The races for the 9th House and 21st Senate districts – both featuring contests between established sitting legislators scrambling to win votes in newly redrawn districts – are two of the hottest not just in western Virginia but in the state.
And although none of the candidates actually shared the stage, a forum sponsored by state and regional chambers of commerce in Roanoke on Wednesday offered voters the closest thing yet to an actual debate.
Ninth District candidates Del. Charles Poindexter, R-Franklin County, and Del. Ward Armstrong, D-Henry County, split sharply on both transportation and energy issues.
Before an audience of about 25 – including representatives of Appalachian Power, a company that’s been the target of much of his campaign – Armstrong blamed rate increases by the regional power company for making it harder to do business in Southwest and Southside Virginia.
Poindexter said the government, however, has gotten too far involved in business affairs. He called for the state and federal governments to “get out of the way and let business do its thing” – with the exception of providing economic development incentives in cases where they would result in job creation.
Both Armstrong and Poindexter endorsed offshore oil drilling, but while Armstrong saw only limited potential owing to Virginia’s relatively limited continental shelf, Poindexter touted the potential upside and bragged that he’d sponsored a measure to make it happen.
The two also disagreed on transportation. Armstrong said he opposes increasing the gas tax and criticized Poindexter for supporting a resolution favoring its increase while he was serving as a member of the Franklin County Board of Supervisors.
Poindexter said that although he has not signed a no-tax-increase pledge, the gas tax is becoming increasingly ineffective with the emergence of hybrid and electric cars. He called for a top-to-bottom re-evaluation of transportation funding – including the possibility that localities might take on the maintenance of secondary roads.
Unlike Poindexter and Armstrong, who spoke back to back, incumbent Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, spoke two hours after his opponent, Del. Dave Nutter, R-Christiansburg.
Edwards touted the role of government initiatives and spending in economic development. He cited the Roanoke Higher Education Center as an example. The institution, which offers college programs in downtown Roanoke, has led to $32 million in economic impact and 6,500 degrees and completions, and its students make an aggregate $35 million more per year than they were making before, Edwards said.
He also called for more government support of higher education and Medicaid – which he said would respectively lower the cost of tuition and the cost of health insurance.
Nutter, however, called for a shift in education priorities that included more focus on vocational training, classes in entrepreneurship and incentives for teachers with math and science backgrounds.
Although Nutter didn’t name his opponent, he suggested that Edwards has caused disruption within the Roanoke Valley caucus that has in turn led to a weaker regional voice.
“There are going to be fewer reps in the western parts of Virginia than in the urban area,” Nutter said. “So if we don’t work together, to maximize your strengths and leverage that, we’re going to fall behind.”
The forum, sponsored by the Virginia Chamber of Commerce with the Roanoke Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Virginia West Business and Legislative Coalition, is one of a series being held around the state that will ultimately include about 60 candidates in 30 different legislative races.
Other candidates at the forum were: Sen. Roscoe Reynolds, D-Henry County, and independent Jeff Evans in the 20th Senate District; Democrat Freeda Cathcart and Republican Chris Head in the 17th House District; Republican Nick Rush in the 7th House District; Democrat Don Langrehr in the 12 House District.
Notably absent were candidates from the 19th Senate District: Sen. Ralph Smith, R-Roanoke County and independent challenger Brandon Bell.
Bell issued a news release in the afternoon blaming “party politics” for the fact he did not receive an invite.
“My opponent, Ralph Smith, has not submitted one single jobs bill after four years in the Senate, and simply has no plan going forward to address our jobs crisis in SW [Southwest] Virginia,” Bell wrote in the release. “Ralph Smith’s failed record on jobs explains why he would not want to participate in this forum, and therefore the State Republican Party and the Virginia Chamber have given him a free pass.”
To read Bell’s full news release, click “read more”:
– Mason Adams
For Immediate Release
September 21, 2011
Recently, I was shocked to learn that my opponent and I were not invited to participate in today’s candidate forum hosted by the Virginia Chamber of Commerce. At a crucial time in our economy, when job creation and economic development is foremost on everyone’s mind, this astounds me that the Chamber would blatantly ignore this vast Senate district when planning the event. The 19th Senate District is made up of many rural towns and communities that are really hurting. Our voters and small business leaders in this district deserve the opportunity to hear what my opponent and I plan to do about jobs.
Unfortunately, party politics is behind the decision to shut out the 19th Senate District. All one has to do is look at the facts – who is invited and who is not. Clearly, the party bosses of the Virginia Republican Party and the Virginia Chamber have joined forces in an effort to host forums where they can be beneficial to ONLY Republican candidates.
The Virginia Chamber of Commerce, in coordination with the State Republican Party are both showing a total disregard for the communities in this district. By joining forces together, they are ignoring the fact that the 19th Senate District is an open seat with two candidates running who have extremely different approaches to job creation. My opponent, Ralph Smith, has not submitted one single jobs bill after four years in the Senate, and simply has no plan going forward to address our jobs crisis in SW Virginia. Ralph Smith’s failed record on jobs explains why he would not want to participate in this forum, and therefore the State Republican Party and the Virginia Chamber have given him a free pass. He clearly doesn’t want to expose himself in front of a group of business leaders and explain why he failed them. The Chamber of Commerce along with the Republicans are hiding him. Unlike my opponent, I would welcome the opportunity to interact with local business leaders and discuss the most important challenge we face. Shame on the Virginia Chamber for playing party politics when they should be proactively driving economic development in all areas of the State, including the 19th Senate District.