HARRISONBURG — Another Democrat is throwing her hat into the ring in next year’s election to challenge incumbent Del. Tony Wilt, R-Broadway.
Cathy Copeland, 39, a James Madison University adjunct professor, announced her candidacy Tuesday for the Democratic Party nomination to represent the 26th District in the Virginia House of Delegates. The 26th District includes Harrisonburg and parts of Rockingham County.
She is the second Democrat to announce a run at the seat. Last month, Brent Finnegan, a Harrisonburg City Planning Commission member and local media producer, said he would seek his party’s nomination a second time, having unsuccessfully challenged Wilt in 2017.
Two years ago, Finnegan, 40, defeated Copeland in a “firehouse primary,” but lost to Wilt in the general election, receiving about 45 percent of the vote.
Wilt has held the seat since winning a special election in 2010 to replace Republican Matt Lohr. He’s been re-elected to four full two-year terms.
“I welcome Cathy to the primary contest and I look forward to having a good, substantive discussion about the challenges we’re having in the 26th District and how to address those challenges as a community,” Finnegan said. “I’m hopeful that we can focus on the issues that matter most to the people in the district.”
Although local Democrats opted for a firehouse primary, or an unassembled caucus, to choose their nominee in the previous contest, Finnegan said Tuesday that he would welcome a state-run primary election next year.
Firehouse primaries involve opening select precincts to voters and are run by the party, not the state, and tend to see lower turnout.
“In 2019, my campaign and I will be advocating for a state-run primary in order to grant greater access to the ballot to the larger number of people in the district,” he said.
Although Harrisonburg has become increasingly Democratic, Rockingham County remains solidly Republican.
Copeland, though, said the results of November’s midterm election show that turning the 26th District blue is not impossible, noting that Democrat incumbent U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine bested Republican challenger Corey Stewart in the district.
“I think it’s absolutely achievable,” she said.
Copeland said her campaign will focus on education, health care and mental health, the economy and infrastructure. She said topics such as improving Interstate 81, as well as destigmatizing and providing greater access to mental health care, are issues that Republican and Democratic voters can agree on.
“I think what I need to do is not focus on winning the district, but focus on how I can help the constituents,” she said.
Copeland has taught at James Madison since moving to Harrisonburg in March 2010, an experience she said would be an asset when representing the district.
“I think I bring a unique voice because I’m a writing and rhetoric professor at JMU,” she said. “I’m going to take a leap and use my voice to move for good in the community.”
The Fort Wayne, Ind., native received a bachelor’s degree in biology from Hanover College, a private liberal arts college in Hanover, Ind., in 2002. Copeland earned a master’s in English literature from Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis in 2004.
She edited the science journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences for two years while living in Maryland. Copeland earned a doctorate degree at the University of Alabama’s renaissance literature program in 2009.
Teaching rhetoric and studying political discourse is what motivated Copeland to run for public office.
“Political rhetoric has come to be very powerful in our world,” she said. “I think I can help people understand that civil discourse can move forward change and do it in an honest and transparent way.”
She represents the 6th Congressional District for the Virginia Democratic Women’s Caucus. Copeland completed the University of Virginia Sorensen Institute’s Political Leaders program this year, which she said inspired many of her ideas. She she said believes an honest, transparent and inclusive campaign will resonate with voters.
“I think that I bring a lot of ideas about how we can collaborate in effective ways,” she said. “I want to listen to my voters.”
Copeland was a member of the steering committee that formed ForHHS2, a grassroots organization that advocated for the construction of a second high school in Harrisonburg.
On education, she supports giving teachers a raise with competitive step increases. She wants to secure state funds for the partial construction costs of new school buildings, invest in vocational and apprenticeship programs, forgive student loan debt for residents who serve the public, and increase state funding for public colleges and universities.
“I think that education is one of my landmark areas, and what I’m really interested in is how we can use state money more effectively, especially for education purposes,” Copeland said.
Increasing state funding equally among Virginia’s universities will bring down tuition costs to make college more affordable, she argues.
She also supports free community college. When asked how that would be funded, Copeland said the money would be available by making it a budget priority and the state’s spending plan “more equitable.”
Copeland also supports Virginia’s passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, which guarantees equal rights regardless of sex. Supporters argue that if Virginia votes for the ERA, it would become the 38th state needed to ratify the amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Critics say several states have since voted to rescind their approval since Congress passed it in the 1970s.
Legislation to ratify the amendment is expected to be introduced in the Virginia General Assembly’s 2019 session, which starts next month.
Copeland supports background checks for all gun purchases and an expansion of gun violence prevention and gun safety programs. Other issues she supports includes expanded family and parental leave, single-payer health care, expanded internet access and criminal justice reforms.
Copeland said she hopes she can reach across party lines.
“It’s not necessarily about Democrats or Republicans; it’s about looking how we can improve the community together,” she said.
Wilt did not return a call seeking comment on Tuesday.