I first started hearing about Jon Russell last fall when he spearheaded a grass roots effort â All Voters Welcome â to have the town elections moved from May to November.
He laid out his case with the support of others of like mind, they worked with members of town council, held public meetings at the library and during the last election, the voters approved a referendum to move the elections to November. It is hoped that this move, which will begin in November 2015 once signed off by members of the Virginia General Assembly, will increase voter turnout and save taxpayers money.
I had the chance to meet Jon at a Chamber function several months ago and then at a recent town council meeting he shared with me his plans to run for one of the at large seats on town council.
It’s this kind of proactive initiative, confidence and boundless enthusiasm that Jon Russell has made his entrance into Culpeper’s political arena.
I caught up with Jon at Raven’s Nest on President’s Day, Feb. 17.
At 38, Jon is married and has three young children. He’s called Culpeper his home for two years but to hear him talk, Culpeper has been in his heart much longer.
âWe were drawn here,â he told me, âbecause of the quality of life…everything you need is here…shopping, restaurants, schools.â
And, for Jon, Culpeper’s rich history particularly as it relates to the Civil War was another strong draw.
âI love history,â said Russell who enjoys committing odd bits of history trivia to his memory bank.
Russell puts a great deal of value on a place’s sense of history, culture and community. He is keenly aware of how well the Town of Culpeper has positioned itself economically.
âWe’re in a sweet spot right now,â said Jon with a broad smile, âbut, where do we go from here.â
Russell would like to see a mission statement in place, crafted by members of the community and town council, that would accurately reflect future decision making about the town’s future.
âWhere is our focus…is it the arts, history, new businesses, education, affordable housing, more parking…â asks Russell. âIf we can say ‘this is who we are, this is what we’re about, and this is where we’re going…that will help guide decision making and enhance cooperation and accountability.â
Russell believes that everyone in the town is a stakeholder in its future.
While a lofty goal, Russell would like to be instrumental in involving the public more in decision making, He feels that a greater sense of ownership and control over the direction the town is heading can be shared by more than the nine members of council.
âRight now, folks can come to a council meeting and have their say about a particular issue,â said Russell, âbut it’s at a point where it’s already pretty much set in stone. Why can’t citizens speak up and testify at the committee level…before it goes before the council. I’d like to change that…so people could ask and raise questions at that level. Then they are more part of the process, they’ve got a stake in the outcome of the decision.â
Russell works two days a week in Arlington. The rest of the time he is here working from his home as the Director of the American City County Exchange, a nonpartisan organization of local elected officials who develop policies to promote efficiency, minimize waste and encourage economic development.
âI’m fairly flexible,â said Russell, âI’ve got the time to commit to this position if elected.â
Russell doesn’t see Culpeper’s lifeblood and spirit as that of a large bedroom community. For him, it’s much more vital and that vitality needs to be nurtured and strengthened through strong leadership. While acknowledging that more than 50 percent of Culpeper’s working population commutes into Washington, D.C. or Northern Virginia, he would like to cultivate more reasons for folks to stay and be more engaged.
Echoing the sentiments of a growing segment of Culpeper, Russell would like to see people living, working and playing in Culpeper with less reasons to have to leave.
Russell recognizes Culpeper’s deep abiding sense of history. âI’d like to continue to preserve and celebrate what makes Culpeper…Culpeper,â said Jon acknowledging that for he and his family, it was ‘instant chemistry’ when they discovered and decided to call Culpeper home.
Jon’s been out on the campaign trial for several weeks going door-to-door.
He pauses over his cup of coffee.
âIt’s been amazing…I’m getting so many history lessons and people are sharing very heartfelt stories about their lives and this place,â said Russell who considers himself an ambassador for the people.
âI think that we’ve got it backwards,â said Russell. âOur job is not to represent town council to the people, our job is to represent the town residents to the council.â
Russell’s platform is three-fold and fairly straightforward. He’d like to increase community involvement in town government, create a business friendly environment for new and existing businesses, and develop policies to encourage affordable housing.
âThis is an exciting time to run for town council. We have many good things going for the town right now. There are also many challenges on the horizon which will require cooperation and strategic planning from the council. I hope to be a part of that process,â said Russell.
Jon is one of the younger candidates running for town council but that, in itself, speaks volumes about the community’s willingness to embrace new faces and fairly quickly call them their own.
I came away from our conversation knowing him better, analyzing in my mind how he would fare with the others and confident, that if elected, he would do just fine and no doubt add a fresh, energetic and persuasive perspective to the council’s chemistry.
My sense is that, while he has a platform to further engage and involve the residents in the council’s decision making, he is at heart a lover of history, heritage, and home.
He has found that in Culpeper and wants to participate in a positive way to preserve, protect and promote this place is now cherishes.
Russell holds an Associate of Applied Science in Criminal Justice & Bachelor of Science in Homeland Security/Emergency Preparedness from Thomas Edison State College.
As a former City Councilman in Washington State, he was twice elected to council and twice elected Mayor Pro-Tem by his colleagues. After six years of service on council, he resigned to work in Virginia.
Russell is a member of the Virginia Defense Force, an all-volunteer, formal military organization. Its mission is to assist the Virginia National Guard in performing state missions as specified by the Governor.
He is an alumnus of the American Council of Young Political Leaders (ACPYL), a nonpartisan organization internationally recognized for introducing political and policy professionals to international affairs. In 2009, he traveled as an ACPYL delegate to the Philippines.
Jonâs community involvement includes the Culpeper Chamber of Commerce, Culpeper Young Professional Group, Men Care with Culpeper Social Services, Culpeper Heating Shelter and the Founder of All Voters Welcome in Culpeper.
Jon and his wife Sarah and three children reside in the Oaklawn neighborhood of Culpeper.
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Editor’s Note: This is the first conversation in a series of conversations that will be conducted with the candidates running for town council. The election is May 6.