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.
White-Boyd, 60, is the director of Blue Ridge Senior Services, an in-home caregiving business. A resident of Roanoke’s Roundhill neighborhood, White-Boyd was elected to Roanoke City Council in 2020 and previously served as vice mayor.
Interviews have been edited lightly for length and clarity.
Why do you want to represent residents of the Roanoke and New River valleys in the state Senate?
Being a resident of this area for almost 40 years, I really feel like I have a grasp of some of the issues and some of the things that concern our residents. And I think we need that representation in Southwest Virginia.
One of the reasons that Mr. Bill Bestpitch, former [Roanoke City] Council member endorsed me in a primary, Bill said that he was really excited because we would finally have somebody in this area that has local government experience. Because sometimes they forget what we need here, as a part of local government. He was saying it just matters having someone in the Senate or going to Richmond who has worked with local government so that they can understand their needs better and make sure that we advocate for those needs here, not just in Roanoke but throughout Southwest Virginia.
I've been campaigning and talking to residents in Christiansburg, Blacksburg and Elliston, you know. Their needs are different than our needs here in Roanoke City. That's why I'm glad that we have the opportunity to go out and talk to them, because a lot of them are farmers, and they just don't feel like their needs have been met. So having campaigned and talked to the residents, I feel like I have an understanding of what some of the needs are and that I would be equipped to address them.
Please give a specific example of how your experience would make you an effective leader in the Senate.
Just having been in government and having to work with my colleagues on Council, because we don't always agree. And when you get to Richmond, you're going to have a lot of different opinions, you’re going to have a lot of different ideas in what people want to do. And I have learned how to work with my colleagues across the aisles.
You know, everybody assumes that Roanoke City is all Democratic. That is not the case. You know, you may have Republicans and independents. And there's only seven of us [on Council], and we have to learn how to work together to accomplish our goals and to make sure that we're doing things that will benefit our residents and we're on the same page. We don't always totally agree, but we have to get to a point where we can agree on some of the things that matter so that we can get the votes that we need in order to implement things that are important to our residents and to this area.
So I think my experience on Roanoke City Council, my experience as a small business owner, almost 18 years I've had my own business. It was, you know, roughly 30 or 40 employees. You know, it’s been more before Covid. But that has taught me a lot about small businesses, what they need. There are a combination of things. Being on City Council, number one, having served as Vice Mayor, number two, and being a small business owner myself, and being a mother, a wife, grandmother. You know, I'm just like a regular family person. So I understand families and some of their needs.
To follow up, any specific example within that — either as a small business owner or on Council — that you think translates to being an effective leader in the Senate?
Well, I don't mind making tough decisions. I have made some decisions that have not been favorable, as far as what the community may view as being favorable. But it has been something that is required or is much needed in the city. And sometimes you have to do the things that are best for the city. And they may not be popular decisions, but I know that I've had to make some really tough decisions and people agree that I am always trying to make the best decisions or the right decisions and sometimes that means making unpopular decisions.
So I think that I am a leader in the community. I don't hesitate to do what I think is right. I feel like I step out front, even with the Henrietta Lacks and the Hidden in Plain Site projects. Those were not done as a member of Roanoke City Council. Those were done as Trish White-Boyd, a member of the community who saw something that I thought would be beneficial, and I stepped out and I pulled that together. So I feel like I am an effective leader. I feel like people will work with me. People have worked with me, and I think that they will continue to work with me when I'm in Richmond because I just know how to sit, talk, communicate and get results.
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?
I think I want to make sure that I get our teachers compensated properly. I know that Roanoke City does well and we pay our teachers well. It hasn't always been that way. But it was a process, and when Dr. [Verletta] White, [superintendent of Roanoke City Public Schools], came to Council, we all had those discussions. And I think they have gotten our teachers pretty competitive. But throughout the state, that is not the case, and education is really key. It is just so important.
I met with a couple of ladies — the president and vice president from the Roanoke County Education Association — and they were concerned because they are losing their teachers in Roanoke County to Roanoke City. And it doesn't have to be a huge difference in pay. Just the smallest amount of pay difference is important to people because they're trying to raise their families and they're trying to make a living. And when I talked to them and I looked at the scale and looked at where we ranked, Virginia in 2022 was ranking about 37th in the U.S. That is not good. The last one I saw not long ago was 2023 and said 24th. So, some progress. But that's important to me, and I certainly want to see if we can work with my colleagues in the Senate and caucus with the other folks who are interested in education and see if we can’t produce some sort of legislation that would require the state to have a minimum teacher salary.
I think that we would have to do a study, just like the city manager did for our employees. You have to do compensation studies to make sure you're in the right place. You know, you have the right numbers, and that these are the numbers that will work for the state, but I think it has to be done. We have to compensate our teachers. We cannot let them, you know, choose other professions or leave or go other places.
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, I will do everything in my power to protect women's rights. Not saying you are pro or against abortion, I just feel like that is not something that legislators should have a hand in. I don't think that they should be making those decisions for women. I think women can make those decisions with their husbands, their families, their spouse, whoever. I think those decisions should be made by that woman.
I just think with Roe v. Wade being reversed and then the Dobbs decision putting that in the hands of the states, I just think that we're in jeopardy of losing those rights. I just don't think that we have a governor that would hesitate if he had the right amount of support, if he had the Senate, he had the [House of] Delegates that would support that, I don't think he would hesitate to strip us of those rights. And that concerns a lot of people, not just women, men, it concerns a lot of people. That is important, and I would certainly fight with every being in my body to protect those rights. We do not want to end up like Tennessee or North Carolina. I don't think that that is what Virginians want, and I certainly don't think that's what would be in the best interest of us. Because then you would look at it being a health crisis. Because, you know, abortions existed and if they are illegal and people want them, they will figure out a way to do it. And I think that the women who are well enough off to fly to another state or country to do that, will, but then those that cannot will suffer. You know, we will have a serious health crisis and I do not want that. So there are a number of reasons to object to any legislation that would prohibit abortion or that would impede women's rights.
[On guns], I cannot imagine who would not want commonsense gun laws. Even with the legislation that was put forth to restrict semiautomatic weapons or assault rifles to 21 years of age, you know, that was knocked down. I mean, you know, 18-year-olds should not be able to go and purchase assault rifles. I mean, it's illegal for them to even purchase alcohol but they can purchase an assault rifle. We have made some progress with gun laws, but there are things that we can still do, like making sure that they have that 24-hour waiting period before they can purchase a handgun. I mean, I know of a situation where that saved somebody's life from committing suicide, you know, forcing them to wait. And so that sort of legislation is in place. I want to make sure that it continues and that we continue to look at options for our local government, you know, because sometimes if there's things that we want to do, but because of the Dillon Rule, we cannot. There are things that we can implement at the state level to help protect our residents and to make sure that guns are in the right hands and that our residents are safe because right now our kids are not comfortable in school because they don't know when somebody might come in with an assault rifle and shoot their school. Can you imagine trying to learn and trying to educate yourself and thinking in the back of your head you don't know if some crazy gun person might come in or somebody carrying an assault rifle might come in and start shooting at the students and the teachers? I think that's a terrible situation that we're in.
I think that our [police] chief here locally has tried to do some things, but there are some things that impede him at the state level. And I think we just need to give our police officers and the chief of police the tools that they need to to combat it. And we really try here in Roanoke City, but, you know, gun violence is going to take a while for us to tackle that. We have the Gun Violence Prevention Commission. A lot of cities don't in the state. So if we can get some legislation in place that is generic across the board that will protect our residents from gun owners who should not be allowed to carry them, you know, whether it's a mental condition or prior history. I think we just have to go a little bit further because we did get in place some gun laws that did help, but we just need to go a little bit further.
[On the economy], number one is making sure that our state Economic Development [Partnership] pays a little bit more attention to Southwest Virginia. The Secretary of Commerce, I think, came down for the first time in years a few years ago, she was over at Carilion and I got a chance to meet her. And I said to her, I'm so glad you're here because we've had a very difficult time getting our state economic development involved. I had given some plans to our city manager about bringing in battery plants for EVs [electric vehicles]. You know, there were opportunities for us to look at places that were looking to establish plants. And we had a plan that we thought would work really well because we're right on [Interstate] 81. And, you know, there's a lot of Teslas being sold. We looked at a Tesla service center.
This is a really good example, Bob [Cowell, Roanoke city manager], had his Economic Development Department communicate with the corporate office, which was in the U.K., and we never got a response. It was hard to communicate, but we thought, you know, if they're going to be opening Tesla service centers, Roanoke would be a perfect place because we're right here in the middle, I mean, three hours from from D.C., you know, a couple hours from Raleigh, and we're right here on 81. We worked with a plan to show them that this would be a viable location. Well, we just did not have the kind of clout or the kind of power to get the attention for them to even take a look at our plan and to take a look at this area. But our state would have. And we sent something to them saying, Hey, can you take a look at this? It was really not the kind of response that we thought we would get. They were very unresponsive, actually. And things like that I think are important to a community like ours, Southwest Virginia. It is not like Richmond or Raleigh where people automatically gravitate to. Southwest Virginia has to really work for the businesses that we bring in. And I think having someone in the state Senate from Southwest Virginia who has been in local government, who understands, might be an added benefit.
And being a small business owner myself, I completely understand having to work through Covid. I mean, I am what they call essential. My whole staff was an essential worker. And so we were pretty much open the whole time. We never closed because we couldn't close and there were a lot of businesses who could not. And so I understand what small businesses went through during Covid, I understand what it takes to get us back to where we need to be.
So my perspective would be from not only just growing the economy and making sure that we have businesses that are going to attract other businesses, you know, like the big corporations of whatever, but also supplying the needs of small businesses. So I would be considering and looking at legislation that would benefit us as a whole in Southwest Virginia and making sure that our state Economic Development [Partnership] was not just focused on one area or few areas of the state, that we bring them back out to Southwest Virginia. Some of that is happening here lately, but to make sure that that continues, because that is important, that we continue to grow our economy out here. And it's going to be new jobs, green jobs. You know, coal is not here. It's going to be the farmers, it's going to be the biotech that we are focusing on with Carilion and manufacturing like the EV batteries that I mentioned earlier. Those types of businesses, they are out there, that segment is booming, and we want to be a part of that here in Southwest Virginia.
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.
I will say, I don't really know DA Pierce. I honestly don't know him. I've only met him twice and I only heard him speak, but I think he is a very friendly person. He's always smiling every time I see him, you know, he always greets me. But I don't know. Now I have to start making up stuff now because I don't really know what to say about him.
Luke, I do know. You know, Luke, he's a very ambitious person. And he really tries hard, you know, to make sure that he fits in. On Council, he tries to make sure that he is asking the right questions. He's always tried to be helpful and I thought he would be a good asset on Council. He was on the Democratic ticket, and I've worked really, really hard to get him elected, because a lot of people really didn't know him. And when I talked about the ticket, I had to explain to them that he understands most of the Democratic ideals and that I am a Democratic member of Council and he would also be a Democratic member of Council, and that I could very easily work with him to try to get some things done and I found that to be true.
What have you spearheaded on Roanoke City Council that has improved residents’ lives, and why should that inspire voters to support you?
Well, I can think of a couple of things. One of the things that I did spearhead was changing the [municipal] election date, from May to November. And I felt like that was important when I became a member of Council, because I felt like May was a hidden election. You would have voter turnout around 9,000, 10,000. That 9,000 or 10,000 people decided who ran your city. And I just thought there needed to be more voter participation, because City Council makes a lot of decisions that impact you. You know, they impact your police department, they select your city manager, you know, they determine how your schools are funded, they select the school board. They just have a lot of input in what happens in your city, and I thought that it should be more than 9,000 residents who chose those people to make those very key, important decisions. And I talked to members of the community. I caucused with my colleagues on Council, and we were able to get that done. And that's why we now vote in November for City Council as opposed to May.
Even working with the [Equity and Empowerment Advisory Board], I did not spearhead that, but the mayor gave me the opportunity to be the first person to serve as chair. And that was a wonderful opportunity because what we did in those five subcommittees really had an impact on our residents. Service delivery [a subcommittee], one of the things that they came up with was the city website, because people could not navigate it. And one of the things that came out of that subcommittee was how to make that website better so that people could find our services, people could find programs and things that would benefit the city. So that was really important to me to have served on the EEAB and to work with all of those subcommittees to make progress and to improve the lives of residents.
I did not spearhead any of the programs, but I did put together a forum for homelessness, so that I could bring in the community as a whole to see what we're doing. Because a lot of people in their minds think that the city is not doing enough to reduce homelessness or to eradicate it overall. And that was not true. I coordinated an event at a church, Oakland Baptist Church, with members of the community to come in and take a look. And people said, you know, I'm really glad you did this, because now we understand why there are issues with homelessness, why homelessness even exists, and what is being done, and now I see how I can help or what we can do as a church. It was several churches that said, you know, now we can work with this church because I understand that they provided meals on certain days in this area. We will also consider opening up our church when it's really cold because it got really, really cold this past winter, and we were trying to find places that would open up for our homeless friends to bring them into shelter. The churches said, Hey, we can do that. So I thought putting together that forum in a broader community was instrumental and people really thanked me for doing that. So those are just some of the small things that I've done that I think have had a major impact.
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