By Terry Harris, Staff Writer
4:38 p.m. | August 17, 2017
SUSSEX – Susan Seward approaches Sussex County board of Supervisors meetings like she does everything else in life – head-on, after intense scrutiny of details. Recently she agreed to sit down at her Waverly Home that she shares with two dogs and three cats to reveal a glimpse into what it’s like to be one of only three women ever to be on the Board, what led up to her being the Chairman of the current Board, and how she feels about it the position.
“My roots go deep,” said Seward, who can document details of her ancestry locally going back to 1723. Then she shared a few personal details about herself that very few would guess – like the fact that she remains a devoted Deadhead. “My father never knew how dedicated I was to following the Grateful Dead,” she added with a laugh.
The laugh faded to a more serious look as she continued, “My family has always had a heart for service. During his tenure on the Surry County Board of Supervisors, my Grandfather was one of the key people for bringing the Surry nuclear power plant there – the financial lifeblood of Surry county. Mother was mayor of Claremont and also Superintendent of Dinwiddie County Public Schools for about 10 years. So the notion that you vote, you participate, and if you don’t like the system you jump in and try to fix it – well, there is that vein of public service in my family.”
Seward, who attended the University of London, England as part of the Hollins Abroad Program and graduated from Hollins College with a B.A. in Political Science, admitted that she “desperately wanted to go to art school, but my father said, ‘Absolutely not. There will be no starving artists in this family. You will work and you will get a job.’ So I did.”
During a stint as the first girl ever to intern at the Virginia House of Delegates, she said that she “got to see all facets of the legislative process, which I think today makes me a good supervisor because I understand the whole stairstep of the legislative and regulatory process. It made what I do in the Board of Supervisors now seem like second nature. So I guess at the end of the day maybe Dad was right and I wasn’t meant to be a starving artist.”
“I say I’m a Republican, but I’m a social libertarian,” she added. “I don’t care what you do behind closed doors. As long as you’re not hurting children, animals or old people, knock yourself out. I don’t care. And you can quote me on that. I say I’m Republican because I’m a fiscal conservative; I think when you’re in government, your primary role is to spend taxpayers’ money as wisely, as frugally, and as responsibly as you can. That, to me, is in essence why I ran and what I think my role is.”
A lobbyist by profession, Seward has worn many hats on the journey to the Sussex Board, including acting as a legislative aid, but her first foray onto the Sussex County political scene was on the electoral board.
“We had three polling places in the county that were not ADA compliant,” Seward said. “What I did – and this is how I approach everything in the county – we sent the building inspector out to each of these stations, took photos of the places, and did a slide show with markings superimposed over what the ADA said was non-compliant. I went to the state board of elections and said, ‘I need to make sure that we’re correct. Are we on firm ground? I did my research, we did move the polling places in spite of protests, because I knew this was the prudent thing to do because somebody was going to be hurt.”
Further describing her approach to and philosophy of governing, she added, “I want to be fair and look at the facts. If I don’t know something, I’m going to do my homework. If I think I know something, I do some fact checking. But if I know something is right, get out of my way. One of my first actions on the board was to vote against a tax increase. “I said, ‘You’re going to have to prove to me there’s a real need to raise taxes,” she said, “and I sat with Eric Fly at my dining room table and went through that 33 page budget line by line. I questioned everything – every single line. Our government at the federal level has lost accountability, but the ultimate accountability at a local level – it’s got to be there. Whether it’s the Social Services office or the Landfill or the fact that as a supervisor you don’t ask hard questions – that’s no way to run a county.”
“I think my fellow supervisors have learned that I try to be thorough and I try to be fair,” Seward continued, “and I’m not going to base a decision on who I like or who I dislike or anything other than the impact on the county and the facts about whatever the issues are – now and projected down the road. Because I don’t think about just the here and now, but about going forward.”
On the subject of assuming the chairmanship, Seward said, “When I was asked to run, it was so humbling it took my breath away. I knew it would take a lot out of me, but my mother said, ‘Susan, you know this is the rural South and … the fact that you are a woman and a man came to you and asked you to run, you know these opportunities don’t always come around and you really need to think about it.’”
Seward admitted that she is probably her own worst critic, and shared that both the night before and the night after a board meeting she will toss and turn, going over every detail in her head to make sure that she does not miss anything.
“I feel like the county is on the right track,” she said. “We’ve got people in now who not only care, but have the skillset to be effective. There’s been a real effort by this county administrator to keep our agendas clean. We don’t have public bloodletting anymore – or need it – because Vandy keeps everything organized and the team works together to make sure that everybody knows what’s going on. My philosophy is that as chairman it’s my job to run the meeting, not the county. Thankfully we now have a staff in place where we really believe it can happen that way.”