House District 26 Candidates discuss key election issues: Part III

Repulican incumbent Del. Tony Wilt 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.

By Jeremiah Knupp, senior contributor // photos by Holly Marcus, senior contributor

Editor’s Note: This story was updated on Nov. 2 to include responses from Del. Wilt. His new comments are printed in full about two-thirds of the way down.

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. Today’s article is the final of three in the series. The first was posted Oct. 24, and the second on Oct. 28. The candidates’ answers are presented verbatim, and neither saw his opponent’s response before answering. Both will be given the opportunity to add to their original answers below – or to respond to their opponents’ answers. Therefore, this story may be updated.

The Citizen: How do you decide who your campaign accepts financial contributions from?

Brent Finnegan: What I hope to communicate is, we are not taking industry interest group and corporate cash. We’re not taking it because you can’t get to good governance through taking that money. It doesn’t matter what political party you are a part of. I think the largest recipient of Dominion [Energy] money is senior Democrat Senator Dick Saslaw. So this is not “red team/blue team.” This is working Virginians getting crushed by a deregulated market where anything goes.

The ruling class in Virginia has clearly prioritized business interests over the interest of workers. I’m not anti-business. The question is just, what kind of business? Is it a business that is going to pollute our rivers and cut giant gashes in our mountains, or are we talking about worker-owned businesses, like we have in Harrisonburg. What can we do at a state level to encourage that? So we say, we’re pro-business so long as those businesses are taking care of their employees. If the employees own the company then you have very different decision making processes. It’s not, “Oh, we’re hitting a hard financial time, so it’s time to cut everyone at the bottom.” It’s “We’ve hit hard financial times and everyone is taking a pay cut.” That’s the way it should be. That’s a healthy economy. That’s democracy in the workplace. That’s what we’re after and what I’m trying to promote.

I hope to bridge the gap of understanding between Democrats who live on the east coast [of the state] who are against offshore drilling. And I am too. And I hope to get them to see that we don’t want pipelines through our backyards either. We don’t want pipelines going through the Shenandoah Valley for the same reasons they don’t want offshore drilling. You think it will mar the landscape? You think it could potentially poison the water? Well guess what? We have those exact same concerns in the Shenandoah Valley. I think working to build understanding between Democrats who tend to vote for pipelines and rural Democrats in the western part of the state by saying “Let’s put ourselves in each others shoes here. If the roles were reversed, how would you vote?” So you get Ralph Northam, who is against offshore drilling, but he hasn’t stood up against the pipelines. There are some western/eastern fault lines within the Democratic Party. The more Democrats we can get to stop taking campaign cash from publicly regulated energy monopolies the better off all Virginians will be.

We’re not taking money from any industry interest groups, even ones I agree with. It’s like the Virginia Industrial Hemp Coalition. They’re an industry group that wants to see a hemp industry in Virginia. I would also like to see that. I’m not going to take any of their money, though, because that opens the door to “Well, I took their money, so I can take their money.” So [no donations from] anyone who is doing anything for profit. I think that’s the biggest difference. Because [Del. Wilt] has pointed out that I’ve gotten some money from out-of-state PACs, one called the Green Advocacy Group in California. They have one goal – to reduce carbon emissions. They’re not trying to make money off of it, it’s just Californians live on the same planet that we live on and we’re all going to survive together or go down together. California had record wildfires last year that just devastated massive swaths of the state. California can cut carbon emissions all they want. If other states are just going to continue to do business as usual and vote against things like the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and vote against things like the Solar Freedom Bill, I think that’s going to impact people in California, as well. So on that issue in particular we accepted that money, because I was asked “What are they after? What do they expect to see from this?” And it was just reduction of carbon emissions. I said, “Well, that’s something I agree with.”

To me, it’s the profit motive. That’s the deciding factor. Are you trying to make more money off of – “I give you this money and you deregulate this and I make more money off of my business.” That’s what I am against.

I think it has to do with who is making the donation. If someone that works for a local business wants to give me, as an individual, twenty-five bucks, fine. That is a person. I think what’s gotten lost in this conversation is the water got muddy around Citizens United [v. Federal Election Commission]. The Supreme Court basically said corporations are people. And corporations are not people. The framers of our Constitution never intended for corporations to be people. So it’s such an absurd age we’re living in. So I think really it’s a reaction against Citizens United and this idea of corporate personhood. People are people. Corporations are business entities and so we’re not taking money from those. We have to figure out a way to get our democracy back. Would I love to be able to take no money from any PAC at all, only individuals? Yeah, I’d love to be able to do that.

Finnegan, left, and Wilt. Photo illustration by Holly Marcus.

Del. Tony Wilt: We look at all money coming in and I feel comfortable with the donations that have come in that we’ve looked at those and vetted those as we could to make sure there is nothing nefarious, that’s it’s not coming from someone for whatever nefarious intent they would have. I can tell you that in the years that I have been in office I have never, not one time, been given money by an individual or an organization that expected a quid pro quo. “I’m going to give you this if you do that.” That has never been presented to me and I have never voted on a piece of legislation based on who gave me a campaign contribution. I know the other side likes to put that out there to say depending on who you take [campaign contributions] from that you’re bought and paid for. If that’s the case that’s a reflection of the individual. That would be a reflection of the legislator. I agree with that. If that’s the kind of person you are, that’s a very low reflection of the individual. And I am not like that in spite of what some would try to say.   

Editors Note: Both Wilt and Finnegan said they had turned down or returned campaign contributions for various reasons, though both declined to name specific donors.

Delegate Wilt, your opponent has accused you of taking money from and focusing only on the interests of big businesses and political PACs. What role do these organizations have in your campaign and the way you legislate?

Wilt: I take each piece of legislation on its merits and my first consideration is, “How is this going to affect the citizens in the 26th House District and how is this going to affect the citizens in all of Virginia?” I have a duty and a responsibility to the whole state as well. Obviously, my constituents come first, but I have a responsibility to the state. So that’s my first consideration.

With every single piece of legislation there’s going to be people that like it and there are going to be people who don’t like it. This whole issue that if you take donations from business you’re bought and paid for, the implication there is that if I take that donation I’m bought and paid for. If that’s the implication when we look at a campaign contribution, if a legislator or challenger takes a campaign contribution from anyone, whatever amount and whoever it comes from, and let’s say that individual that gave that contribution they favor a certain issue. Pick an issue. Say solar. That legislator is going through their legislative business and they vote on a bill that somehow favors solar. If my opponent is going to stand on that premise, then that applies to that situation too. You have just voted in favor of an issue that a person that gave you money is in favor of. Now, help me see where I’m wrong in that logic?

If you’re going to make a big issue out of who is giving a particular candidate money, then that [small donations from outside the state] should be on the table as well. Why is some big, multi-millionaire, billionaire in California pumping money into Virginia politics? That’s concerning to me. Why are citizens in California, or whatever state, pumping money in here? Are they concerned about Virginia law? Do they have an inkling if they support a candidate that that candidate is going to vote and make decisions that they’re going to like and that’s going to help their overall political agenda? I think so. It’s very obvious that that’s their intent. So the accusations that me or another candidate are bought and paid for is horribly disingenuous when you’re taking money from outside of the state. Again, I’m going back to the original implication that if you take money you’re in their pocket. You need to be looking at your own house if you’re going to make those accusations.

To be fair to both sides, it’s unavoidable. If you take one penny from anyone it’s unavoidable to not vote in favor of [an issue supported by] that person that gave you a penny. You will vote in favor of a bill that somebody that gave you money likes. Whatever title they carry or whatever it came from, the dollar amount, it makes no difference. The premise is the same.

Mr. Finnegan, Republicans on a state level, and your opponent, have claimed that many donations that state Democrats are getting this election cycle are coming from out of state. What is the place of small out-of-state donations in Virginia politics?

Finnegan: The majority of our money is coming from Virginia. Yes, we’ve gotten some very small donations – when I say “small” I mean less than five dollars per person – from people all over the country. With Virginia’s elections being in an off-year that drives voter turnout down. That helps Republicans, because it’s in an off-year and nothing else is happening. Well, if people are upset about what is happening in Washington and what is happening to our country, upset that under the Obama administration Democrats lost a thousand legislative seats across the country, one way to get that back is to pay attention to Virginia.

I’ve gone out of state to knock doors during a Presidential primary, so I don’t see anything wrong with people from out of state saying “I support what you are doing” and we will do the same for them. I’ve given small dollar donations to people in other states personally and I know a lot of other people who have. If that money came with some kind of strings attached I would say that that is problematic.

Del. Wilt responds to Finnegan’s points above: The fact is it seems nearly the entire premise of my opponents campaign this time around is that I’m somehow bought and paid for. What he’s implying is that I’m corrupt, that I have no moral integrity. Quite frankly, that’s insulting. I know he may have some supporters that actually feel that way, but I really don’t believe he personally does – it’s just a convenient line to rally his base. The people that know me know that I’m serving for the right reasons and I’m trying to represent the 26th District to the best of my ability – even if they disagree on the individual issues.

Dominion Energy contributions have sort of become the poster child for the “money in politics” issue in Virginia. There was a great letter to the editor the other day by one of my supporters in a local media source that addresses this. I will simply share similar thoughts with regard to my record. It’s completely disingenuous to say that somehow I’m “in bed” with Dominion, as some have implied. All you have to do is look at my voting record. I’ve been on the opposite side of Dominion on most of their major legislation in recent years. I voted against the rate freeze bill in 2015 that cost ratepayers more, I voted against the bill last year that still saddles ratepayers with higher than necessary electricity rates beyond what the SCC would have allowed, and I co-patroned a bill this year saying if a utility couldn’t prove the need for a pipeline to the SCC, then shareholders (the utility) has to eat the cost, it can’t be passed on to ratepayers. I took these votes not to punish Dominion or because I think they are evil, I took them because on the merits of each individual policy I felt the position I took was what was best for the end user, the ratepayers, the citizens. This is just one example, I could cite many others where maybe at some point I received a campaign contribution from a group or individual, but still voted opposite of their position on any given piece of legislation.

There are a lot of candidates running around warding off business contributions or contributions from Dominion in particular. Yet, many (including my opponent) have taken money from a group, Clean Virginia, that as a condition to receive the contribution you have to agree and commit not to take money from Dominion. Even some Democrat lawmakers have stated they feel it’s an inappropriate quid pro quo. I’ve never taken or received a contribution that came with a condition and I never will. Just the other day, the Senate Democratic leader acknowledged the same candidates that are refusing money from Dominion are still taking it by way of caucus contributions they gladly accept. They are also accepting resources from millionaire and billionaire Wall Street bankers and hedge fund managers, some of them out-of-state. All this just goes to show the hypocrisy from some on the left on this issue. As I stated before, it comes down to personal integrity and just making sure we have adequate transparency in the process. 

What, if any, campaign finance reform needs to be made in Virginia?

Wilt: To be honest [Virginia campaign finance law] is pretty stringent when you start getting up there in dollar amounts. We have to report the money that comes in. The interesting thing is, to me, is that it’s pretty liberal as to what you use that money for. Is that an area that needs to be changed? That doesn’t seem to be on anybody’s radar. I know what I use it for. People give me money to support my campaign and the ideals that I stand for and I take that very seriously. I’m not going to go out and buy a car with it. It’s easy for me. They gave me that money and I know what I’m using it for.

Finnegan: Until we can get public financing of campaigns and get some kind of sensible campaign finance laws, I mean Virginia, it’s like the Wild West. I can only give $2,700 to a Federal candidate. That’s the max I can give in an election cycle. There is no limit in Virginia. You can give a million dollars. The sky is the limit. Why don’t we, at the bare minimum, abide by the Federal limits for the state candidates? Because that way, no individual can write a check for more than $2,700. That to me is like, bare minimum, common sense campaign finance reform. I support the American Anti-Corruption Act. Other states have passed it. Other states have passed it. Alaska has passed it. There are a number of states that passed an anti-corruption act and basically what it says is no “dark money”…it’s basically “sunlight laws.”

What is your opinion on public funding of political campaigns?

Finnegan: Ultimately what we need is publicly funded campaigns and until we can have publicly funded campaigns, we’re going to do this election after election after election. We need public financing of campaigns so that working people can actually run for and represent people of their district.

Wilt: That’s an issue that I have not looked at in depth. I’m not exactly sure how it would all work. What’s public? Where is that money coming from? Is that something that you as a tax payer want your tax dollars going to? Campaigns around the state are getting very pricey. How much tax payer money are we talking about coming from you as a taxpayer? Do you have an appetite for that? Now, you as an individual, can give of your hard earned money to who will best represent you. Do you want your money going to a person who is diametrically opposed to your values? Do you like that idea? I don’t. I’ve not given it much thought, but that’s what rises quickly to the surface.

Mr. Finnegan, if elected as Delegate to represent the 26th District in the Virginia House of Delegates what are your future plans for staying in that office?

Finnegan: I’m not going to pledge to only serving three terms, but I feel like three terms is a good amount. Three terms is six years. Tony Wilt has been in there almost ten years now. I feel like if you can’t pull off what you want to do in ten years it’s time to give someone else a shot. There is a policy gap between urban Democrats and rural Republicans. So rural Republicans are pushing these policies and urban Democrats are pushing these policies. Well what about people who don’t identify as either or, regardless of how you identify, the policies are hurting where you live? So we need people fighting to improve the economies in rural Virginia, so that’s what I intend to do. Look at what policies are working in other states and try and implement them in Virginia. I’m hopeful that I’m able to convince Democrats in other parts of the state to give us a chance to implement policies in western Virginia that will actually help the majority of people.

[Editor’s Note: Finnegan stated that he does not aspire to higher office beyond the House of Delegates.]

Delegate Wilt, if re-elected what are your future plans for staying in office?

Wilt: I never set a time frame for myself when I went in. Because I realized, from when I first ran, you don’t just waltz in there and set the world on fire. I don’t care if your party’s in charge or not. You’re not going to go in there and just get everything you want. There is a huge learning curve. That’s why I’m against term limits. I feel that the time I have been in there has gained me credence, a level of respect across the aisle and with various groups that one might not associate a conservative with. I think I’ve gained a good reputation of being able to look at the issues and not from a party standpoint, but solely on the issues. It’s taken me this long to get there. I’ve never been in this for myself. I don’t seek higher office. I have no aspirations for that. I just want to do the best job that I can for the citizens of the 26th District. I’m comfortable I’m doing a good job. I don’t always get the victories that I want. Some things I vote on and help stop from happening something that I think would be terrible. On agriculture, I chair a very important sub-committee.

In the area the demographic continues to change, unless there is some enlightenment after we see in other states some of the liberal agenda that’s put forward and we see how it’s not working. That might cause the citizens to step back and say “Well, I used to support the more liberal candidate because I thought this was a good idea, well it’s not. Maybe we need to be a little more conservative.” That could happen, but I perceive, at least for me, I’ll have an opponent from here on out.”

I haven’t set a time frame. As long as I feel that I’m fairly representing the constituents of the 26th House, if I hear from them that I’m doing a good job and I feel in my heart that I am doing a good job, I’m going to stay at it for a while. I can’t say for how long.

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