By contributors Jessica Kronzer, Isabela Gladston and Jake Conley
Local Democrats branded a downtown rally on June 15 as an official beginning of the fall campaign for the area’s seat in the Virginia House of Delegates — a starting point that seemed both simultaneously late and early.
In some senses, the November election remains far off, and with so much reopening over the past few weeks, it can be tough for candidates to get people’s attention. But, for area Democrats who have sought to flip the 26th District seat in recent years, less than five months until an election is the political equivalent of a blink, especially when trying to unseat an established Republican incumbent like Del. Tony Wilt.
Nevertheless, about 100 people attended Democratic candidate Bill Helsley’s first public rally, which he held downtown June 15. Instead of taking the label of politician, Helsley — a lawyer — is marketing himself as a well-tempered man of the people. At the rally, he quoted Martin Luther King Jr.’s words: “While we, each of us and our families, came to this country in a separate boat, today we are all in the same boat together.”
“I’ve spent 36 years fighting for my clients,” Helsley said, “so it is only fitting for me to stand on the steps of the courthouse where I have been a trusted advocate to literally thousands of Rockingham County and Harrisonburg citizens.”
Helsley also is seeking to downplay party labels as he seeks to unseat Wilt, who held the 26th District seat for more than a decade. After running unopposed in his first three re-election bids (2011, ‘13 and ‘15), Wilt has turned away Democratic challenges during the last two elections, which were rough for other Virginia Republicans. But in 2017 and 2019, Wilt defeated Democrat Brent Finnegan with 55% and 54% of the vote, respectively.
For his part, Wilt has no intention of messing with a campaign approach that has worked for him, and he said he doesn’t plan to run any differently against Helsley.
He said his approach involves listening to the thoughts, ideas and concerns of the 26th district residents. Wilt said those concerns many of his constituents raised include job opportunities, educational opportunities, safety and security and the environment.
“I weigh every issue based on how it will impact the citizens of the 26th and the state of Virginia,” Wilt said. “What’s the human cost? Is this a short-term fix and a long-term problem? This has always been my approach when dealing with issues in the district.”
Appealing to the political middle?
The 26th District is split between Harrisonburg, where voters have solidly backed Democrats in recent elections, and precincts in Rockingham County, which is firmly Republican territory.
In the 2019, a similar number of voters showed up in the city precincts as in the county precincts. Most of the Rockingham precincts are concentrated in the county’s northern part that includes Wilt’s home town of Broadway.
Wilt won 72.9% of the 9,754 votes from those county precincts, while Finnegan — his Democratic challenger — won 65.6% of the 9,275 Harrisonburg city votes.
Wilt said he believes people in the area rise above the extreme political partisanship and that, “by and large,” residents are tired of political bickering.
“They want to see positive things done for the benefit of themselves, their families and their businesses,” Wilt said. “Everyone’s just trying to work together to make our community the best that we can.”
Jimmy Spinella, Wilt’s campaign manager, said too often people run for office and get caught up in partisanship and divisiveness.
He said Wilt is focusing on effective local leadership and works to provide a voice for all people. At the same time, Wilt’s message plays up his role in being part of the loyal opposition to the Democrats, who hold majorities in the state House and Senate.
“Democrats in Richmond have been pushing partisan agendas since taking control of the House of Delegates,” Spinella said. “Their agenda doesn’t need more rubber stamps from politicians telling voters one thing and doing something different as soon as the session starts.”
Using or diffusing partisanship?
Helsley, meanwhile, is running as a moderate, even right-leaning, Democrat. The first speaker at his June 15 rally, for instance, was one of Helsley’s childhood teachers who is an avowed conservative Republican.
Helsley told The Citizen he believes he might have more “cross-appeal” than previous Democratic candidates because of his deep ties to the agricultural sector in the Valley, citing his land ownership in rural counties. He’s also made a point in his legal career to represent people and not companies and their subsequent business interests.
Beyond his law career, Helsley worked as a farmer and as a professor at James Madison University.
“I have roots in many different groups,” Helsley said in an interview. “I perhaps know more people than some of the Democratic candidates that came before me.”
Helsley was the only Democrat to file to run in the district. So, unlike the last two elections, the party didn’t have to hold a primary race this spring. That can be a double-edged sword. On one side, Helsley didn’t have to spend resources on a primary, but primaries also help candidates introduce themselves and connect with voters early.
But he said he thinks his connections in the area will help him win over Independents and Republicans anyway.
“A thing that I’ve found is a pragmatic, common-sense type candidate does appeal across party lines,” Helsley said. “Indeed, my campaign has already been getting some Republican support and I’m very proud of that.”
Alleyn Harned, chair of the Harrisonburg Democratic Committee, echoed the sentiment that Helsley could earn Republican support.
“I don’t think it’s about red and blue as much as it’s about values,” Harned said. “He’s just so approachable and excellent as a candidate for all people. His level of support from independents and Republicans is phenomenal.”
The Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol could turn some independent and conservative voters away from the Republican Party, Harned said.
“One of the major challenges that the Republican Party is experiencing is a resurgence of know-nothing political violence and misinformation,” Harned said. “Frankly, I think many Republican voters in the Valley are tired of that.”
Wilt, in the days after the attempted insurrection, said he hoped law enforcement would find those who engaged in the break-in and “get to the bottom of who started it.”
The challenger’s challenge
After a decade in the House of Delegates, Wilt has established connections, name recognition and a record in the General Assembly.
In the 2021 General Assembly, Wilt was the chief sponsor of a measure that passed updating the Virginia Board of Education’s definition of “traumatic brain injury” to include brain trauma brought on by illness. That, along with previous votes and bills won him recognition as the legislator of the year from the Brain Injury Association of Virginia, as other news outlets reported.
Wilt’s voting record is reliably Republican but not automatic. He voted with the Republican caucus 91% of the time in the 2021 session, which is down from 97% in 2016, the first year for which the Virginia Public Access Project tracked voting analysis by party.
Wilt sponsored a constitutional amendment to limit the governor’s power to declare an emergency for longer than 45 days without General Assembly approval, specifically to prevent long-term effects on businesses. While he acknowledged to The Citizen he found most of his support for the measure from his fellow Republicans, he would have proposed it even if Gov. Ralph Northam wasn’t a Democrat.
“I can honestly say to you and to everyone that listens or reads the article here that if it was a Republican governor, I’d do the same thing. The legislature makes the laws, not the governor,” Wilt said at the time.
Wilt’s plan is to focus on that legislative record.
“Talking to folks about Tony’s commitment to public service is our entire game plan,” Spinella said.
Spinella said that while the last campaign highlighted the overall strong economy then, Wilt’s 2021 message will focus on rebuilding the economy and strengthening local businesses that have faced difficulties during the pandemic.
Helsley, however, said Wilt hasn’t done as much as he could have for the district. For instance, he said Augusta County received money through the state aimed at broadening rural broadband internet, while Rockingham County did not.
It’s not just technological infrastructure that’s on Helsley’s agenda but also ongoing concerns with I-81.
Wilt has been involved in discussions in and out of the General Assembly about addressing I-81 and was among a minority of Republican lawmakers to support Northam’s plan to fund improvements by increasing fuel taxes by 2.1 percent in the cities and counties along the corridor and by raising truck registration fees.
Helsley, though, criticized that because it increases the cost of gas for people in the district beyond the already existing state gasoline taxes.
“My solution is we need to elect people with foresight,” Helsley said. “We should have been adding to Interstate 8I’s capacity, a little at a time as you go along, so we didn’t find ourselves in this terrible situation that we find ourselves today.”
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