David Nygaard (pictured) calls his electoral odyssey a “wonderful adventure.” And even though he has likely—though not definitely—won a seat on Virginia’s Virginia Beach City Council, the adventure is not over yet.
At press time, the owner of David Nygaard Custom Fine Jewelers had won the Nov. 6 election for the Beach District seat by a hair—212 votes, out of 145,000 cast, which is the closest win in Virginia Beach in the last decade. The second-place finisher, 12-year incumbent John Uhrin, has petitioned for a recount, since the margin of victory fell under the state’s 1 percent threshold. Now it’s just a matter of the process playing out, though Nygaard isn’t too concerned.
“Recounts tend to confirm elections,” he says. “They don’t usually reset them.”
It’s already been quite a ride. A longtime Republican, Nygaard ran earlier this year for the Democratic nomination for his local congressional seat—at a time when beating Republican incumbent Scott Taylor seemed like a long shot. In the end, Taylor was one of 37 or so House Republicans whose seats flipped to Democrats. But Nygaard didn’t even contend in the primary. His petition was voided.
“The party made the choice to thin out the ballot,” he says. “It’s my party of choice. I respected their decision.”
So Nygaard again did something unexpected: He jumped into his local city council race. It looked like another long shot. A columnist dubbed his campaign a “vanity project.”
“People wrote me off as a failed businessman who was never going to win,” he says. But he was determined. “You don’t run a campaign like this and think you’re going to lose.”
Nygaard believed a few factors helped him score his seeming upset. First, he had spent years advertising his store, which gave him better-than-average name recognition.
Second, even though city council races don’t specify party identification, he ran as a Democrat, when most of his opponents were Republicans.
“I figured the others would split the Republican vote. I thought if I could ride the blue wave, I would be successful.”
And while most of the establishment declined to endorse him, by the campaign’s end, the local NAACP’s political action committee gave him its nod, and he was added to the local Democratic slate.
Third, he ran what he calls a “real grassroots campaign,” relying heavily on social media.
“I targeted very specific groups of people that didn’t have a voice,” he says. “[Uhrin] had been a strong advocate for the hotel industry in Virginia Beach. I found that a lot of my supporters were from the minority community—the Filipino community, the African-American community.
“We came with a challenger type of mindset,” he says. “We had a very specific platform that addressed domestic violence, marijuana law reform, human trafficking, small business incubation. All the other campaigns addressed things like flooding and cronyism. I wanted to address other issues that weren’t getting mentioned.”
One thing that didn’t seem to matter: The 2008 bankruptcy of Nygaard’s former seven-store chain. While a business failure hurt another industry candidate this year—former Alex and Ani CEO Giovanni Feroce—Nygaard believes he neutralized that issue by being up front about it.
“Yes, I went bankrupt during the Great Recession,” he said in a candidate statement, which also includes unprompted mentions of his divorce, son’s felony conviction, and heart attack. “I believe this experience makes me understand the struggles average families go through on a day-to-day basis.”
A voter later told Nygaard, “You wear your failures on your sleeve.”
Another aspect of his life turned out to be mostly a nonfactor: Last year Nygaard had come out as gay in a very public way—including an article in his local newspaper.
“I don’t think that made a difference,” he says. “I have some good friends in the LGBT community, but I didn’t make that a key part of the campaign. When news organizations interviewed me, they didn’t interview me as the gay candidate. It’s kind of nice in 2018 you don’t have to run like that.”
But there were other bumps—including a controversy over whether he lived in the district, which he says led opponents to surveil his residence. At another point, he found a racist note on his car, complete with “N” and “F” words, which he thinks targeted his diverse campaign staff.
Going into election night, Nygaard says he felt a “real peace. I thought I was going to win. But I had a peace whether I won or lost. One of the events we had was on how to navigate medial marijuana, and it got coverage on all the news stations and made an impact in the community beyond the campaign. So I felt like I made a little bit of difference.”
Post-election, the newly minted councilman-elect plans to keep his one-store jewelry business, which now does mostly custom work by appointment. His store will also double as a constituent service office—which means, he says, that he will be the only councilman with an office in his district. He anticipates a busy few months ahead, as he copes with both the holiday rush and getting ready for his likely new job.
After completing his first campaign—really, two campaigns—would he recommend others run for office? Not necessarily.
“It’s not for everyone. It takes a certain type of person to do it. You need really thick skin, but retail gives you a thick skin. I’m in a unique place in my life. My kids are gone, and I have an empty-nest freedom that a lot of people don’t have.”
The best part, he says, was meeting voters and listening to their stories. The worst part was the attacks.
“I didn’t think it would be as difficult as it was. It’s very difficult when you get attacked in ways you don’t anticipate. There were a lot of homophobic slurs used. People can be really mean-spirited.”
But he adds, “I was also really surprised by the good nature of many people.” And sometimes, he says, “the good nature of people prevails in these things.”
(Image courtesy of David Nygaard)