PEARISBURG — A forum that organizers intended to be low intensity and low confrontation took a turn Tuesday night when Republican activists squared off with the Democratic and independent candidates for the 21st District Senate seat.
The event — hosted by pipeline opposition group Preserve Giles County — got off to a fraught start when incumbent Sen. John Edwards asked organizers to stop Giles County GOP Vice Chairman Zack Thompson from filming the proceedings on his phone.
Thompson protested. “What would be the objection to filming a public forum? If it’s a public forum, and the people have called it?”
Audience murmurs suggested a divided opinion so Preserve Giles coordinator Rick Shingles put it to a vote. The majority voted no filming.
Edwards, D-Roanoke, didn’t speak or explain his request. His campaign manager said afterward that Thompson has tried to film Edwards before and argued he’s essentially a tracker for the campaign of Republican Nancy Dye — who turned down an invite to Tuesday’s forum, citing scheduling conflicts.
“It’s unfortunate that she’ll send spies but won’t come here herself to discuss a pipeline that will completely invade the property of members of Giles County communities, Montgomery County communities and Roanoke County communities,” said Sam Barrett, criticizing the situation as disingenuous and “petty partisan politics.”
Thompson said he attended the forum as a Giles County resident, not at the behest of the Dye camp.
“I’m very concerned with the 21st Senate District. I’m very concerned with how the senator has represented us,” he said.
“Unfortunately, I was told the senator didn’t want his views shared.”
Dye’s campaign manager, Lx Fangonilo, said Wednesday morning he hadn’t heard about the dust-up.
"Our campaign did not send anyone to last night's event — as I discussed with with organizers of the the event, Nancy's schedule was jampacked and we weren't able to make our way to Giles County last night," he wrote via email.
"We are looking forward to the several other scheduled opportunities that Nancy will be able to share her message of increasing economic development, improving education, and bringing new leadership to the 21st District with the voters in our region."
Thompson, speaking after the forum, said he felt important aspects of Edwards’ record are being ignored in the race.
Edwards has been vocal about his opposition to the controversial Mountain Valley Pipeline — aligning himself with a fiercely passionate coalition of anti-pipeline landowners in his district.
At the same time, he accepted a $600 political donation from EQT Corp. — one of the companies behind the pipeline — in December.
In 2004, he voted for a controversial surveying law now being contested in Giles County and elsewhere. The law allows natural gas companies to enter private property without consent provided certain requirements are observed.
Thompson and Aidan Williams, also listed as an officer with the Giles GOP, pressed Edwards on those points.
Edwards said the 2004 bill was rushed through on the strength of a sales pitch that said the changes would expand landowner protections by mandating things like advance notice of surveying work.
The argument went that pipeline crews were already venturing onto private property, he said, and the new law would help property owners.
Thompson asked Edwards to explain the $600 EQT donation. Edwards said he didn’t recall it.
“When I’m campaigning, if people or businesses or whatever want to send me a contribution, then I’m happy to take it,” he said.
Barrett, Edwards’ campaign manager, jumped in and asked if the donation influenced Edwards’ thinking on the pipeline.
“Taking money doesn’t mean anything as far as whether you support a position or not,” Edwards said. “Obviously, I’m very opposed to it [the pipeline] and I’ve said so.”
Williams urged Edwards to return or donate the money to demonstrate his opposition.
“Why?” Edwards, who appeared aggravated, asked. “I’m opposed to [the company’s] position, OK? That’s enough.”
Williams — who stressed he was voicing his personal concerns not those of Dye or the Giles GOP — also mixed it up with independent candidate Don Caldwell.
He pushed Caldwell to take a definitive stance for or against the pipeline. “You were criticizing Nancy Dye for not being here with a position,” he noted.
Caldwell has said before he’s not a fan of the pipeline, but feels certain it will get the federal approval it needs. The region has to have a contingency plan when that happens, he said.
Early on in the forum, he criticized Dye for waffling on the issue. Dye has declined to take a stance on the pipeline or the 2004 surveying law.
“There is an empty space in this room,” Caldwell said of the absent candidate. “Ms. Dye said she takes no position on the pipeline. I would just like to say to you all that no position is a position.”
Williams asked if Caldwell’s plan was a tacit sign of support for the line. Caldwell said his view of the project was irrelevant.
“It’s coming,” he said, “and we better have a fallback position.”
Williams pressed the issue until Shingles suggested others ought to get an opportunity to ask a question.
In an interview, Williams said he went to the forum as a county resident who’s concerned about the pipeline’s effect on private property rights.
He’s worried some candidates are “going off the rails” and overstating how much influence state lawmakers can have on the pipeline, a project governed by federal authorities.
“I do worry they are maybe taking us for a ride, especially Sen. Edwards saying he can do all this stuff for property owners in the 21st District when there’s actually little he can do as a state senator,” Williams said.
Tuesday’s forum was the first hosted by Preserve Giles. It has a second scheduled next month for the 12th District House of Delegates race.
Petska is the political beat reporter for The Roanoke Times.