Will Vehrs’ Martinsville troubles.
Commonwealth Conservative’s weekend caption contest has become somewhat of a Virginia political blog tradition. Each week a photo ripe for satire is posted, and dozens or hundreds of humorous captions are submitted by readers. The best submissions, as judged by site founder Chad Dotson, are named shortly thereafter. The winner is awarded the satisfaction of a job well done. As the most popular Republican blog in the state, this contest gets a decent amount of exposure, albeit it’s limited to the rather small number of people who actually read Virginia political blogs.
The site isn’t just run by Chad, though. Will Vehrs is the second contributor to the site, having joined up a few months ago. He regularly participates in the competitions. By day, Will works for the Virginia Department of Business Assistance as a Business Services Manager. He works to promote the economic interests and well-being of businesses throughout Virginia.
Last week, Chad featured a picture of a man playing guitar and a woman singing as the photo for the caption contest. The photo was from the Martinsville Bulletin, from a story about how the two had created the winning jingle for the Martinsville-Henry County Economic Development Corporation in a competition. The photo was not particularly flattering, and it proved to be a source of many fine submissions. Will Vehrs provided a handful of submissions, including a few of my favorites:
Cindy’s top was symbolic of the decline in Southside’s fabric industry.
“Martinsville: Easy to Leave.”
“We got married in a fever,hotter than a peppered sprout
We been thinking ’bout Martinsville,
Ever since the last plant closed out
We’re goin’ to Martinsville
We’re gonna mess around
We’re goin’ to Martinsville
Look out, Martinsville Town”
The day the music died.
The easiest source of jokes for everybody was, of course, the area’s economic woes. Like all of Southside, Martinsville has certainly seen better days. They have no clear path to improving things, largely because their economy was built on manufacturing, something that NAFTA and globalization has made impossible to bring back.
Ever since my wife and I were involved with Al Weed’s campaign in 2003-2004, we’ve taken a keen interest in Southside. After the two of us took a three-day trip through the area in January of 2004, we can’t help but be fond of the area (particularly South Boston), and have been, to the extent to which we can be, vocal in advocating for opportunities for the area in whatever capacities available to us. Al feels strongly about the area, and I guess it just rubbed off on us. That said, it’d be tough for any Virginian worth their salt to spend more than a few hours in the area and not feel the same way.
Will’s entries lampooning the state of Martinsville were funny because they’re true. A new jingle isn’t going to do much for the area, though I can’t fault them for trying. But given Will’s profession, his captions were not well received by officials in the area.
Yesterday, Will realized that he’d made a mistake, and posted a sincere apology. The jokes might be funny, they might be true, but coming from him, it must have been a bit of a smack in the face to area leaders. As Will wrote:
As someone who works in economic development, when the caption picture was identified as related to economic development, I should have “recused” myself. I exercised bad judgment in submitting entries, especially those that mentioned the city, the county, individuals and organizations. I sincerely apologize for my lapse.
I love Martinsville, like I love all the Virginia localities I serve. Despite what someone unfamiliar with my work might think from the Caption Contest, I work especially hard for clients in Martinsville-Henry County because I know all too well the difficulties they have endured and the hard work they have done to restore economic vitality to their area. Again, I apologize for my bad judgment and the distress I caused those who read my entries.
I’d assumed that would be the end of it — he’d provided a sincere apology, and that’s that — but I assumed wrongly.
Today, Will followed up, writing that there’s trouble at his job as a result of this. Though nobody from Martinsville has actually communicated with him to discuss this, his colleagues and the HR Department fielded multiple phone calls about him. One colleague even described the tone of the calls as indicating that Will had “started WWIII in Martinsville-Henry County.” As an exercise in self-flagillation, Will even provided a forum where angry Martinsville/Henry County citizens could anonymously yell at him, though some four hours later, no complaints have yet appeared.
Will Vehrs demonstrated a rare lapse in judgment for a thoughtful, intelligent man. There’s no escaping that point. What was a small act on his part no doubt stung regional officials considerably. I’m more than a little puzzled by the unwillingness of those officials to confront him directly about this—I can only assume that a conversation could clear the air quickly.
Whatever harm may befall the region because of Will’s posts — and clearly none actually will — the current and future benefits of Will’s work on behalf of the region and within the Virginia blogosphere far outweigh that harm.
Just last month Will contacted me about giving a presentation to some state businesses about using blogs to promote themselves. I immediately agreed to do so. It never crossed my mind to ask for compensation or even further details. Why? It’s Will Vehrs. If he says that Virginia businesses could benefit from a few minutes of my time, I’m certainly going to do so. This is the sort of benefit that comes of Will’s extensive work as a Virginia political blogger. He has made connections, friends and allies across the state, all of which will serve him well in his work for the Virginia Department of Business Assistance and, by extension, will serve Virginia well.
If Martinsville officials are smart — and I hope they are — they’re know that they can turn these lemons into lemonade. I don’t doubt for a minute that, if they asked, Will would dedicate a significant amount of time to using his pulpit to promote Martinsville and Henry County. I would love to see him write a series of blog entries about the region, telling his readers about the area’s history, its culture, its businesses, and the economic opportunities available to the area. I’m sure that he could start a statewide blog discussion about Southside’s past, present and future. I’d be proud to take part in that discussion.
Will Vehrs erred in making jokes about Martinsville. Here’s hoping that Martinsville won’t err in their reaction. If any city in the state should know that “opportunity” is just another word for “problem,” it should be Martinsville. If they’re to have any chance any building a brighter future for themselves, now is their chance to demonstrate that they’ve learned that lesson.