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Republican Chris Head and Democrat Freeda Cathcart also clashed in 2011.
Monday, October 28, 2013
For the first time in six years, an incumbent is running for re-election in Virginia’s 17th House of Delegates district.
To win a second term, Del. Chris Head, R-Botetourt County, will have to defeat the same Democrat who opposed him two years ago in a Republican-leaning district that covers parts of Roanoke, Roanoke County and Botetourt County. Roanoke Democrat Freeda Cathcart, who got 34 percent of the vote in 2011, is challenging Head again this fall and nearly matched the Republican in campaign fundraising through the end of September.
Head is talking up his record, emphasizing his efforts to advance issues important to small businesses and defending his vote for a tax-fattened transportation funding bill that passed the General Assembly this year with bipartisan support.
“I ran two years ago on being a business person who wanted to focus on job creation and the economy, and when we survey people now that is still the number-one issue,” said Head, who owns a franchise of Home Instead Senior Care.
Cathcart has campaigned as a champion of public education and has accused Head of not doing enough to get more school funds for Roanoke County, home to about three-fourths of the district’s voters. She also has gone after Head for supporting the transportation bill, even though two Roanoke Democrats, Sen. John Edwards and Del. Onzlee Ware, also backed the measure.
“I’ve helped people for decades locally, as far as advocating for them,” said Cathcart, a civic activist and former insurance underwriter and reinsurance specialist. “Having a seat in the General Assembly would allow me to do so much more than I’ve been able to do. And when I saw the job that my current delegate was doing, I was really disappointed.”
Head is the first delegate to seek re-election in the 17th District since 2007, when Roanoke Republican William Fralin won his third term. Republican Bill Cleaveland of Botetourt County succeeded Fralin and served just one term before Head’s 2011 election. Head said continuity would benefit the district and the region, “and that’s especially important as we have more delegates in the Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads areas.”
Head alluded to the growing clout of the state’s faster-growing regions when he explained his support for the transportation bill. The measure will generate $3.5 billion in statewide revenue over the next five years, and additional amounts from regional taxes assessed in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.
Among other things, the statewide package eliminated the state’s per-gallon excise tax on gasoline and replaced it with a sales tax assessed on the wholesale price of fuel. It also increased tax rates on retail and vehicle sales. The new revenue will fund road, rail and transit projects, including the extension of Amtrak service to Roanoke.
Head said he pored over the numbers before voting on the bill. He concluded that it would be “revenue neutral” for most of his constituents. He figured that the sales tax increase would be offset by the conversion to a 3.5 percent tax on the wholesale price of gas, a switch that reduced gas taxes by about 6 cents per gallon when the law went into effect.
“There were some people that were furiously upset by the perception that it was me voting for a tax increase,” Head said. “And some of them have stayed angry, but not many. There have been more that applauded it and said, ‘We’ve been hearing that we needed to do something for the last 20 years and thank goodness you finally went ahead and did something because it needed to be done.’ ”
Head cited the extension of passenger rail to Roanoke as a tangible benefit of the bill. But the bill’s passage also had an intangible political benefit, he said. Legislators from Northern Virginia have been pushing to give the state’s more densely populated regions more voting strength on the Commonwealth Transportation Board, which allocates state road money. Head expects those efforts to cease now that new transportation revenue and regional funding plans have been approved.
“Most people don’t get how important that is,” Head said. “My gosh, if you change the [board’s] makeup and then the next step is to change the funding formula, and they’ve got the votes to do it, then we’re left out in the cold.”
Cathcart has attacked Head’s vote for the bill in a campaign flier that accuses the Republican of supporting “the largest tax increase in Virginia history.” But most General Assembly Democrats also voted for it, including Edwards and Ware. Ware was one of a handful of legislators involved in negotiating the final version of the bill.
Asked if she would have voted for the transportation package, Cathcart said: “It’s hard for me to comment on whether or not I would have voted for or against a bill that I was not there and in the process of. I would like to think if I was there it would have been a different bill and that I would have been able to feel good voting for it. ”
Cathcart said her campaign mailer is not about transportation, but is criticizing Head for voting for tax increases after promising not to.
“I campaigned the last time on transportation, saying that we need to invest,” she said. “But I didn’t campaign saying I wasn’t going to raise taxes. Chris did.”
Head’s campaign website states that he will “keep his word to fight tax increases.”
Head said he never took a blanket no-tax pledge, but told voters he would work to hold the line on taxes. He insisted his constituents and the region’s economy will benefit from the transportation package. He also questioned whether Cathcart understands the legislative process.
“If you look at what her positions are that she’s put out there and what she’s trying to attack me on, she demonstrates a fairly colossal ignorance of how anything really works,” Head said.
Cathcart said she does understand the process, having advocated in Richmond for bills to license and regulate midwives and to require doctors to include information on breast density in mammogram letters to patients.
Head said preserving Virginia’s business-friendly reputation is essential in a time of economic uncertainty. Head and a group of fellow freshman delegates launched the Virginia Business Development Caucus last year to push legislation important to small and medium-sized businesses. This year, the General Assembly passed Head’s bill allowing judges to consider deposition testimony in summary judgment proceedings. The Virginia Chamber of Commerce pressed for the legislation, arguing that it would cut down on frivolous lawsuits. The caucus has held town hall-style meetings throughout the state with business representatives, including a gathering last week in Roanoke.
“I think we’ve delivered pretty well on what we promised and we want to keep at it,” Head said.
Cathcart has touted her endorsement from the Virginia Education Association and backing from three Roanoke County school board members to help make her case that she would do more for public education. She has called for an overhaul of the state’s Standards of Learning tests and has criticized Head for not doing enough to help Roanoke County with school funding, criticism that Head considers misplaced.
The General Assembly earlier this year passed a budget bill that includes funds for the state’s share of a 2 percent pay raise for teachers. The funds were distributed to school divisions under Virginia’s local composite index formula, but only if the localities provided matching funds to fully pay for the salary increase.
Roanoke County’s school board, wrestling with tough budget decisions, decided not to fund the pay raises. But board members asked legislators to let the county have the $700,000 that was earmarked for pay raises because the county had fully funded a 3 percent raise last year without any funds from the state.
Cathcart said in a news conference earlier this month that Roanoke County could have had the money “if our current delegate had put some extra effort into it.” Head said he took the request to senior House budget-writers, who shot him down “with blinding speed.” No one in Roanoke County’s legislative delegation filed a budget amendment to make the funds available to Roanoke County.
Cathcart said Head “surrendered in a second” and should have fought harder for the funds. Head said it would have been extraordinary for the General Assembly to make such an exception for Roanoke County.
“When have you ever heard of anybody being able to get credit for this year’s deal based on what you did last year?” he said.
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