The Rambler is pleased to present candidate interviews with those running for state Senate District 4, which encompasses all of Roanoke City and Salem City, as well as parts of Roanoke County and Montgomery County.
Sen. David Suetterlein is the Republican nominee, and Roanoke City Councilwoman Trish White-Boyd is the Democratic nominee. Early voting is underway in the Nov. 7 general election, whose outcome will determine all 140 seats in the Virginia General Assembly.
Suetterlein, 38, was elected to the Virginia Senate in 2015 and previously served as legislative director for former state senator Ralph Smith. He is a real estate agent with MKB, REALTORS and a resident of Roanoke County.
Interviews have been edited lightly for length and clarity.
Why are you the best person to represent the Roanoke region in the state Senate?
The Roanoke Valley has two members of the Virginia Senate. Fairfax County alone has several more. And it's very important that the Roanoke Valley have strong leadership in the Senate. When I ran the first time, I promised that it'd be obvious that I was conservative legislator, but that I’d be able to work with a wide variety of other legislators to get things done for the valley. And during the last eight years, that's been made evident by being able to get the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) that’s going to open in Salem next week, authorized during a Democratic administration — a Democratic administration that was previously opposed to it. Able to get support for things like Fralin Biomedical [Research Institute] and also for the new labs that are coming to Roanoke and Christiansburg. So it's incredibly important that we have an effective legislator in there. And at the same time, I think it's important that Virginia as a whole have independent-minded legislators, which, during the last eight years, I've very much been a conservative, but I've been willing to work with different folks and been willing to step out in leadership roles when other people might be less comfortable.
You sort of touched on this in the first answer, but tell me about a specific instance when you worked with members of the opposite political party to get something done.
In the Senate, I’ve passed four dozen bills where we’ve either had a Democratic Senate or Democratic governor or in some cases everything was Democratic. And so every bill that I've ever gotten passed, I was able to do with Democratic support. And during the Democratic trifecta in the last two years, I was able to get 14 bills through. I've also worked with the Democratic administrations to get by on our effort to get the NICU in Salem authorized, also to create an adoption leave benefit for every state employee whenever they adopt a child. If they or their spouse, they adopt a child, it'd be the same as if they or their spouse had a natural live birth. And that was something that there was some resistance to, to begin with. But I was happy I was able to persuade the administration to do that. And Governor [Ralph] Northam actually ended up putting it in as an executive order and then the next year, we codified it, so that it will stay permanently.
I was happy to work with Delegate [Sam] Rasoul to get the water testing legislation through the Senate agriculture committee. That legislation resulted in the actual testing that then resulted in us finding PFAS [so-called forever chemicals] in the water, and it’s being addressed. I was happy to work with Senator [Mamie] Locke, a senior Democrat from Hampton, to crack down on predatory lending. The Democratic leadership, especially the Democratic [majority] leader, Senator [Dick] Saslaw, strongly supported the payday lending industry. As did Senator [David] Marsden and Lynwood Lewis, and so the industry thought they would be able to continue what I consider very exploitative practices. But because Senator [John] Cosgrove, Senator [Jill Holtzman] Vogel and myself worked with Senator Locke to get the bill through at the several key points — which we then also had some resistance from Governor Northam, too, in trying to delay the enactment of the crackdown — we were able to do that.
About 15% of residents in Senate District 4 are Black. Why should Black voters, in particular, support you?
At no time have I ever tried to campaign on racial grounds. I seek to campaign on broad issues that will appeal to citizens from a wide variety of backgrounds and economic status, and then actually implement those things in the General Assembly.
I've actually lowered taxes by enhancing the standard deduction, which 85 percent of taxpayers use to pay their income tax. I’ve worked to eliminate the state grocery tax and supported significant tax relief for small businesses. I have also worked for fair electric rates and I'm the only Republican state Senate candidate in the entire Commonwealth endorsed by Clean Virginia. So Clean Virginia, the Virginia Realtors and the Farm Bureau, to my knowledge, are the only three organizations that have endorsed candidates from both parties in this [election cycle] and they've all endorsed me.
A recent statewide poll identified Virginia public school policies as a major factor in voters’ decision this year. What policies related to public schools do you think either need to be changed or prevented from being changed?
We made success in recent years in public education in Virginia in emphasizing more skills than standardized testing. That's something that we should continue, to focus more on skills acquisition than standardized testing as a primary focus. We've also had success in expanding career and technical education, both here in the Roanoke Valley … in public school divisions and also at the state level, making it easier to get to the classes that will get you the credentials for various professions and advancement in those professions. That's something else that needs to continue and continue to be expanded.
And we eliminated Governor Tim Kaine's — which just the fact that it’s Governor Tim Kaine tells you how long ago it was — support services cap, which is something that prevented the Commonwealth from financially supporting various positions in the school that are important to help our students, especially instruction assistance. Basically, the second teacher in the room, they're not the teacher but they’re an instructional aide. And they're especially important in helping kids who are on the margins academically advancing so they get where they need to. I was happy we were able to make progress on eliminating the support services cap. That's something else that should continue. Those are things that I think we should be doing.
In the state Senate, what policies would you advocate to protect trans and non-binary youth?
Delegate [Marcus] Simon’s legislation creating a statewide model policy did not help young people. I don't think it helped anyone other than him in his own Democratic primary situation. For years, there's been transgender kids that had loving teachers that would seek ways to help them and go through school with less challenges. Foisting votes into every school board basically just created, you know, hot button takes and debates, sometimes when there wasn't even a child involved. And it wasn't actually designed to do it. I opposed Del. Simon’s legislation at the time for that reason.
What do you believe Virginia’s laws should be when it comes to regulating abortion? Why?
I support Governor [Glenn] Youngkin’s 15-week proposal that includes exceptions for rape and incest and life of the mother. I also do not believe that state tax dollars should be used for abortions. I strongly opposed Governor Northam’s legislation seeking to basically end any limits on abortion in the Commonwealth.
Abortions are a tragedy, and I really think that we need to make sure that we support women so that the idea that it’s a preferable choice is a lot less likely. And in the Senate, I have supported increased contraceptives access. I brought forward legislation on the subject. I supported Senator [Jennifer] Boysko’s bill expanding access … and when Senator [Amanda] Chase attacked it, I stood up and said very clearly as a pro-life person, This is the sort of thing we should be doing. And then she ended up reversing her position and voted for the bill, which is good. I give her credit for doing the right thing in the end. Also, I supported Senator [Ghazala] Hashmi’s contraceptive insurance bill this year.
I also believe Family Life Education has an important role to play. I support the current law that allows parents to opt their children out. But I stood against Delegate [David] LaRock’s efforts to gut Family Life Education in the Commonwealth. Because I believe that having more informed young people will reduce the likelihood of abortions in the future.
And then I also worked very hard for the neonatal intensive care unit, for many reasons, including supporting women facing potentially very difficult pregnancies know that those services will be available where they plan to deliver. LewisGale in Salem currently averages more than 1,000 deliveries a year. So that's why it was so important we get that there as well.
I think some of the latest statistics [in Virginia] show about 98% of abortions take place 15 weeks or before. So why not be more strict?
I think it’s so important that we increase contraceptive access … family life education and let women know there will be support, who have their babies, so that women will be a lot less likely to have an abortion at all. Fifteen weeks was Governor Youngkin’s proposal … and I think there are some Democrats that agree with it. But elected Democrats have very much rallied around a position of unlimited abortion, last year in the Senate passing a constitutional amendment that would end the current limits on abortion.
One more follow-up on this subject. So if at 16 weeks pregnancy, it's discovered the baby's not going to make it, what would you say to situations like that?
Senator [Siobhan] Dunnavant, our only physician in the General Assembly, has talked about that a lot. And any legislation that were to pass, she would be highly involved in the crafting of it in the Senate Education and Health Committee. Senator [Stephen] Newman was previously the most senior Republican on that committee. He's not running for reelection. And now Senator Dunnavant is the most senior Republican. She would be intimately involved in making sure that the legislation, or the law, would be very thoughtful from an obstetrician’s perspective.
Do you think the personal property (car) tax should be eliminated?
So I strongly support car tax relief. It's a completely local issue. So city councils, boards of supervisors, they get to decide, one, if they're going to implement it, and, two, what the rate would be. And then there's a third, they can even decide for older vehicles how they want to handle that. All those decisions are completely made at the local level. At the state level, I worked to get legislation through with Delegate Joe McNamara at the request of Roanoke County so that they would be able to provide rebates and relief. We were able to get that through.
The councilwoman [opponent Trish White-Boyd] has voted four times to implement the car tax in Roanoke City, was aware of the increasing [personal] property tax bills and during that time said something to the effect of, We should take this one-time windfall and use it. … Last week, she simultaneously claimed that she supported its elimination and that taking the windfall was a good idea because it allowed for infrastructure. And then she also claimed that she did not vote for it at any point. During her time on Council, it's increased 31 percent. ...
At no point in all my meetings with Roanoke City Council have they ever suggested that we should eliminate the car tax or that we should — they haven’t even mentioned the car tax once, period. They have told us several times that we should give them new taxing authority and, in fact, the only things on Council the Councilman [White-Boyd] has done related to taxes are maintain, increase and introduce new ones, like the new bag tax that Roanoke City has.
You support Virginia's right to work law, which allows workers in unions to not pay dues but still benefit, which critics say effectively weakens union power. How do weaker unions benefit working families and people?
Worker choice benefits working people. Workers should get to decide if they want to join a union or not and they should not be forced to join a union if they don’t want to. For decades, there was a consensus amongst Democrats and Republicans in Virginia to support that. I believe that's still the position of [U.S.] Senator Mark Warner and my former Senate colleague, Congresswoman [Jennifer] McClellan.
What policies have you advocated that are helping to mitigate climate change?
I serve on the Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee that gets to work on a lot of important issues related to clean air, clean water and energy generation in the Commonwealth.
I have worked very hard to expand clean energy options in the Commonwealth over intense opposition from the electric monopolies. Currently, there are three legal provisions in the code that make it a lot less likely for alternative energy options to be developed in the Commonwealth. One of them requires potential customers basically plan five years in advance. There's nowhere else in the entire country that we can find that requires more than one financial quarter. Virginia, though, has a timeline 20 times that length. Secondly, folks buying the alternative energy, they need to be buying five megawatts or more, which is a significant amount of electricity. And then third, the most prohibitive of all the monopolistic provisions, is that you cannot offer them if the incumbent monopolies do, or are even considering doing it.
A few years ago, The Roanoke Times reported on an [Appalachian Power Co.] program that only had about 200 customers. And several people questioned how could that be profitable, for ApCo to have a product that only has 200 customers? The reason it was profitable was because — not in itself being profitable — but because it prevented competition and allowed the status quo to remain on everything else.
I've also worked on clean water issues in our rivers, with specific legislation for the Potomac and the James and locally worked with Delegate Rasoul for new water testing requirements and acquire testing requirements, which passed on a narrower vote than I would have liked, but I'm glad we got it through.
Back to the question—
I think we need to work significantly on clean energy. We should not have the monopolistic provisions that prevent that.
‘Clean energy’ can be used to describe some things that are still sort of fossil fuel related. I mean, do you think it is a problem that climate change is accelerating due to the burning of fossil fuels?
I think that the General Assembly needs to be very aware of changes to Virginia’s climate, changes in weather that have significant impacts on our citizens and needs to take actions to mitigate that on the infrastructure side, which has happened, needs to continue to happen.
But on the larger question of the environment, I think that we need to allow a greater alternative energy development. So the legislation that passed a few years ago, Virginia Clean Economy Act, was marketed as clean energy but it was really not about developing more clean energy. It was about developing more profits for Dominion [Energy]. And the wind provisions in it were horrific and there are multiple estimates that it’s going to be the most expensive electricity produced anywhere in the United States. I think instead we should allow actors in the free market to develop and sell clean energy to willing buyers.
What policies would you push for that will reduce crime, and what evidence exists to suggest those policies will do so?
I support enhancing the funding for law enforcement so that there can be a greater presence and reduce the likelihood of crime occurring in the first place. I support reinstating the five-year mandatory minimum [sentence] for people that commit gun crimes. And I also support reinstating various policing laws that allow the police to stop people that are driving without headlights and things like that.
Since Virginia lowered the penalties for firearms we've seen, sadly, an explosion of gun violence in Roanoke City. We need to financially support law enforcement because it’s becoming increasingly difficult to hire, especially in Roanoke City.
The changes to the policing laws no longer allowing stops didn't make a lot of sense, has allowed several bad actors to continue, generally making citizens less safe just for law-abiding people who don't realize that their headlights or taillights are out.
What are you reading currently?
I’m currently reading through 1 Peter and a collection of C.S. Lewis essays.
The essay that I just read yesterday included how we should live now in the age of the atomic bomb. … So it's written post-World War II. It’s a long essay, but this section — if someone's familiar with any part of the essay they’d be most familiar with — is, he talks about, now that you and I are aware that atomic bombs exist and there's tensions between countries, how should we change living our lives?
He lays out the case that you were destined to die long before the atomic bomb was developed. Many of us very likely have highly unpleasant deaths separate from the atomic bomb. And we need to decide how we should live if the atomic bomb were to be dropped on us today. Basically, if your life were to end today, how would you want to be living when that happens?
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