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GOP targets Democratic veteran Armstrong

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R0828 WARD03

Del. Ward L. Armstrong, D-Henry, talked to McKayla Wilson, 6, last month in the gym at Meadows of Dan Elementary School in Patrick County.

In the picturesque forests and rolling hills of Southside Virginia, hunters wear blaze orange so they are not mistaken for wild game and shot.

In the hunt for the 9th District seat in the House of Delegates, however, Republican bigwigs have tried to fit House Minority Leader Ward L. Armstrong with a set of antlers.

In redistricting, the GOP majority cut Armstrong out of the district he has represented since 1992. Now he is taking on another incumbent, setting up an unusual and challenging re-election campaign.

And in what may be the marquee House race of the General Assembly elections in November, fellow Republicans have given Armstrong's opponent, Del. Charles D. Poindexter, R-Franklin County, a lot of ammunition:

  • a $50,000 donation from Gov. Bob McDonnell's Opportunity Virginia political action committee;
  • a $25,000 donation from House Speaker William J. Howell, R-Stafford;
  • a $16,000 donation from House Majority Leader M. Kirkland Cox, R-Colonial Heights;
  • and $10,000 donations each from 17 other Republican delegates.

"I don't know, do you think they want me out?" Armstrong cracks.

"It shows how badly they want to shut me up," the 10-term incumbent adds, leaning forward in a chair in his Martinsville law office.

"Money," he shrugs, "is not votes."

After 19 years in the General Assembly, Armstrong, 55, has made a reputation as an outspoken Democrat not afraid to mix it up with Republicans.

With abrasive interrogatory, fiery floor speeches and occasional theatrics — last session he used two sand buckets and a sieve to illustrate his contention that McDonnell's transportation plan took money from schools and police — the former radio broadcaster with the booming voice is frequently out of his seat, microphone in hand.

During the past two legislative sessions, a prime target has been big power companies, particularly Appalachian Power. In January, state Sen. W. Roscoe Reynolds, D-Henry, told the General Assembly's Commission on Electric Utility Regulation that Apco customers called him for help because their rates went up 40 percent in four years.

Armstrong has alleged that state Republican leaders acted as shells for power companies to pass along high-dollar donations to Poindexter.

Now, with some crafty redrawing of his district, the GOP is putting that money where Armstrong's mouth is — spending big in hopes of extracting the biggest thorn in their side.

Armstrong is in the fight of his political life.

Republicans already have a comfortable 20-seat margin in the House and are seeking to regain control of the state Senate to boost McDonnell's legislative agenda in the remaining two years of his term.

Armstrong has been a partisan leader who has opposed the governor's initiatives "every step of the way," says Phil Cox, who runs McDonnell's PAC and serves as executive director of the Republican Governors Association, also chaired by the governor.

"We think the commonwealth would be better served if he were retired."

* * * * *

The 2010 redistricting process, controlled by the GOP majority in the House, moved Armstrong's 10th District to Northern Virginia and plunked his Collinsville home into the 16th District, occupied by Del. Donald W. Merricks, R-Pittsylvania.

The moves were seen not only as retribution for Armstrong's opposition to the GOP legislative agenda and his pugnacious style but also as a pre-emptive strike on any ambitions he might have to seek statewide office in 2013.

"They're ganging up on him," says Richard C. Cranwell, former Democratic leader in the House and former state party chairman.

"They'd like to kill him off before they have to deal with him in a broader forum. He's a Republican nightmare — he's articulate and bright. He actually thinks about issues and thinks about solutions to those issues, instead of running around with a handful of talking points and flapping his gums."

Armstrong said he is not focused on a statewide run but would not rule one out regardless of whether he wins or loses in November.

The new redistricting plan left Armstrong with few choices: Run against Merricks, a popular incumbent whom Armstrong likes personally. Quit. Or move.

Armstrong chose Door Number 3. He moved 6 miles from his Collinsville home to Bassett, the small town where he grew up, where his 95-year-old mother still lives — and where his wife's mother, now in a nursing home, has a perfectly comfortable house in the newly drawn 9th District represented by Poindexter.

The new 9th District includes Patrick County, most of Franklin County, and the western part of Henry County. Roughly 60 percent of the new district is old Poindexter territory. The other 40 percent used to be Armstrong's old 10th District turf.

Like most of Southside, hard times are not confined to district boundaries old or new. The rural region remains economically depressed, with double-digit unemployment. Once-thriving towns are scarred by the shells of old furniture and textile factories — thousands of jobs lost overseas to cheap foreign labor. Hanging on in their absence are a few familiar chain restaurants, an abundance of payday lending storefronts and roadside churches catering to the cash- and faith-starved.

The new territory Armstrong must conquer is not foreign to him. Armstrong represented Franklin County before the 2001 redistricting. His father managed a veneer plant in Ferrum, where Armstrong worked during summers.

Armstrong's older brother, Morgan, is a general district court judge in Henry County. His mother was the organist at Pocahontas Baptist Church in Bassett.

"Everyone around here knows Ward," says Phyllis Carter, a waitress at the 77 Restaurant where patrons still remember his father. "Ward's a good guy."

* * * * *

Poindexter is no out-of-towner, either. While he retired in 1997 as an IT systems manager for Mitre Corp. during which he spent much of his career working on defense contracts in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, he comes from a family of farmers and saw millers going back six generations in Franklin County.

He was elected to the House of Delegates in 2007 after eight years on the Franklin County Board of Supervisors. In 2009, he ran unopposed to secure a second term in the House.

"We're stripes of a different color," says Poindexter, who calls Armstrong a "liberal Democrat," and himself a "conservative Christian Republican."

Poindexter calls himself "calm and collected" as a lawmaker. "I deal with facts — I believe facts matter," he says. "I'm not the drama queen of the world. When I speak, people generally listen to what I say."

Armstrong's reputation was cemented in 2000 when he fought, albeit unsuccessfully, with Republican Gov. Jim Gilmore for an increase in benefits for laid-off textile workers in his Southside district.

Republicans went after him, compressing three incumbent Democrats into his district when maps were last redrawn in 2001. But fellow Democratic Dels. Barnie Day and Tom Jackson yielded to Armstrong, who then won re-election.

"My political obituary has been written twice and hasn't been published yet," says Armstrong, who considers himself the underdog in the contest with Poindexter.

* * * * *

The dog has proved he has a bite, digging his teeth into the single biggest issue facing residents of the district — high utility bills.

Much of Armstrong's efforts have been directed at Apco, which has sought 14 increases over the past four years. This year, House Republicans killed two Armstrong bills that would give the State Corporation Commission greater regulation of electric rates.

"People are deciding whether to buy groceries or medicine," says Armstrong.

Armstrong has said Poindexter's campaign contributions suggest the Republican will be friendly to the power companies, though before taking a bite out of Apco, Armstrong himself accepted more than $100,000 in donations from power companies between 2007 and 2009.

Not surprisingly, the power company money has stopped flowing to Armstrong's campaign in recent years. In the campaign filing period ending June 30, Dominion Virginia Power was also listed as one of Poindexter's largest contributors, giving more than $10,000.

Poindexter said the real issue is the federal government's war on coal, which he blamed for pushing up power bills.

"The rates are certainly too high — they're probably too high everywhere in the country," he says, noting that he spoke against Apco's most recent rate-increase request before the State Corporation Commission.

Armstrong has more cash on hand than Poindexter, but fundraising totals in legislative races are a moving target — especially in this case, one of the few high-profile contests for the House of Delegates. Candidates will file updated reports next week, but this much seems clear: Armstrong and Poindexter will have ample funds to get their message out, and their fundraising, collectively, could top $1 million.

Armstrong and his supporters are less concerned about the actual campaigning.

"A House of Delegates race is retail politics and Ward is a gifted retail politician — as good as they come at meeting and mixing and understanding and improvising," says Cranwell.

"That district in my assessment is a no-nonsense group of folks that apply a heavy dose of common sense to what they do."

Armstrong's mother, Susan, puts it this way: "He doesn't take things lying down."

Poindexter says he'll be getting out to the newer parts of his redrawn district to solicit support over the coming weeks.

Armstrong, mindful of the GOP target on his back, isn't backing down. And he won't shut up.

"They set up the rules of the game and spotted themselves eight runs," he says. "And I'll still beat him."


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