The state Senate candidate who jumped into the 19th District race just ahead of the deadline said Thursday he was galvanized to run after retiring Sen. Ralph Smith paved the way for his aide, David Suetterlein, to lock down the Republican nomination.
“He basically blocked anybody else from getting on the ballot,” said Steven Nelson, a Hunting Hills resident who filed to run for Smith’s seat as an independent.
Nelson, 60, said he’s a longtime Republican though he hasn’t been active in local politics. This is his first run for public office.
“In a democracy, in a republic, I think everybody ought to have a chance. It was pretty sleazy in my opinion.”
He submitted his paperwork just before Tuesday’s deadline, setting up a three-way race for the seat.
Suetterlein, Smith’s legislative aide and chairman of the Roanoke County Republican Committee, is the GOP nominee. Mike Hamlar, an owner of Hamlar-Curtis Funeral Home, is the Democratic candidate.
In March, Smith, R-Bedford County, announced he plans to retire after two terms in office and immediately endorsed Suetterlein as his successor.
The announcement came two days before the deadline to seek the Republican nomination for the seat, which some argued was unfair to other GOP hopefuls left with little time to decide what to do. Nelson said he wasn’t planning to run but was inspired to launch an independent candidacy after reading about the timing of Smith’s retirement and its potential implications for the nomination process.
In his talks with voters, he’s highlighted a fiery column that Chesapeake radio host John Fredericks penned in April, criticizing Smith as a “self-appointed kingmaker.”
Smith dismissed Fredericks’ jabs and said Suetterlein, who’s worked for the senator for eight years, is the best person for the job.
“If I announced a year ago, he would probably be the frontrunner because he’s worked so hard and done a great job as county party chairman,” Smith said Thursday. “He’s also worked with other areas and helped other chairs who were less experienced and less knowledgeable. He’s been a friend to virtually all of the Republican Party chairs in Southwest Virginia.”
The overwhelming majority of the party is happy with Suetterlein as nominee, Smith said. The senator conceded he helped set the stage for Suetterlein, but added it’s common for elected officials — for example, sheriffs and other local officials — to help position their chief deputies to take over the office.
“I agree that I tilted the table in Dave’s favor. But I’m also writing a guarantee,” Smith said, adding that if Suetterlein doesn’t live up to expectations then people can “come back and beat me up.”
Nelson, a Roanoke County native, said he felt it was time for a fresh start in the office. He laid out a platform that included advocating for improvements to U.S. 220 South, supporting the Mountain Valley Pipeline and reining in regulations and wasteful spending.
Nelson is opposed to the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid expansion. He also said he wants to take a closer look at the budgets of Virginia’s colleges in light of the trend of rapidly rising student debt.
“There’s got to be some pork in those budgets,” he said, specifically mentioning administrative costs and the high salaries most university presidents pull down. “The assumption is they’re not accountable, and as long as there are taxpayers then they’re going to have a free income stream.”
Nelson said he has a business background, having worked in management with Piedmont Airlines and as a vice president with Morgan Stanley.
He last worked in ad sales for Yellowbook and Google AdWords. He’s currently a caregiver for his 86-year-old mother and lived with her until recently. He moved into a friend’s home in the 19th District earlier this year.
Nelson is a supporter of term limits, pledging to only serve two terms if elected, and of redistricting reform. He opposed expanding environmental regulations and questioned whether taxpayers should be subsidizing passenger rail.
“My goal is to make government more efficient and eliminate regulations to help people keep their jobs,” he said. “… Something has got to be done. We’re losing businesses.”
In a statement Wednesday, Hamlar, the Democratic candidate, welcomed Nelson to the race.
“The process used for the Republican nomination in this district was just not right, and Mr. Nelson’s candidacy is testament to that,” Hamlar said. “You cannot rig the game to anoint a candidate of your choosing.”
Suetterlein said Thursday he was focused on his campaign and message, not the opposition.
“I’m running on my principles for Southwest Virginia, not running against anyone,” he said, adding he’s received unified support from the district party.
One-third of voters in the 19th District reside in Roanoke County, but the district extends through Franklin, Montgomery, Floyd, Wythe, Carroll and Bedford counties, as well as Salem.
Smith said he felt the issue was a tempest in a campaign season teapot.
“I understand that’s politics,” he said. “People take shots at you, and that’s the nature of campaigns. But I’d say if that’s their best show, they really don’t have much.”