By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
On June 14, the primary election will be held to determine the Democratic and Republican Party candidates who will compete for Virginia’s 4th Congressional seat on election day November 8. Chesapeake City Councilwoman Ella Ward and State Senator Donald McEachin of Henrico County are Democrats bidding for their party’s nomination. Both are African Americans. Republicans Sheriff Michael Wade of Henrico County and Jackee Gonzalez of North Chesterfield are seeking the Republican nod.
For the first time in years, Democrats have a chance of capturing the district, since it was redesigned to include more Black and White voters who tend to support Democrats. Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed a Republican attempt to overturn the redesign, setting in place the stage for the election to proceed. Hoping for a strong voter turnout come June 14, Democrats believe that the outcome of the primary election may determine who will get the seat in November. Democrats only control three of the 11 Congressional districts and are seeking to add the 4th District to their column.
Also, if one of the Democrats should win in November, the state will have two Blacks in the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time in history. The other would be 3rd District Representative Robert Scott of Newport News. If Ward wins, she will be the first Black woman. Both of the candidates are close on their views of the issues. The most contentious issue which has arisen in the McEachin-Ward race is that she is the only candidate of either party currently residing within the boundaries of the 4th District.
And she has done so for over 30 years, she says. Ward is seeking to draw attention to the residency issue and use it to energize her candidacy. State law does not require individuals running for a Congressional seat to live in the specific district. Another example of this situation involves Republican Congressman J. Randy Forbes of Chesapeake, who lives in the 4th District which he currently represents, but is running for the 2nd Congressional seat.
McEachin, a Richmond attorney and member of the General Assembly, is accusing the Ward camp of negative campaigning. “It is unfortunate she is using negative campaigning when we have so many other issues to address,” said McEachin, who has been in the Senate since 2007. “I am the only candidate in this race who has represented urban, rural and suburban parts of the state.” McEachin currently represents the 9th Senate District, which has 250,000 residents and 150,000 of them already live in the 4th Congressional District. This fact, he says, makes him familiar with the economic and geographic diversity of the district.
Dr. Ward, who has been on the Chesapeake City Council since 2006, says, “I think it is very important for the Congressman of this district to live within its boundaries. How can you effectively represent (the people)? “I have met many people who have not met the current representative (Randy Forbes). I don’t think you can address the issues facing these people from an office in Washington or Richmond.”
The new 4th Congressional District is a far flung one. Its borders begin in Chesapeake in Hampton Roads to the southside communities of Emporia, Suffolk, Southampton County and Surry County; then west to Hopewell and Petersburg; and to the central areas of Richmond, Henrico County; and up to Prince George County in Northern Virginia. It is an economically and racially diverse district with urban areas such as Richmond; and heavily rural ones such as Waverly and Southampton County. It has the upscale suburbs which surround Richmond and Henrico and Chesterfield Counties.
With a total population of over 750,000 people, the 4th Congressional District now has a 44 percent Black population. Over 52 percent of the district are Whites who tend to vote Democratic, making it less friendly to Republican candidates. When it was redrawn by a federal court order, Richmond, Petersburg, Brunswick and other communities with large numbers of Black voters were inserted into 4th Congressional District, making it more friendly to the Democratic Party.
Jermayne Wright is Ward’s campaign manager. He said the highest number of registered voters in the 4th District are 27 percent in Richmond; 15 percent in Chesapeake; Chesterfield, 15.4; Henrico County, 13.9; and Petersburg, 11 percent. When Dr. Ward ran for the district in 2012, she pulled almost 43 percent of the vote against Forbes when the district was Republican-friendly.
She admits she is behind the curve so far as funding, compared to the better politically-connected McEachin, who is the Democratic Caucus Chairman in the State Senate.
But Ward says her 2012 campaign has helped her with name recognition in the district. She has worked on various regional and state boards and commissions dealing with issues that 4th District voters are facing which may allow her to compensate for that funding shortfall.
She says she has been crisscrossing the district, especially its northern region, along with McEachin’s backyard, the Petersburg area, and her home base of Chesapeake to win this contest. Both Ward and McEachin say they have campaigned in some of the most impoverished and isolated parts of the district as well as some of the most affluent ones. Both say they believe that one more Democratic seat in the House would be a shield against the backwards political push of the GOP caucus, and a Donald Trump-run White House, if the national election takes a bad turn for the Democrats.
Both Democratic contenders say education, jobs creation and economic development are three of the most pressing issues facing the people of the 4th Congressional District.
Ward said she spent three days in the Mosby Court public housing community of Richmond, talking to residents and civic leaders about the economic isolation, educational disparities and other long standing issues for the Richmond neighborhood.
She said in parts of rural Surry County, there is spotty cellular phone service and many areas have little or no basic internet connectivity. McEachin said many large telecom. companies such as Verizon have failed to provide adequate internet and cell services in rural stretches of the state because they fear a lack of return on their investment. He said more federal subsidies may reverse this trend.
“Economic development, education and broadband internet communication are linked together to uplift many of those rural and poor counties,” said McEachin. “I want to improve this situation and expand rail and other transportation services for these communities.” In the city of Waverly, late last February, four people were killed and many of the city’s small modest homes were destroyed. The damage was not severe enough for federal emergency aid, and Ward said “many of the families and individuals are still suffering.”
“In many of these communities I have visited, they say no political leader of candidate has visited them to see the conditions they live in,” said Ward. “It seems that Congressman Forbes did not invest time or resources in meeting the needs of these people. Even the candidates who are running for the seat now have failed to venture into the rural and urban areas to listen and talk to the people about their education, jobs and quality of life issues.”