Friday, September 29, 2023

As political divisions grow, Virginia House candidates push bipartisanship


Democrat Debra Gardner, center right, chats with fellow candidates for the House of Delegates at a Chesterfield Chamber breakfast last week. Gardner is challenging Republican Del. Roxann Robinson for the 27th District seat this fall. ASH DANIEL

Despite facing an incumbent with a $120,000 fundraising advantage, first-time candidate Debra Gardner nearly pulled off the shocker of Chesterfield’s 2019 campaign cycle – losing to Chris Winslow in the election for the Clover Hill District’s seat on the Board of Supervisors by just 398 votes out of almost 25,000 cast.

Now she’s running for office again, this time in a Virginia House of Delegates district that was decided by even thinner margins the last two times it was contested.

Republican Del. Roxann Robinson defeated challenger Larry Barnett by less than a percentage point in both 2017 and 2019, winning by 128 and 189 votes, respectively, in the only legislative district fully contained within Chesterfield County.

The 27th House District, which has been represented by Robinson since 2010, is considered one of the most “flippable” by Democrats seeking to expand voting majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly.

“I’m feeling confident that I’m going to get out there and work as hard as I can and build on the foundation Larry already built,” Gardner said last Friday morning, following the Chesterfield Chamber of Commerce’s “Breakfast with the Candidates” program at The Boathouse at Sunday Park.

Gardner was one of 13 local House candidates to address chamber members at the event, along with GOP attorney general nominee Jason Miyares. (Robinson wasn’t in attendance.)

Five will be on the ballot for the June 8 statewide primary:

Katie Sponsler and Linnard Harris are vying for the Democratic nomination in the 66th District, with the winner facing Republican Mike Cherry in November to succeed outgoing Del. Kirk Cox.

Cox, who has represented the 66th since 1990, endorsed Cherry as his successor.

Mark Earley Jr., son of former Virginia attorney general and gubernatorial candidate Mark Earley, faces Mike Dickinson for the Republican nomination in the 68th District.

And Kyle Elliott is challenging Democratic Del. Dawn Adams in the 68th. (Adams, a second-term incumbent, didn’t attend last week’s chamber breakfast.)

“This is going to be a very close election,” said keynote speaker and former state delegate Chris Saxman, now executive director of the nonpartisan business coalition Virginia Free.

Saxman predicted voter turnout for November’s general election will be between 43% and 45%, which would represent a dramatic reduction from 81% in the 2020 presidential election.

“It’s a different electorate,” he added.

While Saxman called America “a deeply divided country,” many of the candidates at last Friday’s event touted their willingness to work with members of the opposing party in the General Assembly.

Elected to represent the 62nd House District in 2019, Del. Carrie Coyner claimed she had more bills passed last year as a freshman legislator than any of her colleagues in the new GOP minority.

“I voted across the aisle 48% of the time during my first session. I’m proud of the bipartisan work I did,” she said.

Coyner will face Democrat Jasmine Gore, a member of the Hopewell City Council, in November.

Voters in the 63rd District made Lashrecse Aird, then 28, the youngest woman ever elected to the House of Delegates in 2015. She recalled being chosen to serve on the House’s powerful Appropriations Committee as a new Democratic lawmaker at a time when such appointments were still controlled by the Republican leadership.

“That says something about the respect and the relationships I had with that party at that time,” Aird said. “Regardless of the ideological differences you so often hear highlighted, it’s critical to be able to work together and get things done for our communities.”

Aird is being challenged by Republican Kim Taylor, a Chesterfield businesswoman and first-time political candidate. Likewise, Gardner, the Democrat running in the 27th House District, noted she was appointed deputy director of the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services by the last Republican governor, Bob McDonnell, in 2010.

“I hope people would evaluate [candidates] individually, as to what we bring to the table. I don’t look at it as ‘us against them,’” she said. “I’m used to working with people on both sides of the aisle.”

She’s also used to doing the work herself. When Gardner ran for office two years ago, she had little money or name recognition and made it a competitive race by knocking on thousands of doors across the Clover Hill District, connecting with voters on a personal level.

Campaign finance documents show Gardner led the incumbent Robinson in fundraising at the most recent reporting deadline. She also has an army of Democratic volunteers ready to help her get out the vote this fall. But Gardner, who called herself “a reluctant politician,” isn’t changing her hands-on approach.

“I’m going to do the same thing I did before – that means reaching out and talking to the people, trying to find out what they want and what their needs are,” she added. “Once people get to hear me and hear my story, and hear my passion about really wanting to help people, I think that resonates.” ¦

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