It’s a muggy summer day with temperatures hovering near 90. Mike Hamlar is dressed in a dark suit and tie, complete with pocket square, when he shows up for an outdoor meet-and-greet with redistricting reform advocates.

“I’ve never seen this guy in a T-shirt,” exclaimed Dave Sharpe, a supporter from Roanoke County.

Hamlar, a candidate for the 19th District Virginia Senate seat, sticks to water while others chat over beer and wine.

The 33-year-old said he’s never been much of a drinker. “Nothing against it,” he said. “I just, I don’t know. I’ve always been an athlete, and I needed every edge I could get.”

Hamlar, a Democrat running in a district that leans 59 percent to 69 percent Republican in statewide races, might once again find himself in need of every edge he can get.

The first-time candidate is in a three-way race for the seat left open by retiring Sen. Ralph Smith, R-Bedford County.

Friends had encouraged Hamlar to run for office before, but many suggested starting off with a city council election in Democrat-friendly Roanoke.

But Hamlar set his sights on the Virginia Senate, announcing more than 15 months ago that he would seek the 19th District seat.

“I grew up here. I have deep roots here,” said Hamlar, a Roanoke County native who was a standout football player at Cave Spring High School.

“I really believe in the people here, and I think the voters are smart enough to know they’re going to vote for the best candidate and not for the party. Party politics are overrated. If we can get back to the core values of why we run, of what this is all about, which is representing the people, then I think we’ll do just fine.”

No stranger tomajor challenges

Taking on a challenge isn’t new territory for Hamlar. At 22, he inherited his family’s stake in the Hamlar-Curtis Funeral Home after the death of his father — who for years battled multiple sclerosis — and his uncle, who died just two and a half weeks later.

Hamlar, then a student at Wake Forest University contemplating a career in computers, had to make a big decision in short order.

“I came home, for family and community,” he said, noting his family spent 63 years building up the funeral home.

“It’s a lot of work, but it’s well worth it. I love what I do. I love serving people.”

Hamlar graduated college on a Monday. On Tuesday, he said he was at work, splitting his time between the funeral home and John Tyler Community College, where he got his associate degree in funeral services.

“I didn’t give myself a transition,” he said. “It was one of those things where I just thought, OK, here’s what I need to do.”

“That’s just me. Once I say I’m going to do something, I work hard to get it done.”

The ideas of service and discipline are long-running themes in Hamlar’s family. His uncle, Lawrence Hamlar, was a well-known leader in the black community who served on the school board, worked to peacefully integrate Roanoke businesses and contributed to multiple civic organizations.

Hamlar, in turn, has volunteered with a string of community groups — ranging from Family Service of Roanoke Valley to the Kiwanis Club, where he was part of creating a service club for students at Breckinridge Middle School.

“My family instilled in me that education is very important,” said Hamlar, who’s working on a doctorate in business administration from Walden University. “One thing I can vividly remember my uncle always saying is that education is one thing nobody can ever take from you. I take that to heart.”

On the stump, Hamlar talks about the importance of beefing up school funding and moving away from the focus on standardized testing.

His oldest daughter had trouble sleeping last year when it was time to take her third-grade Standards of Learning exams.

“There should not be that amount of pressure on a test for an 8-year-old,” Hamlar said. “That shouldn’t be how we do things. And it’s hindering creativity in the classroom. Kids are being taught to the test.”

The General Assembly’s recent moves to roll back testing — including eliminating two of the four tests required in third-grade — are steps in the right direction, he added, but more work remains to be done.

Just what those next steps should be is a question for which Hamlar didn’t have a clear answer this summer.

He said he’s meeting with educators, parents, business leaders and other stakeholders to brainstorm ideas. In August, the Virginia Education Association endorsed him.

“If everybody sits down and talks about it, I think we can come up with a solution that will be beneficial for the region,” he said.

On charter schools, a hot-button topic, Hamlar said he needed to study the issue more before reaching a decision.

His own family has a footing in both public and private schools. While his oldest attends public school, his middle child is in kindergarten at a private, faith-based school started by members of his wife’s family.

Hamlar, who has a total of three children ages 8 to 2, said his family is equally happy with both schools.

Opposes controversial natural gas pipeline

If elected, Hamlar said, he plans to be a strong voice in the Senate — for Medicaid expansion, nonpartisan redistricting reform and limiting the powers of natural gas pipeline companies.

“In Southwest Virginia, we often get overlooked,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons I’m running. We need a loud, vocal voice in Richmond saying, hey, we’re still here. We need jobs, we need resources, we need funding for our schools.”

Hamlar is a proponent of universal background checks for gun buyers. He supports the legalization of same-sex marriage, which the U.S. Supreme Court made the law of the land in a June ruling.

He’d like to initiate a tax cut for middle-class families and argues the state could afford it if it accepted federal money for Medicaid expansion.

He’s been a vocal opponent of the Mountain Valley Pipeline and said he’d be the first to vote to repeal the controversial 2004 surveying law sparking lawsuits in the state now. That law allows natural gas line surveyors on property to do their work without owners’ permission.

If he won, Hamlar would be a freshman in a closely divided Senate currently controlled by Republicans.

He said he’d tackle the challenge like any other he’s faced in his life, throwing himself into the work.

“You just have to build those relationships,” he said. “It’s like a business. When you’re opening a new business or you have a new vendor or client, you have to sit down and talk to them, have a meal, break bread and fellowship. Say, hey, let me get to know you, you get to know me, and then we’ll know how we can interact and help each other.”

“I know I can do the job,” Hamlar said. “I know I’ll represent all people, not cater to the party, which is what some people would do. That’s not what this is about. It’s about representing the people, and that’s why we should do this.”

Alicia Petska covers what's happening in Roanoke County and the City of Salem.

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