Republicans are counting on two races in the Henrico County suburbs in their bid to regain control of the House of Delegates, but only one is seizing the public limelight.
The rematch between Republican challenger Mary Margaret Kastelberg and Del. Rodney Willett, a Democrat seeking a second term representing the 73rd House District, is living up to its billing — a splashy, high-dollar battle over competing political philosophies in a suburban swing district.
But in the neighboring 72nd House District, Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, a Democrat seeking a third term, found himself alone on a debate stage last week because his Republican challenger, political newcomer Christopher Holmes, declined to participate.
“If you’re in Richmond, you might think Kastelberg and Willett are running for statewide office,” said Bob Holsworth, a veteran Richmond-based political commentator, while “there hasn’t been much visibility” for the Holmes campaign.
And yet the 72nd remains one of the top House districts that Republicans think they can flip to regain control of the chamber.
“It’s definitely a seat that Republicans can win,” said Chris Saxman, a former Republican delegate who now leads Virginia FREE, an influential pro-business organization that closely tracks state elections.
The rematch between Willett and Kastelberg features longtime residents of the western Henrico suburbs schooled in polite, but spirited political battle.
Willett, owner of a technology business, describes the district as “progressive, but not to an extreme.”
Kastelberg, a financial services professional, accuses him of voting with the Democratic House majority to move Virginia too far to the left — on public safety and criminal justice; taxes; the state’s right-to-work law, which opponents term anti-union; and education, which she has made central to her campaign after the long shutdown of public schools during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m really excited about the coalition that I’m building across the district between conservatives, moderates, swing voters and some Democrats that want to bring change and common sense back to Virginia,” she said in an hourlong debate sponsored by ChamberRVA at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College in Henrico.
Willett defeated Kastelberg by about 1,300 votes in 2019, when Democrats won control of the House after picking up 15 seats in 2017 in a wave election triggered by President Donald Trump’s election the previous year.
In 2017, Debra Rodman, who was in the audience for the Chamber debate, defeated Del. John O’Bannon, R-Henrico, who had faced a Democratic opponent only once in 17 years in the House. But she vacated the seat two years later in an unsuccessful challenge of Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, and Willett won a high-profile race to succeed her.
Willett doesn’t apologize for the policies Democrats have pursued since taking control of the House — promoting early childhood education, protecting the environment and women’s right to abortion, and passing gun safety laws that Kastelberg also supported in their first showdown two years ago.
“I’m here to protect that progress and then make more,” he said near the end of the Chamber debate.
Willett and Kastelberg take philosophically different positions on the role of government in achieving common goals, such as controlling the spread of COVID-19, raising the minimum wage for entry-level workers, and ensuring law enforcement accountability in use of force, particularly against minorities.
Kastelberg opposes the mandate of COVID-19 vaccinations, which she said differs from required immunization against childhood diseases because of the newness of the vaccines.
Willett noted that more than 700,000 Americans, including 13,000 Virginians, have died of the coronavirus disease in the past 19 months.
“We have to protect our families, particularly our children,” he said, urging school boards to consider the mandating of vaccinations and face masks.
He commended Henrico Public Schools for “staying open while keeping our kids safe,” but Kastelberg faulted Democrats for not reopening schools sooner for in-person instruction.
“We’ve got a lot of repair work to do from the pandemic because of the lack of leadership,” she said.
On minimum wage, Willett said he remains committed to a gradual increase to $15 an hour under a law adopted last year, while Kastelberg said, “I’d like to leave it up to private businesses to decide what’s best for them.”
Similarly, on police accountability, she said law enforcement “needs to be overseeing that” and strongly supports retaining qualified immunity as a legal doctrine to protect officers from civil litigation.
Willett supported ending qualified immunity, although the legislation failed. He said the doctrine was “enacted with racial intent.”
Willett said that rather than attempting to “defund police,” as Republicans claim, Democrats have expanded funding for state police and sheriff’s departments to recruit, train and retain high-quality officers to ensure accountability for their actions.
“Don’t think for a second we are not supporting our police,” he said.
As the owner of a small business, Willett considers himself a “pro-business Democrat” who was honored by the Virginia Chamber of Commerce as “freshman legislator of the year” in the House last year.
But he acknowledged during the debate that he supports repeal — “in an incremental fashion” — of Virginia’s right-to-work law, which prevents employees in a unionized workforce from having to pay union dues.
Kastelberg wants to maintain the right-to-work law and touts her endorsement by the Virginia chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business.
Both candidates deplored the amount of money necessary to run effectively for political office, but Willett entered the final stretch of the race with a clear financial advantage.
He had $382,260 in the bank at the end of August, compared with $179,641 for Kastelberg, but she is also getting help from outside groups, such as Americans for Prosperity.
In the 72nd District, VanValkenburg ended August with $425,833 in his campaign war chest, compared with $84,923 for Holmes.
Still, Saxman, who served in the House from 2001 to 2010, rates the district among the top 10 for Republicans to win, although he said the race between Willett and Kastelberg “is probably the premier matchup in the state this year.”
VanValkenburg, first elected in 2017, is a high school government teacher who supports progressive policies on investing in public education, protecting abortion rights, and adopting measures to reduce gun violence and expand access to affordable health care.
Holmes, identified on his campaign website as an operations infrastructure manager for a health savings account company, advocates reopening public schools to “close the COVID gap,” support for law enforcement and crime victims, help for small businesses and “free and fair elections.”
Holmes said in a video on his campaign Facebook page that he is running in the tradition of President Abraham Lincoln, abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
During the Chamber forum — which turned into an onstage conversation with Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist Jeff E. Schapiro, the moderator of the earlier debate — VanValkenburg said his first impetus to run for office was a sense that “we had stopped investing in people.”
He said the state has done a better job in recent years of “investing in all people” by expanding Medicaid coverage, capping insulin prices, boosting education funding, and “making it illegal to fire somebody based on who they love.”
But he also bucked the progressive wing of the House Democratic Caucus in proposing a constitutional amendment to create a bipartisan commission for political redistricting, which voters approved by an overwhelming margin last year.
“I think it was the right thing to do,” VanValkenburg said.
VanValkenburg touted the state’s investments in education in recent years under Democrats’ control. He also cited the G3 program, which seeks to “match kids in community college with jobs that are in high demand,” such as skilled nursing, technical jobs and early education; and project labor agreements that he said allow for apprentice workers on public projects.
He called for a state commission, like Maryland’s Kirwan Commission, to undergo “a methodical rethinking of a lot of our educational components.”
Asked his top priority, Holmes said in a written response: “Educating our children is my number one concern and one of the most important reasons that I am running for office. Having grown up in Richmond City, I know that progress in educating all children of color still lags.”
Holmes said he recently spent time with some young Black teenagers “who, having been out of school for more than a year and a half, are poorly prepared for continuing high school or moving forward to post-secondary education or work. It will take a forward-thinking effort to re-engage those young people to make sure that they get the skills they need to move into the work force.”
He added: “In short, many children are getting left behind, and some more than others. I’m running for delegate to do something about it.”
Regarding COVID-19, VanValkenburg said during the forum: “The one thing we know is that vaccines are what’s going to get us out of this. Vaccines are what’s going to allow our economy to stay open and thrive” and keep students in classrooms.
“It’s incredibly incumbent on us to get the vaccination rates up,” he said, beginning by reaching consensus and getting shots to those who want to get vaccinated. As the vaccination rates level off, he said, mandates “become more and more necessary.”
Holmes indicated via email that he believes persuasion is more effective than mandates.
“COVID-19 has presented every family with challenges, from employment issues to maintaining a business to school closures and loss of instructional time resulting in delayed progress to the loss of loved ones. I trust every citizen to make decisions based on their own medical history in conjunction with their physician.”
He added: “As a person of color, I understand why some are ‘vaccine hesitant’ based on their historical experience, and it is my preference that we try to persuade communities of color rather than force them to receive treatment that they do not want. Forced medical treatment of non-whites in America is an ugly relic of a terrible part of our history that no one should want to repeat.”
Holmes wrote that he also ran for office because of rising crime rates in Virginia. He said he would have “an open-door policy with law enforcement, citizens, and stakeholders,” adding that “It is critical that we work together for the good of every community.”
VanValkenburg said during the forum that the legislature’s recent investments in community policing and in pay raises for law enforcement had been overdue, but that the legislature also was right to enact reforms such as allowing localities to put in place citizen review boards.
On abortion, VanValkenburg said: “A woman’s health care decisions should be between her and her doctor. That’s it. Full stop.”
Asked whether Virginia should memorialize abortion rights in the state constitution, VanValkenburg said that now that Texas has passed a law barring most abortions, “as a state it would be a responsible step to look at enshrining that protection.”
Asked his views on abortion, Holmes wrote: “I am pro-life because I was kid #5 out of 9 children. I am grateful that my mother chose life.”
He added: “My single mom worked hard every day for my siblings and me and we had nothing handed to us. I want to help make sure that every mother who chooses life in Henrico has great schools for her child, a safe place to live, and a great business environment for her family to succeed and thrive.”
VanValkenburg also touted Virginians’ greater access to voting under Democratic leadership.
“Increased access doesn’t mean decreased security,” he said.
On election law, Holmes is calling for restoration of a photo ID requirement.
“I believe that photo ID to vote provides integrity to our electoral system,” he wrote. “Photo ID was stripped from our voting laws under the guise of aiding minorities who are unable to secure an ID. I resent the implication that as a black man, I am unable to function in my community and am not capable of handling the day-to-day responsibilities of daily life.”