Three Roanokers are competing for the Democratic nomination to succeed retiring state Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke.
The candidates include DeAnthony “DA” Pierce, Luke Priddy and Trish White-Boyd. In advance of the June 20 Democratic primary, The Roanoke Rambler is publishing interviews with each. Early voting is already underway, and any registered voter can partake.
Whoever wins the primary will face state Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, in the Nov. 7 general election. No Republicans are challenging Suetterlein, who is an incumbent in the newly redistricted seat.
The district leans Republican and encompasses Roanoke, Salem and parts of Roanoke County and Montgomery County.
Pierce, 34, is an entrepreneur and is soon starting a job in Roanoke City’s planning department. A resident of Roanoke’s Monterey neighborhood, Pierce is a first-time political candidate.
Interviews have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Why do you want to represent residents of the Roanoke and New River valleys in the state Senate?
Well, the first part of your question, which is why do I want to represent, first, Roanoke, I'm running because I don't think [there are] a lot of people in public office, who come from my type of background, period. And so when I think of my hometown, Roanoke City, I think of, you know, single parents, I think of people who may not have went to college right out of high school. Maybe they didn't have the privilege to — late-adult learners like myself, who went to Virginia Western [Community College] in my mid 20s, and then had to go back to get my four year degree, which I got at 30-years-old, you know, while working full-time, going to school full time. I mean, it wasn't easy, but I just think about all the people who don't come from a background that's typically aligned with a politician. So I have a perspective that I feel is unique and different. I think I can offer that type of perspective legislatively, because I understand the issues, being that I live like a normal person for most of my adulthood life. So that's why I want to run, to represent Roanoke.
And then the larger Roanoke Valley, and parts of Roanoke County, Montgomery County, and Salem, I feel just my experience, traveling around the state, meeting people from so many backgrounds, hearing from people with so many different types of perspectives from myself. It also allows me to appreciate not everybody sees things the same way. And one thing that I found even while collecting signatures while talking with people, while they were signing for me to be on the ballot, they would say, Hey, I'm a Republican, but I'll sign up for you to be on the ballot. Because, yes, we may not agree on some things, but I think that they could sincerely see that I valued their opinion and I'm willing to listen to what they have to say. And also, like I did as an entrepreneur, work together to resolve problems regardless of what your party is. And when I say resolve problems, the main problem as an entrepreneur was, What do we do about the fact that people can’t bring cell phones into the courthouse from my community? A lot of the lockers I have placed around the state were in districts where they had a Republican sheriff. They didn't care what my political affiliation was. They had a problem. They needed a solution. And I didn't care what their political association was. It was the same when I was just meeting voters and they signed my petition. Hey, this is the issue. They can say, I don't agree with Democrats on this. But I agree with you when you say health care access is important. And I heard that from several people. I can agree that education is important, and housing is important. So they signed my petition.
That's kind of where I hope to be a gap bridger, if you will. Yes, I'm a Democrat. Yes, I'm an African American. But I've always listened to other people and what they had to say and try to find some type of common ground. I think just on a personal level, connect with them as a person.
Please give a specific example of how your experience would make you an effective leader in the Senate.
Leading an organization, if you will, the only experience I have leading any significant-sized organization was when I led the International Students club at Virginia Western. I've also been chief officer of elections for my precinct in Roanoke City since 2015, but that's a small amount of people.
But I’d just like to say, life experiences is the thing that I have. You know, what are the struggles of being a single parent or knowing people who might not have the financial means, including at times in your life, to afford medical care? You know, even basic things like grocery, housing, you know, what does that feel like? What systems need to be in place to ensure you don't fall through the cracks, as I've seen people close to me do at times?
Specifically, it's just my life's experiences, and those that are experienced through people who are close to me, as far as their struggles and what they've had to go through and may still be going through and have to overcome to help them be successful even on a basic level. Even being able to afford housing, their medical care, things of that nature. I'll give you one example: You know, some doctors don't accept Medicaid. And that's an issue if you have Medicaid, because the care you may require, may actually be accessible as far as you being able to get there. But if the provider doesn't accept Medicaid because they don't accept the payments that Medicaid is willing to offer, then they don't have access. And then they may have to drive way out of their way to get that access, which can be an even bigger burden financially. Even just the logistics of getting there if they don't have their own transportation, and I know people who've been in that situation. So that type of experience, or knowing people with those experiences, who I just know personally and what they're dealing with, is something I hope to bring to the legislature.
Let’s say you win the June primary and the general election in November. What is one of the first pieces of legislation you would introduce and why?
Well, I have to look at my priorities. It’d still be medical care access and affordability. That's the top, that's the number-one priority of mine. And, again, when I say medical care access, that means making sure we have doctors, nurses, medical care facilities in the rural areas, or at least the ones that exist, that they're strengthened to stay in those communities. Why? Because people who live in the rural communities, they need that. When you have population declines or when you have critical services like medical care being taken out of your community, those are the types of things that have a huge impact on those individuals.
For example, I live in Roanoke City, right, we have [Carilion] Roanoke Memorial [Hospital], we have LewisGale and any host of clinics you can think of and in between that. But sometimes the further out you go, people have to come into the city maybe for hours to get access to the services that they need to take care of their medical needs. And sometimes they may not choose to go when they need to because of that distance and the inconvenience, meaning that some conditions may be worsened to the point where they have to come because they couldn't get it taken care of beforehand. And I care about people who have that struggle. The same way I care about people, as I mentioned, who might be on Medicaid, and may have a facility accessible to them, but they cannot go because that health care provider probably doesn't accept Medicaid. It’s the same type of problem. You know, I want people to be able to have medical care access wherever they are, because especially older individuals, that's a huge thing. People need that in their lives so they can stay healthy and continue to be in their communities in a healthy way.
To follow up, what do you envision that looking like legislatively? Like, a bill that would do what exactly?
This is the how, right? You can say it, but how do you plan to get it done? Well, first of all, let me make it clear. Nothing will ever get done unless you raise some type of revenues, even if that means a slight tax increase. And people don't like to talk about increase in taxes. But I like to say, I'm okay personally paying slightly more in my taxes if it means doctors don't have to worry about having student debt that burdens them. So. for example, legislation to ensure doctors that practice in small communities, maybe they can have their student loans forgiven if they practice in those communities. That way, whatever compensation and pay that can be offered to them, they can still comfortably afford to live in that community without having the burden of debt, if you will. Same goes for the nurses in those communities as well such as the nurse practitioners, the RNs, the LNs, right, the licensed nurses, the physician assistants.
Even if it means, you know, say a clinic wants to open up — subsidizing their taxes, if you will. I know a lot of medical facilities are nonprofit, but just making sure that they have the financial incentives to stay or build in those communities so that the financial burden of the investment doesn't outweigh the potential income from, you know, being in a smaller community. They may not be able to make that money to pay back that investment to get there in the first place. But just making sure that the funds and resources are there to ensure that those types of facilities stay in that community.
So that's the how, that's how we do it. We do it by making sure that our nurse practitioners, our nurses, our doctors, our physician assistants, and even our medical care providers as far as the ones who actually may build the clinics and facilities, that they're incentivized to actually stay there. That they feel appreciated and know that Virginia state is thankful that they are in these rural areas and communities. Oftentimes, people who get their degrees in nursing or any type of medical degree, they may come from those communities and want to practice at home, but they just can't because they can't afford to be at home with the student debt that they may have. Or the compensation may not be enough, on top of their student debt, to both work and live there, which is why they may move out of that area.
A recent Roanoke College poll found the most important issues to Virginia voters are the economy (including jobs and inflation); abortion; and gun policies. What are your positions on, or approaches to, these issues?
Well, as far as the economy is concerned, I think all three of my top priorities — medical care access and affordability, housing and education — those are all economic, right? If you can afford to go to the doctor, or if you can afford your prescriptions, that's obviously economical, right? If you can afford the housing you live in or if you have housing available to you should you find yourself needing housing, such as emergency shelter and particularly for families with kids, that's economic, right? Those are all economic, right? And then education. Again, on my website, I highlight specifically early childhood education, so prior to pre-K, and later on as far as higher education so college or trade schools.
On the lower end, if you're a family and you want to work, you need to know that there's early childhood education, such as daycare available to you and that is affordable. And I can just say, having a two-year-old, that was something that my wife and I have faced over the past couple of years. So I'm personally in tune with, you know, the options available as well as the affordability. So we want to make sure that parents who want to work do have a place that their children can go, but that it's also affordable for them to be there. It's not even subsidized, because sometimes that's also an option. So that helps the economy overall, if more parents can work.
And then on the back end, as far as college, we definitely want to make sure more people who want to go have the ability to go because it's affordable and available to them. Whether it's reducing the price of higher education, even trade schools, for example, Virginia Western, for example, local community colleges, which I went to. Making sure that those costs stay down, but those who attend may be public colleges helped me get those costs down significantly as well as possible. That's a future economic plan. But that's something that we in the state of Virginia could do to make our state stand out among other states, by strengthening our education system on the backend and on the front end.
As far as abortion is concerned, a woman's right to access. I don't have that as one of my top priorities. However, I'm all for families and women having the right to make difficult decisions that they think are necessary or that their doctor thinks is necessary for them medically. I would never vote for anything that rolls back any families’ or a woman's access to any procedure such as abortion. I also would just feel personally that, yes, I'm talking about medical care access in terms of clinics and doctors and nurses, but access is access, right? I’m for all access to medical care and procedures. And hopefully, as a Democrat, I can work to maintain Virginia’s status so far as not having anything being legislatively enacted to take away women's and family's rights to abortion thus far.
Then with regards to guns, I think it's important for anybody who reads or hears this interview, if you will, to note that Democrats own guns too, right? I have friends who own guns who would never vote Republican, period. I don't personally own a gun. But I believe you have a right to own a gun legally. But that doesn't mean you should have a right to own every type of gun. As a veteran, the first gun I ever shot was the M16 in basic training. And there's the civilian equivalent of that gun which is called the AR15, which has been the gun of choice in multiple mass shootings across the country. I don't think, even if it is a civilian version, any type of military weapon should not be available to civilians, period, especially an assault rifle style weapon. As a veteran, those types of weapons should not be available to you, period. So I would be in favor of any legislation that can restrict those types of weapons, which used to be [the case]. There was a 10-year ban that recently lapsed, and I think that type of ban should come back into place even if it is in just the state of Virginia.
Do I believe in legislation that could potentially track who's buying what guns and what type of guns they're buying? Yes. Do I believe that there should be background checks for who's buying guns? Yes. Especially, at least a statewide system. Do I believe that there should be some type of gun amount limit on how many guns you can purchase within an X amount of time frame? I don't have necessarily an opinion on that, per se, but I'm open to that. I'm all for people who want to own guns to hunt, who want to own personal handguns for home defense. And in some cases, even people who shoot for sport. Outside of that, I think there should be some type of limitations on guns. And I think even gun owners can agree with that. Because for those who do own guns, they probably feel that their rights are being threatened by people who shouldn't have them and perform horrific acts with them.
Rather than ask why voters should choose you over your primary opponents, we’re going to ask you to give a specific compliment to each of your opponents.
That’s a good question. I can't deny the fact that speaking with Luke Priddy and getting to know him over these past couple of months, he definitely, legislatively, knows the technical ins and outs of how everything works at the state level, being [Senator] John Edwards’s chief of staff. In fact, when I speak to him, I'm just blown away by how much technical jargon he does know. Sometimes he loses me with it. But I respect that, because it’s that type of knowledge that I would have to know if I'm elected as a legislator, so Luke has that. Luke has that actual direct state legislative knowledge, the technical ins and outs of how things work, you know, how things are passed, what subsection of this says that. That I can respect and appreciate. If I am elected as the candidate, I hope to maybe lean on him for help with those matters. Well, hey, what does this mean? How do you do this?
As far as Trish White-Boyd goes, you know, she has been on Roanoke City Council for the past, I believe, five years. So I don't want to take that away from her. I mean, as a Roanoke City resident, she's been a councilwoman in my city for five years. There's something to be said about that, as far as being a representative in my hometown. So I think just her having that hometown legislative experience is important. And I respect that. I respect that.
Why are you choosing your first bid for elected office to be this relatively high-profile position, and why should voters support you given your lack of political experience?
That's a great question. You're exactly right. This is my first election bid, and it is kind of a big bid, if you will. First, it was the first opportunity that opened up, just to start there. Secondly, I feel like with this opportunity, I can have a bigger impact on more people. Not just Senate District 4, but the whole state. And I chose to jump in, again, as I may have mentioned to you prior, I didn't look at who was going to run or who may have already jumped in. I jumped in because I felt like I can make a difference with my lack of experience politically.
But with my experience of the things that I've been through in my life, and the situations, the environments I've been in, the people I've met, it's those experiences that I hope to carry with me to the legislature. And I look at my political naïveté, if you will, as a plus. Because it means to me personally that I'm willing to learn all that I can. And I don't have any political baggage on me. I'm willing to speak to whoever, even Republicans, independents, libertarians. It doesn't matter to me. What do you have to say, what do you have to offer? Where can we talk, where can we agree? Especially voters who may lean to the right, are Republican or more conservative, I hope they can see me and say, yes, he's running as a Democrat. But he's not an incumbent. And he is willing to listen. And I have listened to several voters who don't agree with me politically, but they still talk to me. And they see that I'm sincere about me willing to listen to them, hear what they have to say. And they listen to me because I hope that they will listen to me if I can give them the respect of listening to them.
So, no, I don't have the political baggage. No, I don't have the political experience. But I do have a lot of life experiences that are very unique, but I think they may be unique, as far as from a political background of what gets politicians to where they are. But they're more relatable to most people, if you will. Even the fact of recently, you know, going through job changes. You know, if you're unhappy with your job, get another job and stay there and hopefully find what you are looking for, which is what's going on in my life currently.
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