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One is a Botetourt County supervisor; the other scrapped three times with Lacey Putney.
Tuesday, October 29, 2013
Two veteran campaigners with very different track records are running to replace a giant in Virginia’s 19th House of Delegates district.
Republican Terry Austin of Buchanan decided to run for the House after serving 16 years on the Botetourt County Board of Supervisors. His tenure on the Botetourt board gives him name recognition in the heart of a sprawling district that extends from Bedford County to the Alleghany Highlands. His experience in county government gives him an understanding of the pressures that state government policy decisions put on localities.
Democrat Lewis Medlin of Bedford County has made three previous runs for the House seat, never getting more than 27 percent of the vote. But in those races, Medlin was trying to topple the longest-serving member in the history of the Virginia General Assembly. That won’t be the case this fall.
Del. Lacey Putney, I-Bedford, announced in March that he will retire after 52 years in the House, leaving big shoes to fill.
Medlin said he expected Putney to retire two years ago, after a reapportionment plan shifted the boundaries of the 19th District to incorporate Alleghany County and Covington. Medlin ran anyway, finishing third in a three-way race that Putney won with 42 percent of the vote. When Putney announced his retirement, Medlin decided to mount one more campaign in the Republican-leaning district.
“I probably was the most surprised person this year that he actually did step down,” Medlin said. “Honestly, I did not expect him to.”
Putney, the chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, organized with the chamber’s Republican majority. His retirement touched off a fierce competition for the GOP nomination in the Republican-leaning district, with four candidates competing in a May firehouse primary. While his opponents raced to the right, Austin ran on his record as a county supervisor who emphasizes pragmatism over partisanship.
“I just surveyed the candidates for the primary and none of them had ever held public office,” Austin said in a recent interview. “I felt like that should at least be a minimal requirement, so I decided then that I should do it.”
Neither Austin nor Medlin claims to be a rock-ribbed partisan. Their mild-mannered personas are striking in a campaign season that has been dominated by the corrosive, high-volume negativity of the governor’s race.
“I don’t make my decisions based on politics,” Austin said. “I make my decisions based on necessary needs.”
Medlin said he embraces the centrism of Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, Virginia’s most popular statewide elected official.
“I talk about Mark Warner and I talk about the fact that, for him, he sort of stands in the middle and says, ‘If you got a good idea, I’ll help you with it, and if you don’t, I won’t,’ ” Medlin said. “I think that’s really the way to be.’”
Both candidates have business backgrounds. Austin owns an electrical contracting business that specializes in airport projects such as runway lighting, radar systems and navigational aids. Medlin is a vice president and co-founder of E-Z Mount Bracket Co. in Montvale, a family owned business that, he said, “has been devastated” by the recession.
Austin has been the more prolific fundraiser, reporting nearly $92,000 in contributions through Sept. 30. More than half of that total was raised for the primary, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. Medlin raised just $23,365 through the end of September.
Austin said his approach to governing is a reflection of the county he has served since his 1997 election to the board of supervisors. All but one of Botetourt’s election precincts are in the 19th District, and 38 percent of the district’s voters live in the county.
“For the most part, I’ve always said that the people of Botetourt County are very understanding and reasonable,” he said. “If you provide to them a reasonable and justified cause, present the facts and evidence, they’re going to make the same decision you’re going to make.”
That assessment was put to the test in 2012, when the board increased the county’s real estate tax rate by 7 cents per $100 of assessed value. Austin and three other board members voted for the tax increase after the public spoke out against proposed deep cuts in county services, including school programs. Medlin said his 89-year-old father, who lives in Botetourt, was “terribly upset” about the tax hike.
“We listened to the constituents,” Austin said. “We provided a list of services that could be cut and reduced. We held a public hearing and the people came and spoke and said, ‘We don’t want to lose these services.’ Well, if you don’t want to lose those services, the money has to come from the tax base if you don’t have growth in revenue.”
Austin said he was uncertain how he would have voted on the transportation funding bill the General Assembly passed earlier this year. Putney voted for the measure, which replaced the state’s per-gallon excise tax on fuel with a 3.5 percent tax on the wholesale price of gasoline. The bill also increased tax rates on retail and vehicle sales. Austin said he would have preferred a gas tax increase over a sales tax increase because “I’m a strong proponent of user fees.”
“I think we’ve gone way too long and allowed our infrastructure to deteriorate to a point that it’s going to be really tough,” he said. “I’m a person who believes in maintaining and sustaining and keeping up, not falling behind and having to play catch-up. There are parts of that transportation bill that I like and there are parts of the transportation bill that I don’t like. I’m not sure what action I would have taken, though. I’m certainly not in favor of tax increases.”
Medlin said he disapproved of the sales tax increase and criticized lawmakers for “putting the burden on that little old lady who doesn’t have a car and doesn’t drive.”
“I really think the people who use the roads should be paying for this,” Medlin said.
B oth candidates said they would push to complete planned improvements to U.S. 220 between Eagle Rock and Iron Gate. Austin said the project is critical to supporting truck traffic to and from MeadWestvaco Corp.’s plant in Covington. He said he would urge the region’s legislators to work together to advance transportation priorities and economic development prospects.
Medlin said he would push for legislation requiring the state to give Virginia businesses some preference in awarding government contracts. He also wants to explore the possibility of using a portion of state lottery proceeds to award college scholarships to straight-A students.
Both candidates questioned whether the state can afford to expand eligibility for the Medicaid program under the Affordable Care Act, an issue that a legislative panel is wrestling with this fall.
“The jury’s out on that for me,” said Austin, who voiced doubts about whether the federal government would keep its commitment to fund the lion’s share of the cost of extending coverage to as many as 400,000 low-income Virginians.
Medlin also was skeptical about the federal government’s commitment.
“They’re broke,” Medlin said. “How can they promise anything? So the state’s got to be real careful about this. In the first place, you’ve got to ask, ‘Can the state afford it?’ If it can’t afford it, we can’t do it.”
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