FRONT ROYAL — One house district race had both candidates show up to a forum on Thursday night hosted by the Front Royal-Warren County Chamber of Commerce.
On paper, the race between Todd Gilbert, R-Mount Jackson, and Democrat Beverly Harrison of Woodstock, to represent Virginia’s 15th house district is the least competitive of the three distract races in Warren County. Despite the incumbency and cash flow Gilbert has, he came to Thursday night’s forum to face off with Harrison one more time before voters cast their ballots on Nov. 5.
Gilbert said it has been the “honor and challenge” of his life to represent the 15th district and said he believes he is and has been an accurate representation of the values his voters hold.
Harrison, a newcomer to politics, has run on a campaign claiming she will not play a partisan role in Richmond but will accurately represent the voters who elect her. She said she is not running as the Democratic Party and that she doesn’t agree with the party all of the time.
“They are not the ones I’m hoping to represent,” she said. “It’s you the people in this community and your best interests.”
One of the biggest interests in Warren County, voters said, is the scandal involving the Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority and what representatives are going to do to help resolve the issues stemming from the debacle.
Gilbert said he is in the process of crafting legislation with other delegates from Warren County – Chris Collins, R-Winchester, and Michael Webert, R-Marshall, neither of whom participated in Thursday’s forum.
There are no easy answers to solving the problem of the EDA scandal, Gilbert said, and he wasn’t going to try to offer any “easy answers” to something that is still unfolding.
At least one answer slipped out while Gilbert was trying to lay out his thinking about the issue from a state-government level.
“Once we know everything about what has transpired, I think we will be in a much better position to arrest… excuse me, to address this in the ethics council and the legislature,” he said.
Harrison said her solution to the issue would be to work with other delegates who have proposed ideas. Laura Galante, D-Marshall, spoke earlier in the evening about her plan to propose legislation to create accountability in the form of a group in Richmond to oversee annual reports and audits of all the EDAs in the state.
“When we work together, we don’t have to know everything,” Harrison said. “It’s hard to be an expert in a million different things and when you’re working cooperatively, in situations like this, we can play to our strengths and that’s what I’m going to do.”
Toward the end of the evening, candidates responded to a question about gun violence and gun ownership — a topic that has received attention since a man shot and killed 12 people in Virginia Beach in May.
In July, Gov. Ralph Northam called a special session for delegates to assemble to discuss gun violence.
Harrison attempted to lash Gilbert about his role in shutting down that special session less than two hours before it started and a subsequent donation from the National Rifle Association of $200,000 to his Majority Leader PAC 56 days later, sending ripples of murmurs through the audience.
Gilbert, who said his position on gun ownership is well known and has proudly worn his support from the NRA on his sleeve, said that disagreement on policy questions was one issue but disdain for him because of his policy positions was something voters should consider.
Receiving personal disdain, as a public figure, is part of the job he said, but that disdain can easily boil over to other targets.
“The disdain of those who disagree with me politically is not for me, it’s for approximately the 70% of people who live in this district who agree with me,” he said. “That’s who people who criticize me and hem and haw at me, that’s who they have a problem with — is their neighbors.”
“I believe I am an accurate reflection of the political beliefs and views of the vast majority of the people of the 15th district,” he continued, “and I think I do a great job of reflecting those values on a daily basis.”