In the minutes before Monday's 2nd District debate began, Virginia Beach Commissioner of the Revenue Phil Kellam stood in the foyer of the Trilogy Bistro in Norfolk, deep in the throes of a telephone call.
A Democratic predecessor in the doorway was probably not the omen Glenn Nye was hoping for as he prepared to do verbal battle with the Republican incumbent, U.S. Rep. Thelma Drake. The debate, before a bustling crowd at a gathering of the Virginia Club, began no better.
Drake used her five-minute opening statement to read a press release attacking Nye for owning half a house in Washington, a blistering skein of geographic innuendo that had the challenger on his heels at the get-go.
It is a testament to how fundamentally empty Drake's charges were - and how appropriately dismissive Nye was in responding to them - that by the end of the debate, folks seemed mostly disoriented by the tone of the exchange that had interrupted dessert.
The attack was beneath Drake's station as a congresswoman and an unwelcome diversion from months of mostly civil dialogue. Here's the crux of it: Nye gamed Washington, D.C.'s property tax system - for a discount - by claiming as his primary residence a place that isn't.
Here's the problem with that charge: Nye owns the house with his brother, who has lived there except while the State Department employed him in Iraq to work on reconstruction and job creation. Nye himself was also in Baghdad - creating a jobs program for Iraqis - during the period that Drake's campaign argues he was cheating the D.C. government.
In other words, Drake is criticizing the Nye brothers for claiming as a primary residence the house they left behind while serving their country in a war zone. What the Nyes did will sound very familiar to the heavily military voters of the 2nd District.
Service members forced to change duty stations make similar arrangements as a matter of course. Florida, for example, doesn't have enough houses for all the soldiers and sailors who claim residency there to avoid paying state income taxes.
(For the record, and because Drake's operatives are shopping this story as well, Glenn Nye said he has paid income taxes in Virginia except in 2006, when he was living in that D.C. house.)
The goal of Drake's distracting attacks on Nye, a native of the area and a graduate of Norfolk Academy, was to make him seem like an outsider. He's no more an outsider here than any other native who has gone off to serve his country for a few years.
The fact that Drake would apparently prefer to play gotcha politics on a public servant than discuss the issues doesn't say much for her confidence in defending her record.