It’s deja vu with the Democrats seeking the 26th District nomination — but the selection process could be new

By Bridget Manley

It’s beginning to look a lot like 2017. Or is it?

JMU adjunct professor Cathy Copeland announced her campaign as a Democratic candidate for the 26th District seat in the Virginia House of Delegates on Tuesday afternoon, setting up a rematch in the Democratic primary against Brent Finnegan. Finnegan defeated Copeland for the Democratic nomination in 2017 but lost in the general election to the incumbent, Republican Tony Wilt.

Once again Finnegan and Copeland are vying for a chance to take on Wilt, who was first elected in 2010. But while the candidates might be the same, the campaigns might look a little different this time, especially if the election process for the Democrats changes.

In 2017, city and county Democrats decided between Finnegan and Copeland by casting their ballots at city hall in what was called a “firehouse primary.” Fewer than 1,000 people voted in that primary April 28 for the district, which covers Harrisonburg and much of northern Rockingham County — including Broadway and Timberville — and stretches south to Dayton.

Now, some Harrisonburg and Rockingham County Democrats, including Copeland and Finnegan, have voiced support for the 26th District being part of the June 11 statewide primary, when voters in each district with competitive races would go to the polls.

“We have heard interest in a state-run primary, and the committees are reviewing the process of what type of primary or caucuses to run,” said Alleyn Harned, chairman of the Harrisonburg Democratic Committee.

A state-run primary would let 26th District voters cast their ballots at their normal local polling places as opposed to traveling to one location in Harrisonburg on an earlier date. It would also give the Democratic candidates more time to reach voters. The local Democratic Party Nominating Committee has the power to decide the process. 

Both Finnegan and Copeland are in favor of a state-run primary.

“In 2017 the primary was decided by a local party-run caucus,” Finnegan said. “In 2019, I will advocate for a state-run primary, in order to grant greater access to the ballot for voters across the district.”

Copeland said she’d “support whatever decision” the Democratic Party Nominating Committee makes. “But I think that a state-run primary will engage more voters and have a larger turnout, so that would be my preference,” she added.

Echoes of 2017

Harned said although the two declared primary candidates for the 26th District are the same as in 2017, he believes the energy in the Democratic Party is helping city and county democrats organize early and better, and he thinks that is important for the next election.

“We obviously know we need to appeal to a wide range of voters in an election like this,” he says. “We need to appeal to progressive and moderate democrats in the city and in the county to really cross the finish line.”

He said having two declared Democratic candidates for the 26th District is a positive sign for the party going into 2019.

While he declined to forecast any other Democratic candidates throwing their hats in the ring, he did welcome the idea.

“Local Democrats are absolutely fired up,” he said. “People are concerned about the direction of the country, and they are excited about the community that we have of progressive activists and democrats we have locally.”

Feeling more prepared

Copeland said she wants to focus on education, infrastructure and the economy, healthcare — especially mental healthcare — fair pay, criminal justice reform and voting rights. She said she feels better-prepared and starts with greater name recognition this time.

“Last time I didn’t feel like I could fully go forward with all of the ideas that I wanted to,” she said. “It was a very short campaign, but I really came away knowing I wanted to do more and keep trying.”

Copeland said she was disheartened following the 2016 presidential election and began considering running for office after realizing that Tony Wilt had run uncontested for several terms.

She enrolled in the 2018 Political Leaders Program with the Sorensen Institute at the University of Virginia, and recently completed the program.

“I have a better grasp of what it means to be a delegate, I have a better idea of how to work collaboratively in a bipartisan or nonpartisan environment in order to move forward with necessary legislation,” she said.

She said what she took away from that program and from talking to community members will still be a big part of her campaign, but this time she wants to focus on more — and bigger — issues as part of the campaign.  She said she plans to stress “honesty, truth and integrity” and wants to be collaborative.

The district still remains a challenge for Democrats. In 2017 Finnegan, who grew up in Broadway,  found solid support in Harrisonburg but struggled to make up for Wilt’s dominant performance with Rockingham County voters.

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Finnegan, who lost to Wilt in November 2017 by less than 2,000 votes out of more than 20,000, said he would “welcome Cathy Copeland” to the race.

 “I look forward to a substantive discussion about the very real challenges facing people in the 26th district, and the best way to address those challenges as a community,” he told The Citizen.

Copeland’s campaign issues

Copeland has been an education activist in the city, working as a committee member for the ForHHS2 group, which advocated for construction of a second high school in Harrisonburg.

She said she was excited about last month’s election of Sal Romero and Chris Jones to the city council and the prospect that their support could help move up the school construction timeline. She also said she has her own ideas for the state to help find funding for school construction in the future.

“Years ago within the General Assembly, there used to be a strong commitment of state funds for the partial construction cost of new school buildings,” she said. “That was taken out of the budget…it’s put a huge burden on our localities.”

She says that she understands the worry about rising city taxes, and if she could make changes on the state level, it would relieve some pressure on municipalities to cover the majority of the funding.

She also highlights her platform of supporting criminal justice reform, voting rights for all and what she calls common-sense gun reforms of requiring “background checks for all gun purchases” and expanding “gun violence prevention and gun safety programs.”

Another local issue she said she’d like to work on is expanding broadband in the more rural areas of the county. She said that while broadband is strong in the city, many people in Rockingham County don’t have easy access.

“We need to make sure people can access broadband not only for personal use,” she said, “but for educational purposes as well as for their jobs.”

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