HARRISONBURG — Democratic primary candidates Cathy Copeland and Brent Finnegan answered questions Tuesday regarding the upcoming race against Del. Tony Wilt, R-Broadway, to represent Harrisonburg and parts of Rockingham County in the House of Delegates.
Most of the questions the candidates debated came from the more than 40-person audience at Thomas Harrison Middle School, and that was the point, said Adriel Byrd, vice chair of operations for the Harrisonburg Democratic Committee.
Though Copeland and Finnegan have spoken to an audience together at a forum on May 9, many people expressed interest in asking candidates questions, and the committee has been trying to do “new” things, he said.
“We’re not enemies here,” Byrd said. “We’re trying to decide who our candidate will be.”
In a primary next Tuesday, voters will decide which Democrat will take on Wilt during the November general election to represent the 26th District in the House.
The first question was who would make the best candidate in the general election.
Unsurprisingly, both Copeland, a James Madison University writing professor, and Finnegan, a JMU training and resource content creator, argued that their own candidacy would be the best option to win the seat.
“We need someone who has been working in the community and understands the needs of the community and the different aspects of that,” Finnegan said.
Finnegan also focused on his work and childhood in the county, using examples such as how the heavy rainfall have affected both Harrisonburg and Rockingham.
Copeland argued the best candidate was one who knows how to run a “smart” campaign, and agreed with Finnegan on the importance of hearing from those in the county, not just the city.
Copeland asked Finnegan about the leftover money from his previous campaign for the 26th District in 2017, which he lost by about 2,000 votes, or a margin of 45.33% to Wilt’s 54.52%.
“Every single dollar went towards winning the district,” Finnegan said.
Money is often leftover in war chests after elections.
That money can also be used for legal challenges if an election is extremely close, Finnegan said.
Running a campaign is “just a really long job interview,” Copeland said.
“My ability to read and write legislation is absolutely critical and absolutely important,” she said.
Copeland repeatedly touched on her extensive experience reading legislation from Richmond, which can be seen on her website where she wrote about a separate bill every day between Jan. 9 and Feb. 22.
She also said she had read all the 3,000 bills introduced in the General Assembly this year, as well as 4,000 from 2018 and 3,000 from 2017.
The Division of Legislative Services was created to help politicians write bills, Finnegan said, similar to the way staff helps the city Planning Commission, of which Finnegan is a member, to continue their work.
Even still, clarity is paramount to writing legislation, Copeland said, citing a bill Wilt patroned.
In 2018, Wilt patroned House Bill 1 to address what student information public universities can give out. The legislation was in response to Finnegan’s campaign obtaining college students’ phone numbers to text them in the 2017 race against Wilt.
“That was a real problem for me, as well as the JMU faculty and staff,” she said, citing clarity as the key issue that led to numerous problems with the implementation of the bill.
“We need to take the responsibility ourselves,” she said.
The second question asked the candidates what the philosophies and legislative intent of an “ethical citizen legislator” were.
“They need to have a foundation in the community, roots in the community and make sure that their job has led to a place where they can lead to effective legislation,” Copeland said.
She followed up by advocating for more educators in the General Assembly to prioritize education.
An ethical legislator does not take money from large, corporate interests, such as Dominion Energy, Finnegan said.
“I’m not blaming Dominion for trying to buy them off,” he said. “I’m blaming the politicians for taking the money.”
Finnegan also spoke about the need for addressing statewide issues, such as the difference in funding for schools in Northern Virginia and schools in Southwest Virginia.
“Those are the kind of disparities that I think the state has an obligation to fix,” he said.
Copeland has also pledged not to take money from Dominion or Appalachian Power.
Many other questions were asked of the candidates, including on increasing the strength of local commerce and conflicts of interest.
There used to be two independent grocers in Broadway, Finnegan said, and now there are two dollar stores.
“That’s a perfect example of how you lose money in local communities,” he said.
Also, legislation forbidding companies to “pit small town against small town” for the best tax incentives would help local commerce.
Tax incentives are a way small businesses could grow, Copeland said.
Though supportive of raising the minimum wage, she said it would also require small businesses “have a hand up,” as they will struggle more with the wage increase than large corporations.
Both spoke about Sen. Mark Obenshain’s 2019 Senate Bill 1086, which forbid university board members from being employed at the university within two years after leaving the board.
The legislation followed on the heels of the revelation that Bill Bolling, former lieutenant governor of Virginia, had negotiated the creation of a job for himself while on JMU’s board of visitors.
“We need to make sure people aren’t creating their own job with public money,” Finnegan said.
“We need to make sure everybody across the state has to be held to that standard,” she said. “It should not just be a JMU-Bill Bolling bill.”
Copeland also spoke about other areas needing reform, such as mental health.
“We need to make sure we are giving children the chance to feel comfortable in their environment,” she said.
Finnegan agreed that mental health is an increasing problem, he said, as people were exhibiting “epidemics of despair.”
“A lot of this is because people are feeling economic anxiety,” Finnegan said. “Some people are concerned where their next meal is coming from.”
The new Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility is also compounding to the anxiety of area residents, he said.
Copeland agreed in the importance of “protecting” those in the immigrant community.
“ICE coming in here is a terrifying idea,” she said.
Both candidates also agreed on the importance of taking their message to the county, which primarily votes Republican, to improve their election chances.
“The biggest thing I think we can do for folks in the county is show up for them and be there for what they need,” Finnegan said.
At the closing of the event, the candidates were given the chance to make closing remarks.
Copeland said that Finnegan had unsuccessfully run in 2017 and now Wilt is better funded and prepared.
“I think I’m the sharpest contrast to Tony Wilt,” Copeland said.
Finnegan closed by discussing his 14 years of service work with Valley residents.
“We may not have all the money in the world,” he said, “but we will win because of the relationships.”