Election Q&A: State Senate Race
Published 11:13 am Friday, October 13, 2023
Since 2017, Jennifer McClellan has served as the state senator for Virginia’s 9th district. During that time, the district included Charles City County, along with parts of Hanover County, Henrico County and the city of Richmond. But that was before redistricting. The 2023 elections are the first under Virginia’s newly redrawn maps and now, the district has shifted to parts of Central and Southside.
That includes Charlotte County, Halifax, Lunenburg, Mecklenburg, Nottoway and Pittsylvania counties, along with part of Prince Edward County and the city of Danville. And a relocated district means new candidates running for the seat.
Republican Frank Ruff is one of those candidates. He currently represents District 15 in the Virginia State Senate, a position he’s been repeatedly re-elected to since November 2000. But in redistricting, he was moved out of District 15 and now resides in the District 9 area. Prior to serving in the State Senate, he represented the 61st District in the Virginia House of Delegates.
His opponent in this year’s race is Democrat Trudy Berry. A former legal services specialist with the U.S. Air Force, this is Berry’s second attempt to run for political office. The Victoria resident ran in 2019 for the 61st District seat in the Virginia House, losing to Del. Tommy Wright.
Q. Let’s start with education. The physical condition of schools across the region is a problem. Prince Edward Elementary is a prime example, but definitely not the only one. Do you believe that the General Assembly has a role in fixing them? If so, how would you go about doing it?
Berry: The General Assembly must take an active role in maintaining our public school buildings. Education is one of the cornerstones of democracy, and our government must ensure that students have a clean, safe, and operable environment in which to learn.
Funding our public schools, from infrastructure to salaries, equipment, and educational programs cannot be left to municipalities alone because it places an undue burden on local taxpayers and creates disparities from locality to locality. I would call on the General Assembly to fairly tax large corporations doing business in the Commonwealth, earmark some of that revenue for public school infrastructure, and distribute it equitably throughout the Commonwealth.
Ruff: Traditionally, construction issues have been the responsibility of the county Board of Supervisors and the School Board. However, the cost to locals has grown beyond the fiscal ability of many rural counties. There have been various methods that have been attempted in the past. In earlier years, the Literary Fund was a viable option. This fund was established two hundred and fifty years ago. This was established as the recipient of state government fines. It worked well until towns and counties started creating matching local citations to match state laws. Therefore, those fines no longer go to the Fund but go to the locality.
Several years ago, my efforts were to restrict the use of the Literary Fund to only pay interest. Today, the cost of construction has exceeded that level. Delegate Edmunds was successful in getting legislation passed to add 1% to the sales tax for Halifax with a referendum of the voters; I added Mecklenburg to that. Since then, Danville, Pittsylvania and Gloucester have been successful. Delegate Edmunds attempted to add Prince Edward but that was caught up with a Senate bill that would have been statewide. The problem with that is that it would deepen the gap between the haves and have-nots. Consider those localities that draw retail sales from rural. As an example, Colonial Heights would do well at the expense of Petersburg, Dinwiddie, and Prince George.
This year, the state put a lump sum in the budget that counties can draw from. Additionally, with the casino tax proceeds, there will be additional funds available every year. If asked by the Prince Edward Board of Supervisors, I would support such legislation as I did for the Edmunds’ legislation.
Q. Beyond school construction, what is the Assembly’s role in helping counties with economic development? How can you help in this area?
Ruff: The state is very involved in economic development. The Virginia Economic Development Partnership is where the state gets involved. Leads come from two directions. Some come to the state saying what they want and VEDP suggests several locations. Others come up from the locality when a prospect contacts the locality. Then the locality, upon request, goes to VEDP to see what incentives are available.
Because the state has a difficult time staying abreast of changes around the state, they have encouraged counties to work regionally because potential employees would go across county lines. This has worked well in some cases, not as well in others. Prince Edward wasn’t happy being part of a group that included Mecklenburg and withdrew. My understanding is they are now setting up with some of the counties closer around them.
They are, however, part of the Growth and Opportunity Virginia (GoVA) that encompasses the three planning districts that span from Patrick County to Brunswick and north through Buckingham.
Berry: The General Assembly must also take an active role in the economic development of Virginia’s rural counties. They should be as aggressive in helping small business start-ups as they are in bringing large corporations, such as Amazon and Microsoft, to northern Virginia and larger cities. I would call on the General Assembly to 1) make sure they are fairly taxing Amazon, Microsoft, Walmart, etc., 2) increase public school funding to expand trades training, 3) include paid apprenticeships in the curricula, not just work-study, and 4) eliminate subminimum wages. Working people and higher wages contribute to higher tax revenue. Higher tax revenue helps fund economic development.
Q. We can’t ignore the controversy happening right now between two counties in this region. In the current budget, the Department of General Services placed language giving Prince Edward permission to run water lines into neighboring Nottoway County, providing water for the Nottoway Correctional Center, the Piedmont Geriatric Hospital and the Town of Burkeville. To be clear, Nottoway County neither requested nor wanted Prince Edward to run a water line. The Town of Crewe in Nottoway currently provides all three with water, and losing those contracts will seriously damage the town’s yearly revenue. The Town of Burkeville, however, did request Prince Edward’s help, as they want to expand and say Crewe can’t provide enough water for expansion. The state makes the same argument for the Correctional Center and Geriatric Hospital. As a funding request for this project could likely come for a vote in the Assembly, how would you handle it?
Berry: Municipal governments must be allowed a certain degree of autonomy, with citizen input, to operate their jurisdictions as they see best. Unless it is detrimental to the overall Commonwealth, it should be left to local citizens and their local governing boards to determine how their resources are used. One locality, under any authority, should not be allowed to arbitrarily interfere in the operation and revenue of another. If the current water supply will not be sufficient for the future needs of these three operations, then they should not expand beyond the current capacity. If this comes up for a vote in the General Assembly, I will vote to not allow the Department of General Services and Prince Edward County to undercut the authority of Nottoway County and the revenue of Crewe.
Ruff: My belief is that Crewe can not have their feet knocked out from under them. This process has been in limbo for too long. The Secretary of Finance understands much of the issues involved and is committed to a fair and reasonable solution. He has no interest in one county being left in the cold. He will not give the okay to proceed until he is satisfied. My belief is that Regional Water Authorities can work. Currently, Mecklenburg and Brunswick have one that seems to be working well. They have a representative Board of Directors.
Q. Let’s switch to another controversial topic. Since 2019, the Prince Edward Board of Supervisors has been seeking permission to implement a 1% sales tax. During that time, multiple other counties and cities in Virginia have been given permission by the Assembly to do the same, but Prince Edward’s request keeps dying before it even goes to a full floor vote. Would you support Prince Edward’s effort and agree to file this bill if elected? Why or why not?
Ruff: See my answer for Question #1
Berry: I am against sales taxes. Consumers should not pay sales tax on the money they spend to purchase an item or service from a business. Instead, the business should pay income tax on that money since it is income they receive from selling an item or service.
The General Assembly can give municipalities permission to establish a tax on business income. That being said, until we eliminate sales taxes altogether, since the General Assembly has given permission to other counties to establish a 1% sales tax, I would support this effort and file a bill if necessary.
Q. Gov. Youngkin has raised the concept of a 15-week abortion ban as a consensus he believes voters would support in Virginia. As this will likely come before the Assembly in next year’s session, where do you stand on the idea?
Ruff: This is an issue that there is no perfect solution that will please everyone. Personally, I am pro-life and have voted accordingly. There are those that want abortions available until the delivery room. The question, therefore, is the same as in every negotiation. Where can we agree between those two positions. Fifteen weeks with exceptions for rape, incest, health of the mother seems like a reasonable midpoint. No one gets everything they want, that is the goal of negotiations.
Berry: I am against all abortion bans. Abortion is healthcare. Healthcare is not only a human right, but it is also a personal decision. The General Assembly must stop its practice of playing bedroom politics – taking away our fundamental right to make our own personal decisions, whether it’s healthcare, marriage, or books. Abortion bans don’t affect only women and is the first step to banning all forms of contraceptives, including condoms. No one, especially General Assembly members, has the right to impose their personal and religious preferences on others.
Q. The original law that legalized marijuana in Virginia also created a pathway to legalized sales by 2024. But for that to happen, a market framework needs to be established, including how it would be regulated, taxed and how sellers would be licensed. Where do you feel we need to go from here, when it comes to legalized marijuana?
Berry: The General Assembly should regulate legalized marijuana for the health and safety of consumers, but not enact stricter regulations than for tobacco and alcohol. The state should not monopolize sales as they do with alcohol via the ABC stores. The market must be equitably open to those who wish to sell in a small business setting. ABC stores, Amazon, grocery stores, department stores, tobacco stores, and vaping stores should be prohibited from selling marijuana. Online sales should be prohibited. Licensing should not be stricter or more expensive than for tobacco and alcohol. Consumers should not pay sales tax. Businesses should pay income.
Ruff: I think Virginia should step from the process that began three years ago. It was drafted by members without guidance from the attorneys at Legislative Services, by those that were only focused on what they wanted. The draft was close to 300 pages that appeared on our desks less than one hour before they pushed for a vote. It was written with no input from law enforcement about what constituted ‘under the influence’. Likewise, the authors had no understanding of the underground market that currently exists. Therefore, legit merchants would have a difficult time to compete. Until these issues are addressed, I will vote to not move forward.