In the sweltering Friday heat, Elliott Harding stood on the steps of the Albemarle County Circuit Courthouse and pleaded to both sides of the political aisle in his bid to unseat state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath.
In kicking off his campaign as an independent for the 25th Senate District, Harding drew a small crowd, including Republican Albemarle County Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert Tracci, former Republican House of Delegates candidate Richard Fox and former Democratic City Council candidate Don Gathers.
Harding, a local attorney who wasn’t certified to appear on the ballot until last week, appealed to liberals and conservatives in what could be an uphill climb to oust Deeds.
“I find myself to the left of him and to the right of him,” Harding said.
The 29-year-old said it’s time for a change in the district, pointing out that when Deeds started his political career as the commonwealth’s attorney in Bath County in 1987, Harding wasn’t even born.
Deeds went on to serve in the House of Delegates from 1992 to 2001 before winning election to his current seat. The district covers part of Albemarle County, all of Charlottesville, Buena Vista, Covington and Lexington, and all of Alleghany, Bath, Nelson, Highland and Rockbridge counties.
Harding was chair of the Albemarle County Republican Committee in 2016 and served on the board of directors of the Region Ten Community Services Board from 2015 to 2017.
He graduated from the University of Virginia in 2012 and law school at Washington and Lee University in 2015.
Launching what Harding called an “aggressive” campaign, he attacked Deeds’ record as a senator and candidate for attorney general and governor.
In 2005, while running for state attorney general, Deeds disagreed with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling limiting the death penalty and advocated for expanding it in other ways. Deeds also had spoken against same-sex marriage and, although he was endorsed by the National Rifle’s Association in 2005, now advocates for gun control measures. Since the death of his son in 2013, Deeds has been most focused on improving mental health care.
Harding’s main campaign issue will be criminal justice reform.
“Too many of those people don’t have a voice anymore, and the families have seen themselves kicked to the curb,” he said.
Most of Harding’s points focused on moving control of many policies from the General Assembly to localities.
He railed against Dominion Energy’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline and expounded on the rights of landowners to use solar energy.
He advocated for a less wide-scale form of school choice than most supporters of that system. He’d like to start by giving children at risk of falling behind or with developmental or behavioral issues a chance to choose better schools before considering the option for all students.
“People with means already have access to go into the schools of their choice, but people should all have the ability to go to the schools of their choice,” he said.
Harding also wants to change the Department of Education’s Standards of Learning tests. He said local school divisions and parents should form the curriculum rather than state officials in Richmond.
Another issue Harding discussed was abolishing the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. The department, he says, acts more like an aggressive law enforcement agency than a regulatory body.
Harding cautioned that the state’s liquor laws wouldn’t be eliminated, but said a more lax approach would encourage free enterprise, a model in other states that allow private liquor stores or grocery stores and gas stations to sell liquor.
“There are ways to regulate and oversee the sales without having to have the stranglehold,” he said. “It’s not a free-for-all [with the ABC]. Moonshine’s not getting poured on the streets. I think beer and liquor should be able to be sold in the same store, it’s ridiculous.”
Harding acknowledged that his role as one of the attorneys for The Monument Fund in its lawsuit against Charlottesville could leave a sour taste with potential area voters.
The lawsuit challenges City Council votes to remove the statues of Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.
Harding said he became involved because “it’s the law” that the statues cannot be moved. He’s in favor of contextualizing the statues with information not just about their installation, but about the history since.
“I don’t think maintaining a debate about 1850 or 1920 is positive,” he said. “The same Virginia that is being recognized [in those statues] is the same Virginia that gave us the first black elected governor in the United States.
“Taking these down doesn’t fix the immediate problems that are facing people, and it totally obfuscates what is real process.”
Harding used the chance to point out that Deeds was a co-sponsor of a bill in 1998 that created the list that protects specific war memorials. The Monument Fund has argued that the council’s votes violated state law.
Harding plans to hold a campaign volunteer kickoff next week.
He’s got slightly more than three months to make his case to the vast district that stretches from Charlottesville to West Virginia. But he said he is ready to spread his message.
“I’m going to put a lot of miles on my car,” he said. “It’ll be a shoe-leather campaign.”