Jerry Falwell Jr. vs. The City of Lynchburg
I realize I’ve been talking a lot of inside baseball about Liberty recently, but please bear with me as I’m nearly done, at least for a while. For years I never thought about how Liberty got funded, because it was clear that I would never be involved; now that Jerry Falwell Jr is chancellor and changing how the school is funded I’m more interested, not least because Jerry Jr appears to be more interested in alumni dollars as a funding source.
The outside world tends to see Lynchburg as a very conservative place where Liberty (and Liberty people and their values) is normal. The truth, as it often is, is a bit more complicated. Some of the surrounding area is quite conservative, but Lynchburg itself has been less conservative than surrounding Amherst, Bedford, and Campbell counties for a long time. Light industry and white collar jobs have been bringing Yankees south for sixty or seventy years, and some of them got rich, became respectable, joined the country club, etc. and along the way made Lynchburg a bit more cosmopolitan or modern or liberal or what-have-you than the surrounding counties. I’d encourage interested parties to hunt down local columnist Darrell Laurant’s 1997 book A City Unto Itself [link], where he devotes several chapters to this trend. It’s not just interesting reading; it also gives some depth and context for understanding how Jerry Sr. was able to start a fundamentalist church in Lynchburg and draw thousands of people from the local community long before he started drawing people from outside the area.
There are also two other colleges in town: Lynchburg College and Randolph College, both of them more liberal than Liberty, each with its own subculture and center of gravity in Lynchburg society and politics.
And politics, particularly regarding public money (taxing and spending) is where all this theoretical discussion of relative liberality becomes practical. Jerry Jr as the sort of businessman-in-chief at Liberty is always trying to do what is best for Liberty’s bottom line; the city has its own priorities, and the two don’t always coincide [link]. So on occasion Jerry Jr tries to change the composition of the Council.
Lynchburg has four wards, each with one member representing it on City Council; there are three at-large seats as well [link]. The council chooses the mayor from among its members, so there are seven total seats. When the three at-large seats are up for re-election Jerry Jr tends to swing for the bleachers in an attempt to fill the Council with members who are sympathetic to him, Liberty, or both [link]. Unfortunately for him Liberty students and employees tend to be dispersed in Wards 3 and 4, where they don’t make much difference. Liberty students who live in town do not register and vote in large numbers; Liberty faculty by and large live out in the counties beyond Wards 3 and 4, where land and houses are cheaper and taxes are lower.
This past May Jerry Jr tried to get three seats on the Council, but got less than a thousand Liberty students to turn out to vote (less than 8% of resident students), even after having a special convocation encouraging them to vote and busing students to the appropriate polling place [link]. One recommended candidate, Hundson Cary III, was elected.
It’s hard to imagine the underlying trends changing direction any time soon; there are often tax implications for Liberty students who register to vote in Lynchburg, and there will probably not be enough Liberty faculty who will make enough money to move into the tonier neighborhoods in town to change ward politics. I could imagine that Liberty could grow enough that if 8% of the student population turned out to vote they could swing an election, but the trend at the school is to increase online enrollment rather than on-campus enrollment. Perhaps Jerry Jr would be well-served to learn to play nice with the other six members of City Council.