6/13 primary: Norfolk’s Commonwealth’s Attorney

When Norfolk voters head to the polls Tuesday, they will first be asked to choose either a Democratic or Republican ballot. Both parties are holding primaries for governor and lieutenant governor. The ballots for Democratic voters in the 83rd or 89th House of Delegates district will include candidates for the party’s nomination in those races as well (although, as previously mentioned, one of the candidates in the 83rd has dropped out).

All of Norfolk’s voters in the Democratic primary will have the opportunity to choose the party’s nominee for Commonwealth’s Attorney. Given that there is no Republican candidate for this office, Tuesday’s primary election winner will – barring any last minute independent candidate – be the city’s CA. It was with that in mind that I attended Thursday night’s forum, sponsored by the Norfolk Federation of Civic Leagues.

The three candidates – incumbent Greg Underwood and challengers Ron Batliner and S.W. Dawson – appeared tired. My guess is that they have appeared together so many times, they can just about finish each other’s sentences – not an unusual situation for campaigns. This year, I’ve not followed this contest as closely as similar contests in the past; as the result, I attended with an eye towards learning more about the challengers’ qualifications for office and their backgrounds. (Obviously, I’m better acquainted with Underwood.)

Overall, I was disappointed.

None of the candidates explained what the office of Commonwealth’s Attorney actually does. Given that a) many voters will have no contact with the office, and b) we have a lot of people who have moved here from other states who may not be familiar with the term, I thought this was an real oversight.

Given 3 1/2 minutes for opening and closing statements, I was surprised that only one candidate really used the time to make a case for himself, explaining his fitness for the position.

In between those statements was the Q & A part. What stood out for me during this time was the amount of inside baseball that was reflected in the questions and the candidates’ answers to them. Initially, some of the questions were just bizarre to me, but by the end I realized that these questions were designed to make one of the three look bad, such as:

  • How many jury trials have you handled? How many murder jury trials have you handled?
  • What is your relationship with the police?
  • What will be your drunk driving prosecution policy?

These were three of the six questions answered by all of the candidates. The last three questions of the forum were directed at the candidates individually, and were, in my view, a continuation of the attacks on each.

Note that all of the questions asked of the candidates came from the audience. In addition, the audience was rather small. Based on my conversations afterwards, it appeared that few were in attendance that were not already committed to one of the candidates.

My takeaways:

The CA’s office requires experience as a prosecutor. I am reminded of an old Law & Order episode in which DA Arthur Branch (Fred Thompson) fires ADA Serena Southerlyn (Elisabeth Röhm) because of emotions over facts. Her emotions, Branch says, makes her “an advocate.”

You ought to be involved in cases that feed your passion. … But Serena you must know that will not happen in this office. It can’t. Now, a prosecutor can be zealous but not passionate. Advocacy is warm-blooded. Enforcement’s gotta be cold-blooded. And blind. And even-handed.

That Dawson has experience only as a defense attorney – an advocate – steers me away from him as the leader of a group of prosecutors. While I appreciate his desire to stop the over-criminalization of our youth, that process seems outside of the scope of the CA’s office. (The legislature passes the laws that lead to the police arresting people for crimes.) Combined with his overall inexperience* – as best as I can tell, he’s been practicing for less than 7 years, mostly (completely?) in a small firm – eliminates him from my consideration.

Both Batliner and Underwood have extensive experience as prosecutors.

The CA’s office requires a working relationship with the police. Again, I am reminded of an L&O episode, the one in which newly appointed DA Jack McCoy fires an ADA who was too close to the police and never saw any wrongdoing by them. (No, I can’t find the clip.) Is this the charge against Batliner that was hinted at throughout the forum? Or was this directed at Underwood, who has been slow to opine on investigations of officer-involved shootings? In any event, it will be up to the citizens to pay close attention to this regardless who is elected.

Management experience and style matter. With 35 or so attorneys to supervise as well as a budget to manage, management skills are critical. Despite Underwood’s claims, the turnover in the CA’s office can’t be blamed completely on the pay. After all, it’s not as if the pay scale was unknown to new hires. The explanation for a reduction in the number of positions in the office – blame the Compensation Board – also doesn’t cut it for me. This is the one part of the CA’s job that is advocacy – on behalf of the office’s employees to both the Comp Board and the city.

I have to say, though, that Batliner’s confidence in his ability to do the job – as evidenced by his answers and demeanor during the forum – sometimes crosses over into arrogance. That may be an obstacle when dealing with a group of folks who likely posses similar know-it-all attitudes.


More information on the candidates (listed in the order in which they appear on the ballot:

Ron Batliner, Jr. Financial report | Website | Facebook

Greg D. Underwood Financial report | Website | Facebook

S. W. Dawson Financial report | Website | Facebook


* – My only prior experience with Dawson was at a Norfolk Federation of Civic Leagues meeting in which I was presenting information on federation members becoming nonprofit organizations. His comments revealed a lack of expertise in the very complicated area of nonprofit incorporation and organization. As a CPA for more than 30 years, I’ve done my share of cleaning up behind over-confident but inexperienced attorneys.

2 thoughts on “6/13 primary: Norfolk’s Commonwealth’s Attorney

  1. Thank you, Vivian, for your comments about all the political races. It seemed that every time something came up with the planned debates and I was unable to attend. Your comments are always logical and fairly balanced. It helps to make up my mind on specific races.

  2. This was the only one I was able to attend. While Dawson seems to be a nice person his lack of experience would keep me from giving him my vote. I cannot and will not forgive Underwood for ducking his DWI which showed a lack of integrity, it may have been a smart move but it showed his true character. Pay is not a reason that most of his employees leave. Like you said they know when they apply what the pay scale is and how stingy our city can be with raises. I have heard many rumors of the cause but they are rumors. I will have to put my faith in Batliner and hope the city is in good hands.

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