the county and fighting against VDOT’s plan service cuts in rural areas. 

Of course, the paper was the only in the area not to carry the announcement of Gilbert’s re-election bid and did not endorse him in 2005, so it doesn’t come as much of a surprise. However, before they decide he is not worthy of their support over someone who just moved to the county in 2006 2007, perhaps they should look at the incumbent’s history of leadership on behalf of the county. 

All that aside, I look forward to a vigorous discussion of ideas between the two candidates. I think we will see a number of contrasts, particularly on the future of Interstate 81.  However, for now I can assure you I will be standing behind the principled and effective leadership of Delegate Todd Gilbert. 

Disclaimer: I am a former employee of Delegate Todd Gilbert. However, I have received no compensation for this post nor from his campaign or office since April 2006. 

Introducing Winchesterreport.com

March 31, 2009 1 comment

Anyone who enjoyed my Morning Round-Ups over at the Shenandoah GOP Blog (don’t bother going over there, it’s defunct) will greatly enjoy Winchesterreport.com. The site is a human run aggregator selecting the best stories about the Northern Shenandoah Valley from a variety of news sources. However, they’ve also featured some original reporting, most notably regarding upcoming elections in Frederick County and Winchester. I expect great things from them, and know that my fellow news hungry politicos will enjoy this new source as well. Help them out and send them your news tips today!

Once again, we scooped ’em!

The Northern Virginia Daily covered the Lincoln Day Dinner–in a pretty bare bones fashion, as they could have done an entire article on the AG candidates.(Note to the editors–next time send Shipley!) However, it’s nice that our event is finally worthy of coming out of the shadows on party intrigue and being an open event for all comers to celebrate our principles and support the party. 

In the article the Daily announces that Delegate Gilbert is running for re-election–remember who had that news first.

Herald Kicks It Away Yet Again

February 1, 2009 Leave a comment

In another display of their unique combination of ignorance and incompetence, the Shenandoah Valley Herald has managed to kick it away with another issue. Not only did they yet again not print any letters to the editor nor print any news of substance about county government, but they also made two major league mistakes with their insert “2009 Guide to Shenandoah County.”

At best, the guide should be titled the “2007 Guide to Shenandoah County.” Although it would be odd to release such a publication two years later, it would at least be labeled correctly and useful in the event that the entire county is simultaneously transported back two years. This is because according to the guide, Republican John Warner is still our senior United States Senator, and far worse, Supervisor Jim Patrick is still serving on the Board of Supervisors in District 2. I’m not saying that as my take on his service; rather, the Herald has done a major disservice to people who keep this guide handy to contact their public officials. 

It’s become very clear that the Herald is only interested in being a social paper for the community and a place to print glorified press releases for business openings. It has very real interest in its actual governance outside of its personalities. I understand the nature of the newspaper business and that papers are increasingly needing to find a niche, but you can also specialize yourself right out of business. As it stands, the only place to go for our county political news is the Free Press, and they make no bones about their agenda. I make no bones about my agenda, but watch for an expansion of county political coverage in this space as well.

And again, to show that I’m equal opportunity, why isn’t the county party’s website listed in the County Guide? The Democrats have there. Also, isn’t it a tad embarrassing that  incoming Democrats are invited to a monthly meeting? I know we keep the size of the committee small and that we don’t have monthly meetings, but we do have breakfasts. Don’t we want new blood?

UPDATE: An astute reader points out that the Shentel phone book features the same errors. This is actually a bit more egregious of an error, as with Shentel being the county’s phone franchisee the phone book goes out to just about every citizen in the county. However, I’m still rather unnerved by the fact that a publication that regularly covers county politics can’t even keep the players straight.

Triggerman Passes but Fails

January 28, 2009 Leave a comment

For a fourth straight year, the Triggerman bill has managed to gain traction in the General Assembly, this time passing the Senate. However, it failed to garner the number of votes that will ensure an override when it is (almost certainly) vetoed by the Governor. Garren Shipley has more:

Tuesday’s vote was 24-16, three votes short of the 27 needed to override a gubernatorial veto.

Speaking on the floor of the Senate, Obenshain said his bill fills a glaring gap in Virginia’s capital punishment laws.

“The poster child for this bill is none other than Charles Manson,” Obenshain said.

The object of the bill is to allow prosecutors to seek the death penalty for those who are directly responsible for murder, even if they don’t do the actual killing.

“He did not wield the knife, but no one in the Tate-LaBianca murders had a blacker heart,” Obenshain said.

Closer to home, the 2002 D.C. sniper attacks illustrate a glaring hole in the commonwealth’s laws, he said.

If not for a recently enacted anti-terrorism statute, Virginia could not have sought the death penalty for John Allen Muhammad — the man who instructed then-juvenile Lee Boyd Malvo to shoot random people at varying locations around D.C., Maryland and Virginia.

I find it very hard to comprehend how those who oppose this bill cannot see how authorizing or ordering the pulling of the trigger warrants the ultimate sanction. Is the brutal gang leader who thrives on power just not, if not moreso, culpable than the young man who is in over his head in gang activity? Death penalty opponents often trot out the argument that crime rates do not go down with the ultimate sanction. However, if gang leaders live in fear that they can be executed for ordering executions of their own, I feel to see how this would not be an effective deterrent and, at the very least, get some of the worst elements of our society off the streets.