House District 26 Candidates discuss key election issues: Part I

Del. Tony Wilt – first and third pictures from the left – is the Republican incumbent who has represented Harrisonburg in the House of Delegates since 2010. He is being challenged by Democrat Brent Finnegan for the second time. Photo illustration by Holly Marcus

Story by Jeremiah Knupp, senior contributor // Photos by Holly Marcus, senior contributor

Editor’s Note: This story was updated on Oct. 27 to include responses from both candidates. Their responses are printed in full below in italicized text.

The Virginia House of Delegates’ 26th District includes the entire city of Harrisonburg, along with the northwest portion of Rockingham County. The Citizen interviewed both candidates contesting this seat – Republican incumbent Tony Wilt and Democratic challenger Brent Finnegan – about some of the key issues in the race. We will publish their responses to our questions in three parts running today, Oct. 28 and Oct. 29. The candidates’ answers are presented verbatim, and neither saw his opponent’s response before answering. Both subsequently accepted our invitation to add to their original answers below or to respond to their opponents.

The 26th District has been in Republican hands since 1983. Wilt was first elected in a 2010 special election and has served four full terms since. This election will mark the third time he has run opposed. Wilt and Finnegan first faced each other in 2017, when Wilt won the election with 55 percent of the vote. This year, Finnegan received the Democratic nomination by winning a primary held this spring with 66 percent of the vote.

The Citizen: What is at stake for the citizens of the 26th District of the Virginia House of Delegates in the upcoming election on November 5th, 2019?

Del. Tony Wilt: There is a distinct contrast between the campaigns and the visions for our locality and the state of Virginia going forward. It’s the approach to the issues. Predominately what we deal with revolves around finances, around money. The people that I’m talking to, they want more money. Whatever the issue that they are passionate about, they want to fix it and they need more money. The question is, how do you get that money? My approach is the best way to be able to get the revenue to do these things that people are expecting is to help the economy, which equates to people working. When the economy is good there is a higher demand for workers and a propensity for the wages to go up. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it in our industry. I’ve talked to a lot of people. They’re offering more to get employees. So more people working, the higher wages, people are paying more taxes which go into the coffers, that the localities and states are able to use for these needs. Versus for the other side the focus is, they divide the people up in classes and they say, “Well you make a certain amount of money. You need to be taxed more. It’s unfair that Person A makes more money than Person B, so we need to take more money away from Person A.” That side’s vision is to tax people that have more to be able to pay for these things.

There’s a new generation of Democrats coming in and they are far beyond…and they seem to think it’s good. It leans more towards socialism and total government control of everything and that’s very concerning to me. We have examples through history and we have current examples in the world of what that will look like and all citizens should be concerned. If the [Democratic Party] is taken over by that mindset it would be very detrimental to the state of Virginia. 

We all want the common good. The question is, “How do we get there?” And there’s two different philosophies. On a lot of those areas we have been making progress – mental health and things like that. Their total wish list in a perfect world, here’s what we want to be able to fund. Everyone has their “wish list,” but it’s disingenuous to go out and promise all of these groups, “Hey, we’re going to do everything you want us to do when I get to Richmond.” And I’ve seen that being said and it saddens me. That’s disingenuous at the very least.

Brent Finnegan: Two of the things that the General Assembly could have done something about, and it was right there for them to do something about. One was the Equal Rights Amendment. That motion died by one vote. Then, to do anything about gun violence. They had a special session on gun violence prevention. You can make points about was this politically motivated or whatever, but you have an opportunity, on a Venn Diagram, to find out where you agree. What can we agree on? Universal background checks, that has pretty broad support, even among members of the NRA. [Members of the General Assembly] didn’t do anything. Literally nothing…It was an abdication of the responsibility to govern.

I think what gets left out in that “left/right, red/blue” conversation, how the media likes to frame it, is “community.” Because if you talk to a Republican in Rockingham County and a Democrat in Harrisonburg city there is pretty broad agreement that we have lost a sense of community. Things are not as tight knit as they used to be. And people can blame all sorts of things – blame TV, blame video games, but I think there is agreement that we need to strengthen our communities. You can’t legislate communities, but you can strengthen communities. That’s really what this campaign is about. It’s about centering the people in the conversation and saying it’s not about “What does the Chamber of Commerce of Virginia want?” It’s “What do the people need to thrive?” We need living wages. We need affordable housing. We need clean air and water for future generations – a livable planet. It’s very basic. So when someone tries to make me sound like a radical, we just need bare necessities. If that’s radical I don’t know what to tell you.

I think people are fed up. My real opponent in this election is not Delegate Wilt. It is apathy. I cannot blame people for feeling apathetic if they’ve voted year after year and see no different results, no improvement to their life. So I do not blame people for feeling burnt out and disappointed with the results of elections that they have participated in.

Finnegan responds to Del. Wilt’s answer: I want to respond to Wilt’s claim that I’m promising too much. 

It’s not promising everything, it’s a belief that we can do better. My opponent thinks things are fine just the way they are because he’s doing fine and his friends are doing good, and his donors are doing great. What I have witnessed is that a great number of people in this district are really hurting economically, and I don’t see my opponent speaking to the fact that many, many people are deeply in debt, and working jobs that don’t pay enough to have a decent standard of living. 

While working people are suffering, politicians like my opponent are keeping corporate tax loopholes open, and failing to address the inequalities in our commonwealth. More than half of corporations in Virginia pay no income taxes. Someone who makes $17,000 a year pays the same rate of state income tax as someone making $300,000. That’s absurd, and it’s disingenuous to say we don’t know how to pay for education, healthcare, and affordable housing for people who are one family emergency away from getting evicted. I’m running for delegate because I know we can do better in Virginia.

Del. Wilt responds to Finnegan’s answer: With regard to the special session, we didn’t simply “do nothing.” All legislation was referred to the Crime Commission for further review. The Crime Commission is a reputable bipartisan group that can examine all of the proposals and recommend the policies that would actually make a meaningful difference. That’s what Tim Kaine did after the Tech shooting and that’s what should have occurred after the tragedy in Virginia Beach. Instead, the Governor thought it convenient to play politics. The reality is many of the gun control policies that Democrats were advocating for were already in place in Virginia Beach at the local level and they didn’t make a bit of difference – the Governor even admitted that at one point. A recent review found that the vast majority of the bi-partisan recommendations put forward following the shooting at Virginia Tech have been implemented and are making an actual difference. 

If you are elected but your party is not in power in the House of Delegates how will you work with the opposing party to pass legislation important to the state?

Brent Finnegan

Finnegan: There are Republicans, particularly in southwest Virginia, that are open to some of these economic development policies of prioritizing small businesses over mega corporations. The buzz word is “economic gardening,” where you’re really prioritizing small  businesses and not giving $750 million to Amazon in government handouts to one of the wealthiest companies owned by, literally, the richest man in the world. There is agreement with certain Republicans. They need rural broadband and we need it here too. And you can get there if you ignore the policies being pushed by the big telecoms, like Comcast, Verizon and AT&T. They want to keep the laws the way they are. So when it comes to economic development in rural communities and if Republicans maintain control of the House and I get elected, I think we can find common ground on rural economic development that prioritizes small businesses and worker-owned businesses.

Virginia is now three years behind Kentucky on agricultural industrial hemp. We should have had that. We could have had that. The excuse from our legislators, like Tony Wilt, was “We have to follow the Constitution and it’s illegal in the Constitution.” Isn’t the same true for the Kentucky state legislature? They passed laws that allowed farmers to grow agricultural and industrial hemp and now they have a three year head start on the Shenandoah Valley. That’s the kind of thing, is that a “left” or a “right” issue? I know plenty of Republicans and libertarians who are like, “Yeah, we should have just ignored that and gone with it because Kentucky ate our lunch.” It’s things like that where I think we can find agreement on those policies.

There probably won’t be a whole lot of agreement on gun legislation, considering there was a unanimous vote among Republicans to end that special session before anything got done. There probably won’t be broad agreement about raising minimum wage. But I hope if those Republicans are serious about fighting overreach from centralized governments let’s give local communities more power to do what they need to do at the local level. So if you’re against raising the minimum wage at the state level can we empower local governments to do it at the local level? And that way city councils and boards of supervisors can raise the minimum wage as they see fit. Those are the kinds of solutions that I would try to find some common ground on, if they’re willing to do that.

There are ideological conservatives, and then there are Republicans and Democrats who are just doing the bidding of their corporate donors. And that’s frustrating. Because I want to say “At least can we find some ideological common ground and work together on decentralizing the government?”

Del. Tony Wilt

Del. Wilt: We’re going to be on the defensive. If they take complete control the bottom line is there is not much we can do to stop whatever agenda that they develop. If they have full control of the General Assembly and the Governor’s mansion they can ram through whatever initiatives that they desire. We’ll be a voice for reason and we’ll continue to stand up for what we believe and know to be right and true, but the bottom line is if they have total control they will be able to ram things through.

If you look back not so many years ago when Governor McDonnell was in office and we had control, but I don’t feel like we abused the fact that we had the majority. That remains to be seen. If the Democrats were to take over full control of both bodies of the General Assembly and [they control] the Governor’s mansion, quite frankly I’m very concerned about the [Democrats’] policies I’ve seen out there and the effect that will have on our state.

The fact is that the predominant amount of legislation that is passed each year is bipartisan. We already find a lot of common ground. I would hope that there would be some of that still there.

Del. Wilt responds to Finnegan’s answer: There was one specific point on my opponent’s response to the second question that was deeply concerning to me. On the issue of  industrial hemp development, he indicated some were hesitant to support it because of running afoul of federal laws or the Constitution. He then went on to suggest,  “yeah, we should have just ignored those concerns”. I fully agree that we need to foster this new agricultural opportunity as best we can for the benefit of our local farmers and entrepreneurs. I supported hemp related legislation that came before me for a vote, I’ve met with hemp advocates to discuss how best to advance their agenda and I’ve attended their field days. However, it is troubling to me that he’s so easily willing to violate an oath he will be asked to uphold if elected delegate – to uphold our laws and Constitution. The Constitution and rule of law are sacred to me, not something easily dispensable to achieve your political ends. If you don’t like a law, work to change it. However, you work within the process our founders established to do it, you don’t blow up the process or ignore the law or Constitution for convenience sake – that’s what ultimately can lead to Tyranny. 

Del. Wilt elaborates on his original answer: You asked how I would work in a bi-partisan way if the other side takes control. To be clear, I have done that already and would continue to do so. A prime example is the I-81 package that we approved this year. When it looked like nothing substantive would be accomplished this year, I worked with the Northam administration and Democrat lawmakers to get to a final agreement. I believe I have a reputation in Richmond as someone that’s approachable and always open to giving any issue fair consideration. There are numerous instances where I’ve worked toward compromise solutions on legislation, particularly as it relates to my work on the Ag Committee.  I don’t base my positions on what is the stereotypical Republican or Democrat position, I make decisions based on what I believe is best for Virginia and the 26th District.  

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