HARRISONBURG — Two Democrats are expected to declare this weekend that they want to run to oust GOP incumbent Tony Wilt of Broadway from his 26th District seat in the House of Delegates come November.
That’s two more than usual.
The district has so consistently elected Republicans by such wide margins that Democrats often don’t bother.
The hopefuls are James Madison University adjunct professor Cathy Copeland and media producer Brent Finnegan, both residents of Harrisonburg. The two said they would file paperwork today with the Rockingham County Electoral Board.
Deb Fitzgerald, chairwoman of the city Democratic Committee, said the two will vie in an April 28 “firehouse primary” to become the first Democrat to challenge Wilt since 2010, when he won a special election to put him in office.
Wilt, 55, won that election by a 2-1 margin over Kai Degner, a Democrat who was Harrisonburg’s mayor at the time, and former Mayor Carolyn Frank, an independent. The election was held because then-Del. Matt Lohr, a Republican, vacated his seat to become Virginia’s agriculture and consumer services commissioner.
Wilt, president of Superior Concrete in Harrisonburg, ran unopposed in 2011, ’13 and ’15 in a district that comprises the Democratic-leaning city of Harrisonburg and northern portions of overwhelmingly Republican Rockingham County.
This time, Wilt, who said he intends to declare his candidacy, will face one of two candidates who have never run for elected office instead of tested politicians.
But Finnegan, 38, and Copeland, 37, say they see opportunities for change in politics following the surprise victory by Donald Trump as president in November. It was a loss for Democrats that has galvanized the party and inspired people like them to get into politics, they said.
“I was involved in the Bernie Sanders campaign, and I saw a way to run a campaign without big money, a grass-roots campaign,” said Finnegan, a Broadway High School graduate who serves on the city’s appointed Planning Commission.
“We need to do more than oppose the authoritarian government,” he said. “We need a plan” to offer better alternatives.
Copeland, a native of Fort Wayne, Ind., who has lived in Harrisonburg for seven years, said she was compelled by “the disappointment in the election” and “looking at the district, and seeing the need for a woman. I came to realize I am that woman.”
After consulting with the county Democratic Committee, the city committee on Monday decided to pit Copeland and Finnegan against each other in an “unassembled caucus,” Fitzgerald said.
That way of nominating a candidate, also called a firehouse primary, is essentially a crossbreed.
Proponents of the nominating process say that depending on who turns out, it can open the decision to voters in the district like a primary does, or can give party stalwarts the chance to play king makers, like a caucus.
The party will pay for it. Taxpayers pay for primaries.
Voters can cast ballots from 3 to 8 p.m. April 28, a Friday.
The Democrats have not agreed where the two polling stations will be, although they will put one in the city and one in the county.