Republicans and Democrats in four counties and two cities in Western Virginia will vote Saturday for nominees to compete in a race to succeed Del. Ben Cline, R-Rockbridge.
Cline’s resignation from the Virginia General Assembly is effective Dec. 18, the same day a special election has been scheduled for voters to choose his replacement. Three Democrats and four Republicans are trying to secure their party’s nominations Saturday.
The Democrats are:
- Nicholas Betts, 28, a third-year law student at the Washington and Lee University School of Law.
- Kenneth Bumgarner, 65, a former Amherst town councilman and retired state trooper.
- Christian Worth, 49, a lawyer and political activist in Lexington.
The Republican candidates are:
- Catie Austin-Brown, 38, a former teacher and current small business owner from Rockbridge County and the daughter of Del. Terry Austin, R-Botetourt.
- Jimmy Ayers, 55, an Amherst County supervisor and former Amherst County sheriff.
- Ronnie Campbell, 64, a Rockbridge County supervisor, former county school board member and retired state trooper.
- Jay Lewis, 46, a Rockbridge County supervisor and former county school board member.
Cline served for 16 years in the House of Delegates. The Republican attorney from Rockbridge County was elected to Congress on Nov. 6 to replace retiring Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Roanoke County.
The 24th House of Delegates District represents the cities of Buena Vista and Lexington as well as Bath and Rockbridge counties and parts of Amherst and Augusta counties.
Democrats are hoping to flip a seat that’s a Republican stronghold. In the past 20 years, the poorest performance from a Republican in any race was 56 percent of the vote.
Betts said his priority is improving the education system, including affordable higher education opportunities, improved teacher pay and reducing the classroom size so students can have more individualized instruction. He said rural communities are behind when it comes to high-speed internet, and that’s hampering education and holding back economic growth.
“Education is the road to a strong stable economy and strong middle class,” Betts said.
Bumgarner served for six years as a councilman in the town of Amherst and 32 years as a police officer. He also served as president of the Virginia State Police Association. He said in those roles, he has experience advocating for issues aimed at improving lives.
“I think I can contribute to a civil discourse to solve issues to people who live out here,” he said.
He said he’s interested in having “sensible discussions” about gun control. For instance, he’s opposed to bump stocks.
Bumgarner said he strives to be fiscally responsible when it comes to financial decisions. He said improvements to infrastructure, such as schools and roads, need to be prioritized to facilitate economic growth. As a trooper, he said he spent plenty of time on Interstate 81 and is familiar with how dangerous it can be.
“It’s something that’s got to be addressed, but where it comes back to is how to pay for it,” he said.
Worth attended Washington and Lee University, then completed law school in Kentucky and worked there for more than 20 years as a lawyer. She moved back to Lexington a few years ago.
“As a family lawyer, you not only have to be a family advocate but a strong negotiator,” she said. “You’re working with people who don’t like each other and opposing counsel. I enjoy getting people together with different points of view and have different ways they’d like it to be resolved, and I think that’ll translate well in Richmond in working across the aisle.”
Worth wants rural areas to catch up with the state. For example, she said providing broadband can help small farms do business on the internet as well as give a stay-at-home mom the ability to get an online education.
“It’s about helping rural communities thrive, and I define thriving as holding true to their community identity,” she said.
She is opposed to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline which will cut through the district, and she vows not to take any money from Dominion Energy, which is spearheading the project.
All three candidates will attend a forum at 6:30 p.m. Friday at the Lexington and Rockbridge Democratic Committees headquarters at 11 South Jefferson St. in Lexington.
At a forum Wednesday in Buena Vista, the Republican candidates said they would carry on the conservative values that Cline embodied in the General Assembly.
As chairman of the House Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee, Cline shot down gun control legislation. All four candidates said they would protect Second Amendment rights.
To address gun violence, Campbell favored more resources put toward mental health services. Austin-Brown said she supports more school resource officers in schools and expanding open and concealed carry permit rights.
Lewis said that while he doesn’t support banning any types of guns, he would support “prohibiting modifications.”
The candidates said they would build on Cline’s work on increasing government transparency. Ayers said he would not support any additional exemptions to Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act. Campbell touted his record of working to make proceedings in local government more transparent. Austin-Brown pointed out that Virginia promised Amazon incentives worth $573 million and limited details are available to the public.
With Medicaid enrollment underway, three of the candidates stated they would have voted no to expand health coverage to as many as 400,000 low-income Virginians.
Austin-Brown didn’t answer how she would have voted, but she said she has “concerns regarding Medicaid” and its impact on the budget. About two dozen Republicans, including Austin-Brown’s father, broke ranks with their party and voted for a budget that expands Medicaid.
Gov. Ralph Northam is expected to ask for legislation in January to authorize the state to collect sales tax on internet sales. It could mean a windfall of up to $250 million in annual state revenue. State Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, has publicly called for half of that windfall to go toward his proposal for modernizing the state’s aging schools.
Austin-Brown and Campbell didn’t support what they described as imposing new taxes on Virginians, and neither of them addressed Stanley’s idea.
Lewis and Ayers said they supported collecting the sales tax on internet sales .
“Sen. Stanley’s proposition makes a lot of sense,” Ayers said. “We cannot continue to ask our localities to foot the bills for the schools that cost millions of dollars. They don’t have the tax base to support that. Rural lives do matter, and the quality of your education should not depend on your ZIP code.”
The voter registration deadline for the special election is Dec. 12.