July 27, 2009
Seven candidates appeared at the 20th House District Republican candidate forum at Buffalo Gap High School this evening. It was quite a spectacle, with close to 200 people in attendance to hear what each candidate had to say. (Over the weekend, Christopher DeWald announced he was withdrawing from consideration, and endorsed David Karaffa.) Afterwards, the four local GOP committee chairs met in private and decided to nominate Richard "Dickie" Bell to fill in for Chris Saxman. This was what most people expected, and I count myself as among those who were pleased. (I found out about the result by watching WVIR-Channel 29 News about an hour after the forum ended. Reporter Matt Thalhelm covered the event.)
Dickie Bell is a well-spoken, fiercely independent mainstream conservative, and seems to be very well suited to reaching out to the party's diverse factions. It was the first time I had heard him speak at length. In Staunton City Council meetings, he has usually had a rather taciturn demeanor, and is known for being somewhat of a curmudgeonly dissenter. So, I was pleased to hear him speak out forcefully on the need for limited government, common-sense approaches, and fostering private investment to promote economic growth. Bell has a wry sense of humor, and pointed out the obvious fact that the Republican Party has an image problem. For example, he noted, many people think of Republicans as just a bunch of "old white men" -- and then he looked at the guys sitting around him! That description would fit all of those candidates except David Karaffa. He said he would take the high road in the campaign, and that he hates negative attacks. So do I.
The other main candidate, David Karaffa, represented the GOP "Base." He stressed the passion and energy that he would bring to the task of campaigning, declaring "I am ready!" He is young, probably in his late 30s, so he may have felt the need to make up for his lack of experience relative to the rest of the candidates. Karaffa's supporters wore red shirts to identify themselves, but it wasn't hard to tell who was who, as they repeatedly cheered loudly whenever he spoke. Karaffa is a nurse, "on the front line of health care," which he said qualifies him to tackle such issues. He is flatly opposed to any legalization of either abortion or embryonic stem cell research. At one point he made a critical remark aimed at the Augusta Free Press, whose editor Chris Graham was seated in back of me, not far away. I didn't see the point in that. When asked to prioritize the issues of transportation, education, and the economy, he basically took a pass, unable to make a clear statement. That was not a good sign. Nor was the odd slogan which was emblazoned on the many Karaffa campaign signs taped to the walls: "Principles, Courage, MOMENTUM" (Huh? Is this a physics experiment?)
Ray Ergenbright stressed the need for our society to reclaim its civic heritage, going back to the principles of constitutional self-government that has made this country free, secure, and prosperous. He criticized the tendency of politicians in Richmond and elsewhere to engage in "group think," afraid to express their true opinions. Ray has a background in retail business and for twelve years was the Staunton Commissioner of Revenue. As far as policy positions, he called for a general devolution of government power from the Federal to the state level, and from the state to the local level.
Cliff Fretwell called attention to his many years of service to the Republican Party, and to the Staunton community. He is a gruff, no-nonsense kind of guy who reminds me of the mustached actor Wilford Brimley: "Eat your oatmeal!" Cliff worked his way up through determined salesmanship to become a successful realtor and businessman. Among all the candidates, he was the most gracious in expressing appreciation to Chris Saxman for his eight years serving in the House of Delegates, If candidates were chosen on the basis of who deserved it the most from all their past sacrifices, I think Cliff or Ray would almost certainly win this contest.
Charles Hawkins is an interesting figure, with a background in the Navy and the Christian Broadcasting Network. His main issue seems to be bringing broadband Internet service to rural areas. At one point Hawkins actually said that higher gasoline taxes should be considered, eliciting boos from several people. Didn't anyone brief him that no Republican is supposed to say that?? Well, I was one of two or three people who applauded him for having the nerve to come out and say what had to be said. And the end of the forum he threw his support to Dickie Bell.
John Beghtol seems to be the ideal Republican of the previous generation: solidly pro-business but more pragmatic on sensitive social issues. In his closing remarks, he brought up the Utah model for health care, and stressed the often-neglected Tenth Amendment to the Constitution, which reserves powers not otherwise delegated to the states, or to the people themselves. (If you ask me, they'll have to repeal that one if they want to pass President Obama's health care proposal.)
The candidate who least impressed me was Charles Curry. He has a long career in education and served on the Augusta County Board of Supervisors, but he didn't articulate his policy positions very clearly. He seems very reasonable and intelligent, but perhaps not dynamic enough to handle the heavy demands of politicking in Richmond.
Since I know Ray Ergenbright and Cliff Fretwell very closely from all the years we worked together on the Staunton Republican Committee, I can't pretend to be objective. With that "sentimental" qualifier in mind, here is my ranking of the seven candidates, from favorite to least favorite:
*Rankings of the first two determined by a coin toss.
Not knowing what to expect at this forum, I felt a bit trepidatious. Aside from occasional boisterous outbursts by the Base, all turned out very well, however, and I am very confident that Dickie Bell will make an excellent candidate, and is the odds-on favorite to be the next delegate from the 20th District. During and after the forum, I saw quite a few big-name Republicans other than those pictured, including Delegate Steve Landes, Trixie Averill, Tom Sheets, and Scott Sayre. Even litigator-sheep farmer Francis Chester was there! Quite a few of the Mountain Valley Republicans were there as well, but apparently not State Senator Emmett Hanger. All in all, it felt good to be in a room full of Republicans who seem relatively at ease with one another once again. Thanks to Carl Tate for conducting this process, and making sure that all voices in the party were heard. On to November!
Congratulations to Dickie Bell, our nominee!
By most accounts, Bob McDonnell got the better of Creigh Deeds in the first of four scheduled debates. This one was held on Saturday morning (while I was gardening!) at the Homestead resort in Bath County, sponsored by the Virginia Bar Association. McDonnell tried to focus on national issues, criticizing Democratic policies on energy, labor and the economy, while Deeds put his emphasis on "what's going on around the breakfast tables." See the Washington Post and bobmcdonnell.com. From the Richmond Times Dispatch,
Democrat R. Creigh Deeds said Republican Bob McDonnell's transportation plan, announced this week, would take $5.4 billion out of education funding over the next 10 years.
McDonnell said Deeds has no transportation plan.
The more general question is, Does Deeds have any plan at all? J. R. Hoeft has the entire audio recording, lasting one hour and 15 minutes, at Bearing Drift.