A divided Capitol ‘forces you to the table, to be more reasonable and then negotiate’

Del. Tony Wilt, a Republican who represents Harrisonburg as part of the 26th District, talks with constituents during an event Oct. 27, 2019. (File photo)

By Bridget Manley, publisher

With the Virginia General Assembly more than a week into its session, Republican Del. Tony Wilt said he’s hopeful divided government can yield legislative results and even some toned-down rhetoric. 

Wilt has represented the 26th District covering Harrisonburg and parts of Rockingham County since 2010. In addition to taking over as chairman of the House Public Safety Committee this year after Republicans won the state House in November, Wilt is carrying a couple of high-profile bills. One addresses a piece of the Virginia Clean Economy Act that he found concerning. And another to fund Project Ceasefire increases money for violence intervention programs.  

In a Q&A with The Citizen this week, Wilt offered his expectations for the session, responded to questions about Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s first days in office including some high-profile executive orders, and shared his views on the new redistricting map that shifts the lines of the 26th District from many of the northern Rockingham County precincts to cover more in eastern Rockingham County

He also offered, at times, both a little frustration and some optimism about the current state of political discourse. 

(The answers were lightly edited for clarity and brevity.) 

Q: As the new chairman of the House Public Safety Committee, what will be your philosophy in how you’ll run the committee? 

A: I’m honored and humbled to be the chair of the committee. I’ve been on the committee since I first came into the House of Delegates. At that time, it was called Militia, Police and Public Safety. The name changed a couple of years ago. 

But the overarching purpose of the committee still is public safety. The citizens in Virginia have shown they demand safe communities. And so whatever form that takes, that’s the way I look at the committee. That’s our charge. So, my focus going forward and in considering all legislation is: how does that fit that that core value of that committee?  

Q: How much will you be relying on House leadership when making a decision about which bills to bring before the committee? 

A: We have a leadership model in place like any business does — or any government. Certainly, there are those above me, and there are issues that are important to them that they want to see advanced. 

Any initiatives that are introduced by legislation that are that are not good for the citizens, I certainly want to be cognizant of that as well. 

Q: The committee handles issues related to law enforcement and criminal justice. There has been a lot of press in recent years regarding what law enforcement’s role should be and how they should be funded. Governor Youngkin talked about strengthening law enforcement in his general assembly speech Monday. What do you want your committee and the house to accomplish this session?

A:  As far as law enforcement goes, I want —and I don’t know how we exactly do that, through legislation — but we need to restore the respect for all law enforcement. That’s something that we’ve seen diminished, not only in Virginia but across our nation. Law enforcement gets blamed for a lot of things and it’s diminished some people’s respect. 

But I know from talking to citizens there in the 26th District, and anywhere I go, by and large the predominant number of our citizens still have great respect for law enforcement. So I think, you know, in some of those aspects it was just primarily a few driving the conversation. It’s time that the voices of those citizens that do support our law enforcement, that those voices are restored and heard, resulting in the respect that law enforcement deserves.

Q: What do you expect the General Assembly to accomplish this session?  

A: I think the governor outlined a lot of priorities that he has, and both sides of the body in the General Assembly have our initiatives as well. 

Now, there are some things that I’m sure we just won’t agree on. But by and large, a lot of the things that we deal with, both parties — Republican and Democrat — we agree, “hey, we’d like to accomplish this.” But how do you do it? 

Citizens in Virginia and across the nation, they are sick and tired of all the nastiness in politics, you know, and I’m tired of that too. That has never been my approach since I’ve been in office. Now, I’ll go toe-to-toe with other legislators on an issue, but I respect them. I respect their position and where they’re coming from. All reasonable legislators should be able to go toe-to-toe in a very orderly manner because that’s how we’re going to get the best solutions for our citizens in Virginia. That’s what we’re here for. It’s only through robust discussion: “Well, I disagree with you on this” and “I disagree with you on that” — that’s how we come to compromise. That’s how we find the best way forward on any given issue that benefits all of Virginia. 

I’m confident that that’s the reputation that I have here in Virginia General Assembly since I’ve been in. I’m a measured legislator. I don’t attack people for their position. I might disagree with them as the day is long. But I’m going to treat them civilly. They were dually elected to be here to represent their constituents as I have been. And that’s going to be my commitment. 

I don’t claim to always be right. I learned that with my business experience. Folks that worked for our company, I never wanted a “yes” person. I never demanded my way. Whether it’s in business, or whether it’s in government, we want the right solution for all involved. I am confident I have that reputation across the aisle. 

Q: With Democrats controlling the Senate and Republicans controlling the House and governor’s office, what is the atmosphere like in Richmond and how conducive is it to getting agreement on important issues? 

A: Well, it naturally forces both sides to not flex their muscles, so to speak. Don’t misunderstand, that’s going to happen to a degree. But I feel like with the Democratic Party controlling the Senate, there’s going to be more inclination on both sides. There are things they want to get done. There are things that Republicans want to get done. 

So, when you have a split majority like that, two bodies in control with different parties, it kind of forces you to the table, to be more reasonable and then negotiate. And I’ve got to be honest. That’s what the citizens saw the last two years with the Democrat majority here. They had control of every facet of government. They had the governor’s mansion, the Senate and the House. And we saw some egregious legislation that came through. And the citizens saw that as well in very short time. 

The citizens of Virginia saw, “Wow, that’s what happens when you have total dominance and total control.” Rarely does that — and in history proves that out — rarely does that ever benefit the citizens. The citizens suffer from it. And we saw that, and the citizens corrected the course of the ship, so to speak.

Q: Beyond the biggest issues, what other bills are you watching?

A: Well, I’ve been to be honest, I’ve been keeping my focus in my own lane, so to speak, my own legislation, and developing that. And so, I’ve not paid attention to specific legislation. 

But one area of interest is — I think that’s probably of interest to you and a lot of our citizens — the whole issue of energy, renewable energy. And so how we how we proceed with that. 

Q: What bills are you working on right now that you would like to see pass?

A: I am carrying — on behalf of the governor’s office — legislation moving forward on Project Ceasefire. The governor has put money in his budget for that. I’m carrying that legislation.

[Project Ceasefire] is another tool in our toolbelt to help to help bring more safety to our communities, especially in the cities. That’s where, when you look at crime rates and serious crime, this is the really serious stuff. 

What often happens is some of our young people get caught up in drugs and gangs and so forth. And they don’t have a way out. Project Ceasefire — and it’s been proven that it works —gives resources to allow for various agencies to go off and work in the midst of some of those individuals that are caught up in situations that a lot of times, they want to get out of. They just don’t know how. 

They just they don’t have the resources, there don’t have anywhere [to go], that’s all they know. And so that’s the exciting thing about Project Ceasefire, to provide a path for those individuals to discover and pursue a better life for themselves.

On energy, I’m carrying a bill that gives back more authority to the State Corporation Commission to examine all things energy. It does kind of refer to the to the Virginia Clean Economy Act and that’s where it’s really directed. I’m not being subjective, but objectively looking at this issue, here was legislation with good intent, but it wasn’t thought through. 

The person who never got considered was [the individual citizen]. How this is going to affect [their] electric bill … And if you get a little raise at work, but it’s all gobbled up with a rising electric bill, you haven’t increased your lot in life, so to speak. And there were quite a number of those initiatives put forward, all in the name of “renewables” or “we’re going to clean up the environment.” Which again, I am wholeheartedly in support of — have been from Day One when I was first elected.  But it has to be done in a measured way that doesn’t just create a tremendous hardship for our citizens. That’s what this bill does overall. That’s the heart of it. It is giving that authority back to the State Corporation Commission to look at all energy initiatives and give it a fair objective look at how those costs are going to be covered. 

Q: What are your priorities for our district this session?

A: Some of our biggest challenges here are to make sure that our district is on the radar from the state government and the agencies. And a lot of it circles around economic development and so forth. 

I am very proud, for a lot of reasons, to represent the 26th House District, but we have a reputation up in the Valley that we are an innovative bunch. We can stretch a nickel out and make it a dime; stretch a dime out and make it a dollar. We have that reputation. 

Often times, when you look at economic development, we get overlooked because they look at more distressed areas. Well, hey, our population is growing, our citizens have needs and expectations. We just want an equal consideration. 

We’re not looking for a guarantee that we’ll get something, but we want to have a fair shot at the opportunities presented at a statewide level. So, that’s my biggest hope and challenge.

I know the other Valley legislators, that’s their outlook as well. That’s always our challenge, to make sure that the Shenandoah Valley is on their radar.

Q: Gov. Glenn Youngkin issued multiple executive orders his first day in office. One was allowing students to decide if they wanted to wear masks in school. Harrisonburg City Schools has stated they will continue mask mandates until the Omicron surge has passed and numbers are low, and Rockingham County meets Monday to talk about the issue. What do you think of the order?

A: It’s pretty broad. It certainly allows those school divisions to carry on their mask mandates. I mean, nothing forbidding that.

Probably the biggest thing that disappoints me from the very beginning of the COVID pandemic is a political football that it became. Both sides. Both sides. I’m being straight up here. Republicans and Democrats — people make politics out of it. 

People, you know, supposed experts across the spectrum made statements that people took to heart. But then, you know, sometime in the future after that, then they come back and change their minds. But to me, the greater thing would have been to say, “look, right now, this is the best we know.” And the citizens would have understood that. 

But it became such a political football. That’s what upsets the citizens and me. 

And then you look at you look at other reports and you asked me about the public schools. 

You know, when the CDC says something that you like, then (we say) “yeah, let’s listen to the CDC.” Then when they say something you don’t like, we just say, “nah, don’t listen to the CDC.”

But on the masks and children in schools, there’s not enough empirical evidence to prove that that it’s accomplishing what some say it’s accomplishing. I don’t know. I’m just a lay person. That’s over my pay grade. 

Q: If Harrisonburg City Schools and Rockingham County Schools stick with their masking mandates, what do you think Gov. Youngkin’s response should be? 

A: In his in his directive, he leaves that door open for them. You know, what’s caused the stir is in his directive — he gives parents the choice, whether their kids should follow it or not. 

So schools can say: “Hey,we’re still going to demand a mask mandate.” But parents – I’m assuming guardians as well of young people – have that ability to say: “Hey, you know, for whatever reason, my child is not going to do that.” They can opt out of it.

Q: What do you think lawmakers in Richmond can do to help end the pandemic, or get us to a point where we can resume normal life? 

A: The biggest thing is we need to be careful of legislating that. We need to be careful passing laws on things that we’re certainly not experts (on).  And some would say, well, you’re contradicting yourself because you’re not an expert on a lot of the things we deal with, but we’ve got a wide variety of knowledge and experience here. But on that front, we need to be careful on what we try to implement and make as law. 

Because again, it’s all so fluid. What was the mandate that was recently changed? Isolation. It was 10 days. Now, they’ve changed it back to five. So, that is an example. You’ll pass a law that says you’ve got to do this for ten days, and then it changes in a month or something. And so, we need to be very careful about what we would try to legislate.

Q: The Governor issued another order banning critical race theory in Virginia. What are your thoughts about that executive order?

A: Well, I certainly agree with the governor’s order there. 

And I know the argument is, “no, it’s not officially being taught.” Well, okay, that’s a thinly-veiled argument because the fact is that the Department of Education, if you go on their website, there’s a myriad of references to that — training and curriculum and all that that point exactly to Critical Race Theory. And there are a myriad of videos and things like that of teachers teaching that. And so, to say that that it’s not there, it’s not being promoted, that’s being very dishonest. I’m going to lay it right out there and say it like it is. That’s being dishonest.

You know, we need to teach the truth of our nation’s history. OK, I do not hide. I do not discredit our shameful past from the founding of our nation in regards to race or treating Black citizens different. It’s there. No one is denying that. 

But, you know, the basic tenant of Critical Race Theory, it takes our young people and basically, it continues that very thing. And I know some people don’t see it that way, but I think they were more objective and stepped back and looked, basically you’re saying, “well, if you’re White, you’re guilty, you’re a racist.” And, and if you’re a Black citizen, or Black child, you have no hope. You’re not capable. You’re at a disadvantage. 

That’s not living up to Dr. (Martin Luther) King’s vision. You can’t say that and claim anything Dr. King said. This is just my opinion. But, you know, that that flies in the face of everything that that Dr. King said and did for equal rights. and it, yeah, Critical Race Theory is not the direction to go in. It’s harmful. 

Q: The redistricting maps that were approved by the Virginia Supreme Court in December place Harrisonburg in the 34th district. You will still live in the new district, but your district will change. What are your thoughts about the redistricting? 

A: Well, yeah, it kind of took away my home country, if you will, my home in the far corner in Bergton, and while that saddens me, those folks will have great representation. 

I’ve lived here all my life. I think I’m known well in the eastern part of the county, and I’m excited about representing the new portion of what will then be the 34th District. You know, we’re all part of the Valley — a great, great part of what I call home. And so, I’m excited to represent those folks as much as I ever have anyone. 

Q: How worried are you about the partisan rift in Richmond — and across Virginia? And is there anything you would do to help fix it? 

A: To give you an example, how I conduct myself here as a legislator. The things I say. My rhetoric, I think, will go in encouraging others to do so as well.

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