Friday, February 24, 2006

Bern Ewert: Is he for real?

There is a well-worn adage that we as Democrats should tell the whole story before the Republicans get hold of it, so we can define the debate and blunt the effect of it. In other words, better that we should discuss our own warts rather than have them pointed out by our adversaries.

In this diary, I will be discussing Virginia’s 5th Congressional District race. There are two Democratic candidates running, Al Weed and Bern Ewert. Al, a pioneering wine grape grower, ran two years ago and was trounced by Virgil Goode. Bern has been a City Manager among other things.

Today I am focusing on Bern Ewert, because certain facts have come to light in my research on this contest. I want to make sure that we have the best chance at beating Virgil in the fall. Unfortunately, Bern does not look like the person to do that.

Bern Ewert started out his government career as an assistant City Manager in Charlottesville, Virginia. He claims to have put forth the idea of the downtown mall that later became reality in Charlottesville. I have not been able to pin down exactly who proposed the idea, but several people in the area have told me they were surprised about this claim. That would not be the first time a claim of Bern’s has raised questions.

The fact is, as of this week, he still hasn’t registered with the FEC, despite having announced in November. Filing an application with the FEC is required when a candidate has raised over $5,000 for a campaign—whether those funds are cash or in-kind contributions. The ironic part of all this is that Bern claimed in a DFA candidate forum on February 1, 2006, that he had already registered. A person cannot be sure a candidate is running until they have registered. Does Bern take his own campaign seriously enough to register with the FEC?

In addition, Bern has at least two resumes out in the public eye. One is on his campaign website, while the other was handed out at the 5th Congressional District meeting ten days ago in Richmond. On the one given out at the meeting, he claims to have been in the military as an E5 when he was discharged from the Army at Ft. Carson, Colorado. He doesn’t include any dates of service on either resume. But in his online resume he claims that he was an “Acting Sergeant” E4—the same information as is printed on a campaign card available at the Central Committee meetings ten days ago in Richmond. Speaking as a navy veteran, will the real Bern Ewert please stand up and salute his own resume? Was he or was he not an E5?

For the sake of this diary, let’s assume that Bern has filed for office. Let’s also assume that he has cleared up the miscommunications about his military record. Is there any other problematic statement and/or omission which have been made? Yes, there is—and, after doing some research, I believe it’s a major one. On his resume passed out at the Richmond meetings, Bern’s experience lists something under his own company’s name called “Explore Park.” Neither the online resume nor the printed campaign card shows this as one of his accomplishments. So, I searched on “Explore Park” to find out more about it. And, after finding out what the park’s original intent was, I wondered why he would be shy about something like this? It turns out that’s a very good question. Now, I am making an assumption here that he is not very proud of his accomplishments at Explore Park. I make that assumption based on information that I have reviewed concerning the quality and circumstances of the job he did there. I researched over 360 articles at The Roanoke Times in Roanoke, Virginia. I found that, at best, Explore Park turned out to be a very expensive failure.

Bern was City Manager in Roanoke from 1979 until 1985, when he left to become Executive Director of Explore Park (located in the Roanoke area). Contemporary reports of the time say that the local zoo had become interested in relocating in 1984, and by 1985 the idea of Explore Park was born. The park was envisioned as a $185 million Disney-style amusement park/nature center. It was hoped that a million tourists per year would visit the park when it was completed. The initial funding was to have come from $78 million of local, state and federal money over an 8-year period. Additionally, private sources and loans were to have provided another $107.5 million.

The Virginia Recreational Facilities Authority (VRFA) purchased approximately 1,100 acres of land along the Roanoke River for use as a park, but not a State Park. It was paid for by state-issued bonds backed by the proposed revenues from the park. Bern hired his own company to provide the planning and hired an engineer friend of his, Richard Burrow, to be on the park board and to provide the engineering for the site. According to a letter to the editor in the Roanoke Times, Bern was paying his firm a substantial amount of money for the time period. There are differing accounts about how much; one source says $180,000 per year, another $30,000 a month. Either way, it is a lot of money. The engineer made the same amount, supposedly.

The River Foundation was the oversight and fundraising organization for the Park and was initially given veto power over the Governor’s appointees to its board. Fundraising didn’t go well at all. They had problems attracting much funding besides the government funds already allocated. Over the next several years, millions of dollars of federal, state and local money were spent on the project. As of 1988, nearly $24 million in state and federal funds had been given to Explore Park.

In 1990, more articles started appearing in the paper about troubles at the park. There were money shortages, unpaid taxes, and unpaid bills. Little or no money was coming in. When Bern hired Rupert Cutler, a renowned naturalist and former head of a nature organization in Washington, D.C., it was seen as a bow to both environmental questions and questions about the project’s physical closeness to the Blue Ridge Parkway. It shouldn’t really have been too much of a surprise that, in 1991, the foundation declined to renew Bern’s contract.

In 1994, a scaled-back version of the park opened for business. In the last 17 or so years (since 1988), federal and state funding has amounted to about $6 million. Local governments (Roanoke City and Roanoke County) have put in more than $5 million in cash and services. Donations have added only $12 million. That’s a long way from the $185 million dollar vision proposed in 1985. The reality is that Explore Park has never reached the potential that was envisioned for it. School children and summer hikers and bikers have made up the majority of the users of the park. So, in 2005, the park’s board gave a 50-year lease to a company that wants to develop it into a western history park, somewhat like the original vision.

At the time of the park’s inception, Bern was said to possess a keen interest in the Lewis and Clark Expedition. This is one of the reasons he took the position, according to reports in the newspaper. Funny that something that was this close to his heart was handled this way; even more strange that he doesn’t claim this project publicly on his resume. Bern’s involvement in Explore Park, which ended in 1991 when his contract was not renewed, has remained somewhat of a secret to all but those who were involved and/or live in the area. And this information should definitely be made public to the voters in the 5thCongressional District. Obviously Bern is not proud of his involvement, as evidenced by his reluctance to list it as an accomplishment on his own resumes.

I truly believe that Bern Ewert is not the right man for the job. He is of questionable character, or sloppy, or both. A candidate ultimately has to take responsibility for the actions or inactions of his or her campaign. Bern is not doing that; he is trying to sell himself to us as a certain thing, hoping that we won’t find out the truth.

Believe it or not—there’s more to this tale. I will have the second half of this diary on Monday. Please come back and read the rest of the story.

(cross-posted at Dynamic Pressure and Daily Kos)

Friday, February 10, 2006

Welcome to my blog


This is going to be fun. I hope to be able to raise awareness of subjects that should be important to us all.

Politics is my main passion, but music and life in America is also a passion.

Feel free to comment on anything here. I won't get my feelings hurt if you disagree. I hope to have adult conversations that will enlighten all who wish to visit here.