Del. Nick Freitas (R-Culpeper) will be a write-in candidate on the November ballot because he neglected to file his candidacy paperwork on time, but neither he nor his opponent, Democrat Ann Ridgeway of Madison County, mentioned his summertime saga involving the State Board of Elections during the candidates’ forum sponsored by the Orange County Chamber of Commerce Monday night.
Instead, the two-time incumbent, a former Army Ranger and ardent defender of the Second Amendment, and the political newcomer, a retired educator and advocate for improving mental health care, presented their opposing views on gun safety, the minimum wage and the proposed Equal Rights Amendment to an engaged and respectful crowd of about 50 at Lafayette Station in Rhoadesville.
The battle for House delegate in District 30, which includes Orange, Madison and part of Culpeper County, is one of four contested races before Orange County voters on Nov. 5.
The nonpartisan chamber of commerce gave all candidates running for office in local and district elections, including announced write-in candidates, a chance to speak at the forum. Orange attorney Sean Gregg served as moderator, and Doug Rogers, chair of the Orange County Economic Development Authority, was master of ceremonies.
In the 17th District state senate race, local voters will choose between Republican incumbent Bryce Reeves and his Democratic opponent, Amy Laufer. Sending word he had another commitment, Reeves skipped the Orange County forum. Laufer, a former middle school teacher who served on the Charlottesville School Board for seven years, was given time to introduce herself and briefly describe her platform, as were candidates who are running unopposed, including members of the school board, board of supervisors, other constitutional officers, the soil and water conservation directors and Sheriff Mark Amos.
In addition to Freitas and Ridgeway, the forum hosted the opposing candidates running for commonwealth’s attorney and county supervisor in District 3.
Diana Wheeler O’Connell, the four-term incumbent commonwealth’s attorney, and her challenger, local defense attorney Page Higginbotham III, shared the stage, as did supervisor Teel Goodwin and his District 3 write-in challenger, Ellen Pitera, a former teacher and an operator of Rounton Farm.
The format of the forum allowed members of the audience to submit written questions which Gregg read to the candidates. Questions could be directed to both candidates or to one candidate with the other allowed to respond.
Responses from Ridgeway and Freitas revealed how starkly different the two candidates are. Telling the audience she is a gun owner, Ridgeway said “red flag” laws—which allow law enforcement officers to temporarily seize firearms from people a judge has deemed a danger to themselves or others—work in many states and could work in Virginia as well, while Freitas said he opposes any legislation that would restrict an individual’s right to defend himself or herself with a gun.
Asked to weigh in on a proposed hike of the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour, Freitas gave the hypothetical example of someone desperate for work who received an offer of $7/hour from a small business that couldn’t afford to offer more. He said a required minimum wage of $15/hour would turn that employer into a “criminal” and eliminate job opportunities for low-wage workers.
Ridgeway responded that she thinks a hike in the minimum wage is necessary but should be done gradually. When she asked the audience how many of them earned Virginia’s minimum wage of $7.25/hour, no one put up a hand. She got the same response when she asked how many thought they could support a family at that rate of pay.
At one point, after Freitas said he didn’t support the proposed Equal Rights Amendment, Ridgeway appeared thoroughly exasperated. When it was her turn to speak, she stood up and asked her opponent whether he supported equal rights for women, a cause she said she has lobbied for. Freitas, who was seated, stayed silent as Ridgeway glared at him. At that point, amid murmurs from the crowd, moderator Gregg rose to his feet and told Ridgeway to follow the forum rules and direct her comments to the audience.
It was one of several testy moments in a lively, nicely paced evening. The audience, composed mostly of middle-aged and older people, applauded responses they especially liked but refrained from booing, in keeping with the rules Rogers had announced.
When O’Connell and Higginbotham took the floor, both addressed the importance of having a good working relationship with law enforcement agencies. However, O’Connell said pointedly that the commonwealth’s attorney office is “not an ancillary arm to any law enforcement agency. We’re not an ancillary arm of the Virginia State Police, the sheriff’s office or any town police [department]. We are our own independent entity with our own authority and power.”
Alluding to friction between her office and the sheriff’s office, she continued, “It may be a surprise to some people that of our major cases—and I would say major violent cases, murders, rape, armed robberies, etc.—the sheriff’s cases have been less than half of those over the last 15 years.”
She added, “There should be daylight between the commonwealth attorney’s office and the sheriff’s office. There are natural tensions that arise from the differences in our responsibilities. We’re on the same side, but we have very, very different roles.”
Higginbotham noted he has been endorsed by Sheriff Amos. He said, “I’m running particularly because I think we need a change. It’s time for some new blood. It’s time for a reset.”
Later in his opening remarks, he said, “I can tell you that in my office we’ll be professional and respectful, whether it’s with the victims, the law enforcement or even the criminal defendants.”
Asked to address office policy on plea bargains, O’Connell said plea bargains can be a time-management tool when resolving relatively minor cases. In criminal cases, she said sometimes victims are traumatized, especially children and adults who have suffered sexual assault, and they don’t want to testify in court—the implication being that plea deals may be arranged in those circumstances.
She added that some cases “have a flaw in them,” leading her and her staff to take a plea deal and get “less than we hoped for” but more than they might have gotten if the case had gone to trial. Higginbotham offered voters an alternative approach.
“I think that the hard part comes with cases that are more controversial, cases where maybe someone doesn’t want something to be plea bargained out. And what I’ll say is that in my office, if it’s a close call, and someone wants to go forward with the case—if it’s one of those things where the victim says, ‘You know what, I don’t care if we lose, I want my day in court’—you can believe that I will take it to court. … We’re not afraid to lose; we can’t be afraid.”
A surprise question for the career prosecutor and her opponent involved their policy on dogs in the commonwealth’s attorney’s office. O’Connell had the first shot at the question, which she answered with a smile. She said her office dog is a “certified therapy dog” that has proven useful in putting young victims of crime at ease. She noted that many crime victims have been prescribed emotional support animals, typically dogs, that they are legally allowed to bring into the commonwealth’s attorney’s office. Other members of her staff also bring their dogs to work, she added.
Again, Higginbotham struck a contrasting note. Allowing for exceptions, such as police dogs, he said in general he wouldn’t allow dogs in the office “simply because some people don’t like dogs. Any number of people might feel intimidated [and] just might not like having a dog in there. There might be attorneys in nice suits that come in there and just simply don’t want [dog] hair or a dog jumping on them.”
When Goodwin and Pitera had their opportunity to trade viewpoints, the mood in the room was more relaxed and lighthearted than during the discussions by the other pairs of opponents.
Goodwin, a three-term supervisor, thanked Tony Wilson, the owner of Lafayette Station, for hosting the event and drew a laugh when he said that after sitting for an hour on a hard seat, “I’m not quite as fond of those [chairs] as of the venue.”
He said the supervisors “don’t cause much of a ruckus” for the press to write about and the board has stayed true to the county plan for development at the eastern end of the county and the maintaining of the rural character in Somerset and Rapidan.
“I don’t say ‘I’ but ‘we,’” he noted, stressing the board’s emphasis on teamwork. He also referred to the importance of increasing broadband access to county residents, a high-priority project for supervisors during his tenure.
Pitera introduced herself as a former 4-H member, a 1989 graduate of Orange County High School and a graduate of Sweet Briar College who holds a master’s degree from the University of Virginia. Citing her experience as a teacher, she said she lives with her family at Rounton Farm, where she grew up, and is proud of her role on a board of seven women who led the successful effort to save Sweet Briar after it nearly closed in 2015.
Pitera said, “Leadership is in my blood. … I just feel like people need a choice in District 3.”
She said that if she’s elected she will work to improve communication with county residents, especially those who are of her generation and younger, and make sure they know the issues the county is dealing with and how they can make their views heard.
Asked whether she would support Goodwin if she loses to him, Pitera said, “Of course. I’ll absolutely support Teel. He’s my friend.” She added, however, that she would plan to run again in four years.
Goodwin drew chuckles when the time came for his response. Taking the question literally, he said, “I’ll support me, no problem.”
He went on to say Pitera is his “neighbor and friend” and he wishes her well. After a beat, he said, “I want it more, but ….”
Given the opportunity to talk about her candidacy, Laufer said she is the first member of her family to graduate from college and has a child born with a serious medical condition. Citing her experience on the Charlottesville school board, she said that while lobbying for the school district in Richmond, she realized “it really matters who we elect, because we know elected officials make decisions that affect every aspect of our life.”
In addition, she said, “I’m running because I really want to ensure that we have access to affordable health care. I want to ensure that our children are able to get a good education that prepares them for the future. And I want to help expand broadband.”
Praising Orange County’s progress on the broadband front, she continued, “I have to give it to your board of supervisors and [county broadband manager] Lewis Foster. I’ve been on the phone a lot with many communities that are struggling with broadband and you guys really have taken this on. So I want to be part of that solution.”
Rogers read a statement on behalf of Reeves, an Army veteran and two-term state senator first elected in 2011, who said he was missing the forum due to a family commitment.