Sunday, August 12, 2012

Court Rosen's key secret: Listen to people

The relative newcomer to Roanoke makes a point of attending community gatherings.

Roanoke Vice Mayor Court Rosen talks Tuesday with Mary Alice Nash and other residents of Fleming Court during National Night Out.


Roanoke Vice Mayor Court Rosen talks Tuesday with Mary Alice Nash and other residents of Fleming Court during National Night Out.

Four years ago, Court Rosen barely hung on to win the third open seat on the Roanoke City Council in a six-way race, besting incumbent Brian Wishneff by a scant 114 votes.

Running for re-election as part of an incumbency ticket this year, Rosen picked up 7,224 votes — a total that was not just an improvement of 1,708 votes from 2008, but also enough to win vice mayor as the top council vote-getter. He took first place in 21 of the city's 32 precincts. Of the 9,374 people who went to the polls for May's mayoral and city council elections, 77 percent voted for Rosen.

So how did the 33-year-old native of Pennsylvania go from barely getting elected to becoming vice mayor in four years?

Two words: showing up.

"I don't think anyone would contradict that he spends the most time at neighborhood events," said Councilman David Trinkle, who preceded Rosen as vice mayor. "I've always been surprised to hear how many he goes to and how engaged he is. His engagement is what got him this big victory here recently."

During his first campaign in 2008, Rosen made the rounds getting to know neighborhood groups, business trade groups and even churches. State Del. Onzlee Ware, D-Roanoke, remembers that Rosen approached him that year looking for advice. As a relative newcomer to Roanoke, Rosen wanted to learn how to attract votes not just in his home community in affluent south Roanoke, but also how to win across town in districts that were predominantly black.

"We told him, 'If you want to win in the African-American community, you've got to appear at African-American events,'" Ware said.

After the election, though, Rosen never stopped going out to churches and neighborhood meetings.

Rosen is Jewish, but it's not unusual for him to show up at Second Presbyterian Church in Old Southwest one week and then at Sweet Union Baptist Church in Gainsboro a few weeks later. He attended meetings about possible development at Evans Spring — the open land that touches the Fairland, Melrose-Rugby and Washington Park neighborhoods — as well as at some of the conflict resolution meetings between the Roanoke Rescue Mission and nearby Belmont and Star View Heights neighborhoods.

Although his schedule ebbs and flows with the seasons, Rosen said his goal is to visit each neighborhood group "at least two or three times" a year.

"The reality is I live in one house in one neighborhood in one part of the city," Rosen said. "But going to neighborhood meetings, visiting churches regularly, is an opportunity for me to hear about those experiences, to put myself in those other folks' shoes. It's a learning experience."

Ware said that's become an essential part of Rosen's political persona: "He made that a part of who he is. And he doesn't just show up to make a speech: He's in the audience."

Councilman Sherman Lea said Rosen has shown up several times at his church, Garden of Prayer No. 7.

"He hasn't been in Roanoke that long, per se, but I like the fact he visits the entire city," Lea said. "He can tell you just as much about the major issues in a southwest neighborhood as in a northwest neighborhood."

In the process, Rosen has become a familiar face to neighborhood activists — who also tend to be regular voters. Also, his regular attendance at neighborhood functions has helped him develop an early warning system for community issues that inevitably arise.

"When people get to know you personally, they're much more comfortable picking up the phone when there's an issue," Rosen said.

Robert Reed, president of Miller Court Neighborhood Alliance — one of the neighborhoods that borders the former Countryside Golf Course property — said Rosen has visited several of the group's meetings. And not just that, but he has responded to requests. Once the city closed the golf course, it was maintaining the property to only the minimum standards required by law. That meant, for example, it mowed only the 50-foot perimeter of the parcel.

"It looked tacky because all the other neighborhood lawns were manicured and cut," Reed said. "We called Court: He came out and visited with us. Ever since then, that site has been cut completely. I've been very impressed. We haven't had any other council person come out and visit with us like that."

Those community connections also helped build support for a Rosen proposal in February 2010 that would be political suicide in most cases: a proposed tax increase during a national economic slump. Rosen's two-year, 2-cent-per-dollar "Eat for Education" tax drew criticism at the time but went on to raise more than $9 million for city schools and become a model that has been copied in cities around the country.

Rosen grew up as the son of what he calls "very nonpolitical" parents in Oil City, Pa. But his interest was sparked by a history teacher who Rosen said "made it exciting to learn about government and politics."

He went on to study psychology and business at Vanderbilt University and there met his future wife, Brooke, who had family roots in Pulaski County. Both worked for Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign in Florida.

After college, Rosen moved to Arlington and went to work on Capitol Hill, first as a legislative aide to former U.S. Rep. Bob Clement, D-Tenn., then as deputy press secretary to Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind.

Eventually Court and Brooke Rosen decided to relocate to Western Virginia, where he went into business with his father-in-law developing land in the New River Valley.

He began to take an interest in Roanoke politics starting with the hot and heavy 2006 election, in which a ticket of self-proclaimed "independent Democrats" calling for the demolition of Victory Stadium won a sweep over tickets of Democrats and Republicans who wanted to preserve it. Rosen said the campaign provided a powerful lesson on how election results can dramatically affect public policy.

Rosen unsuccessfully applied for the school board before entering the council election of 2008 as a Democrat. As a first-time candidate still under the age of 30, he targeted youthful voters among the numerous young professionals groups that were active at the time.

"He felt there was a need for even younger people on council to represent the people moving into Roanoke and those who have come back," Trinkle said.

Rosen finished first in a firehouse Democratic primary and subsequently attracted heavy financial support. But he was also targeted in an ad placed late in the election in The Roanoke Times and Roanoke Star-Sentinel that asked "Who is Court Rosen?" before answering: "An inexperienced 29-year-old with zero community involvement and no track record." One version ran without any disclaimer on who placed the ad, the other with a made-up name. Both violated laws intended to ensure public disclosure of who pays for what in political campaigns and resulted in a $3,700 fine for then-incumbent Councilman Brian Wishneff, who admitted involvement in placing the ad.

The heated election led into a feisty few months on the city council, too. Rosen and Lea openly spatted during a debate over Countryside. Within weeks, however, the two mutually apologized to each other, and just a couple of months later they teamed up on a proposal to help extend the city's tax relief for elderly and disabled residents.

By the time the 2012 elections rolled around, the mayor and three council members up for re-election decided to endorse one another and run as a loose incumbency ticket. The ticket won a clean sweep, with Rosen leading the way.

Rosen said he's content to focus on city issues, but others may not be: His name frequently gets mentioned in discussions of possible Democrats to run for state or national office. Earlier this year, Rosen was invited along with Roanoke lawyer Lauren Ellerman and banker Brian Redd to participate in the first meeting of Converge Virginia, a group of community, business and government leaders invited by U.S. Sen. Mark Warner to participate in a roundtable discussion.

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