Ken Heath got a tip around 11:30 a.m. Tuesday.
He heard state Sen. Bill Carrico, R-Grayson, was not seeking re-election, but Carrico hadn’t publicly announced it yet.
Heath looked up the filing deadline for candidates to seek the Republican nomination, and realized it was in 30 minutes. He called the chairman of the legislative district committee overseeing the nomination process, who told Heath he had to deliver his declaration to run in person.
Heath, the town of Marion’s director of community and economic development, grabbed a note card off his desk at work and scribbled on the back his intention to seek the Senate seat. He drove to deliver the piece of paper to the chairman.
“I handed it in two minutes before noon,” Heath, 56, said Tuesday. “It was just beating the buzzer on that one.”
Heath and Del. Todd Pillion, R-Washington, will compete next month for the Republican nomination to succeed Carrico, who will leave the General Assembly after 18 years . Carrico represented the city of Bristol and Lee, Scott, Grayson and Washington counties, as well as parts of Smyth, Wise and Wythe counties.
Carrico didn’t publicly announce he wouldn’t seek re-election until 30 minutes after the deadline to file for the Republican nomination. About an hour after Carrico’s announcement, Pillion announced he would seek the Senate seat. In Pillion’s news release, Carrico endorsed him.
Heath said he was just glad he was able to join the nomination contest.
“I didn’t know the game that was being played,” Heath said. “But I’ll play the rules as we have them. If it’s the people’s will to have somebody bring a new set of eyes to Richmond, I’m ready to go.”
Pillion said he was waiting on Carrico to decide he wasn’t running again, but he didn’t elaborate on when or how he knew Carrico wouldn’t seek re-election. Pillion said he filed for the nomination about 11:30 a.m. Tuesday.
Pillion said he wanted to wait for Carrico to publicly announce his retirement on his own terms. He said he didn’t choose to have Carrico announce his retirement after the deadline.
“It’s an opportunity for me to give back to my home and represent the people who I grew up with and nurtured me into who I am today,” Pillion said. “Southwest Virginia has conservative values, and that’s what I was raised to believe in.”
Republicans will gather April 25 in Scott County for a mass meeting to choose between Pillion and Heath. Any Republican voter living in the Senate district can participate in the mass meeting, to be held at the Scott County Career and Technical Center at 150 Broadwater Ave. in Gate City.
The announcement for the mass meeting states only the candidates who have filed paperwork in advance are able to seek the nomination. Because no floor nominations will be permitted, no one can show up the day of the mass meeting and try to secure the nomination.
Ed Lynch, a Hollins University political science professor and past chair of the Roanoke County Republican Committee, said it’s hard to tell whether this is an attempt to “anoint” someone.
“People who inherently don’t trust the political process and see something like this will conclude there is something wrong. But there isn’t,” Lynch said. “But on the other hand, there are people who think information ought to be spoon-fed to them.”
Lynch said the day of the mass meeting will be an indicator if there is dissent over this event.
“I think that district committee would be best served to be transparent from here on out,” Lynch said.
It’s unusual — but not unprecedented — for such apparent succession plans to play out.
For example, when former Sen. Ralph Smith, R-Bedford County, announced in 2015 he would retire after two terms in office, he immediately endorsed David Suetterlein, then Smith’s legislative aide and chairman of the Roanoke County Republican Committee, to succeed him.
Smith’s announcement came two days before the deadline to seek the Republican nomination for the seat, which some argued was unfair to other GOP hopefuls who were left with little time to decide what to do.
The episode prompted one person to run as an independent. Suetterlein defeated both the independent and Democrat that fall.
Some don’t want to challenge an incumbent from within the party because it’s difficult to win and can sour political relationships.
In Heath’s case, he said he had wanted to run for either Virginia’s House of Delegates or Senate, but didn’t want to challenge incumbents he liked. So he waited for someone to retire.
He said he just wished he had more time to notify his wife about launching a run for the Senate.
“Thank God she didn’t divorce me or have me committed,” Heath joked.
Russell County Supervisor David Eaton said Wednesday he will seek the Republican nomination for Pillion’s House seat. Republican candidates have until March 25 to file for the nomination. An open primary will be used to choose that Republican nominee.
Carrico’s Senate seat and Pillion’s House seat are in solidly Republican districts. All 140 seats in the General Assembly are up for re-election in November, and Democrats are fighting to take over the majority in both chambers.
Pillion, a dentist, was elected to the House of Delegates in 2014 to represent Dickenson County and portions of Russell, Washington and Wise counties.
He’s known for his pleasant demeanor in the House of Delegates and for pushing legislation tackling the opioid epidemic. Southwest Virginia has been hit especially hard by opioid addiction.
“We’ve made great strides, but there is still work to be done,” Pillion said.
Heath said he wants to focus on education, infrastructure and the opioid crisis, which he says lack resources.
“So many communities have given up and been told it can’t be done, and I’m too stubborn to listen to that,” Heath said. “We can figure out a way to make things happen. My big thing is to give Southwest Virginia a strong voice in Richmond.”