Voters in the 5th District Democratic primary June 23 will have a packed field of candidates to pick from amid an unusual election.
As the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, Roger Dean Huffstetler, John Lesinski, Claire Russo and Dr. Cameron Webb were faced with the unprecedented challenge of campaigning with very limited human contact.
Door-knocking was replaced with texts and phone calls, and candidate forums were relegated to digital platforms. Nevertheless, in recent interviews with The Daily Progress, each candidate said they think potential voters are still engaged with the process and all highlighted the success of their voter outreach efforts.
Whoever wins the primary will face off against Bob Good, a former Liberty University athletics official who won the Republican nomination this past weekend over Rep. Denver Riggleman, of Nelson County.
Roger Dean Huffstetler
Huffstetler is a Charlottesville entrepreneur who served in Afghanistan and Iraq as a Marine and later received an MBA from the Harvard School of Business.
A familiar face to the 5th District, Huffstetler ran for the district’s Democratic nomination in 2018, losing to Leslie Cockburn, who was beaten in the general election by Riggleman. Huffstetler led the Democratic field in donations before the caucuses in April 2018, a trend that continued this election with Huffstetler raising nearly $1 million ahead of the primary.
Huffstetler’s campaign has highlighted the need for access to high-quality and affordable health care, infrastructure improvement and increasing educational and economic opportunities within the district.
“I’ve been afforded a lot of privileges and opportunities during my life, and we need to make sure all Americans and residents of the 5th District have access opportunities that will better their lives,” he said. “As the pandemic winds down, we will no doubt go through some hard times and we need to make sure we’re prepared.”
In light of recent global protests against police brutality and systemic racism, Huffstetler said he is in favor of communities redirecting funding from police departments to other community services, such as social work.
“The police can’t continue to be the first line of defense against the sum of all problems in our communities,” he said. “There’s just way too much responsibility when there needs to be more options tailored to the situations community members find themselves in.”
Over the course of his two campaigns for the seat, Huffstetler said he’s come to know the massive district and its mixture of rural and urbans communities. The 5th District needs a strong candidate who can appeal to right-leaning and undecided voters, something Huffstetler said he can fulfill.
“I’ve lived the American Dream, and my job in public service is to try and bridge these two communities — the right and the left,” he said. “I believe in my heart that I give us the best shot at turning this district blue.”
Huffstetler has been endorsed by Charlottesville City Councilor Heather Hill and Albemarle County Commonwealth’s Attorney Jim Hingeley, among others. Hufftstetler said his many endorsements indicate his strength as a unifying candidate.
Lesinski, a Marine veteran and Rappahannock resident, believes his service in various local government and state-appointed positions has prepared him well for Congress.
Lesinski served in the Marines Corps and then settled in Virginia, where he has now lived for 35 years. In addition to his work in commercial real estate, he previously was elected to the majority Republican Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors and School Board.
“I really think that experience and the ability to work across the aisle are important in this election,” he said. “I am the only candidate here who has served in local office, and twice at that, to bodies where I was the only Democrat.”
As someone with ample leadership and business experience, Lesinski said he sees himself as well-situated to lead the district through what he sees as a difficult crossroads.
According to Lesinski, a chief issue facing the district is climate change, a widespread and multifaceted problem that he said affects every aspect of life in the district. Renewable energy and creating better infrastructure will benefit the district in the long term, he said.
However, as the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light inequities in society, Lesinski said health care has become a more significant issue.
“Health care is, of course, on everyone’s minds right now, as a lack of access to affordable health services has impacted residents like never before,” he said. “It’s clear that the district needs a strong leader who will fight for the right to health care.”
The pandemic and protests spurred by police-involved deaths of African Americans across the country have served to further highlight injustices within the United States, Lesinski said.
“The issues we’re seeing now cut across a lot of different spectrums: income inequality, gender inequality and racial inequality,” he said. “There are a lot of things we as a society should do to address these issues and among them is limiting the legal protection for police officers who kill people on the job.”
Russo sees public service as a calling and something she said she has consistently sought to do.
Also a veteran of the Marine Corps, Russo led counterinsurgency efforts in the Middle East. She sees herself as part of a wave of women veterans, such as Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th, who have won House seats across the country.
“Being a veteran and someone who has been willing to lay down my life for the people of this nation is something that establishes trust and helps folks agree to sit down to have conversations,” Russo said. “For years I have been in the trenches doing the hard work of actually making changes in our bureaucracy.”
Russo has been open in campaign advertisements about a sexual assault committed against her in 2004 by a superior officer. After the Marine Corps declined to press charges, Russo brought the case to the attention of the San Diego district attorney, and eventually the man was dishonorably discharged and sentenced to three years in prison.
“The story of my assault and how I fought and broke down the door to change shows my tenacity and willingness to fight for what’s right,” she said. “The status quo is no longer acceptable.”
As with many Democratic candidates across the U.S., Russo said she sees health care as a human right and believes there should be a public option for Americans.
With the pandemic still in full swing and many businesses and localities struggling financially, Russo said ensuring economic recovery is a key issue.
“We have to take the lessons from 2008 and make sure we’re bailing out Main Street, not Wall Street, and we should be using this time to expand unemployment benefits, paid leave and preparing ourselves to weather a crisis like this in the future,” she said.
Russo said she supports demilitarizing the police, whose equipment and demeanor, she said, does not encourage healthy conversation.
Citing her experience leading Marines in Afghanistan and Iraq, Russo said she would direct those under her command to remove their helmets and don scarves when talking to locals in an effort to deescalate and build trust.
“We were tasked with winning hearts and minds,” Russo said. “Police can’t be meeting protesters with tear gas and batons and expect them to talk with them.”
Dr. Cameron Webb
As the director of health policy and equity at the University of Virginia, Webb said he has been particularly busy over the last few months.
Webb said his work involves overseeing a research lab that examines access to health care, including how Medicaid functions, though the pandemic has affected that work.
In addition to campaigning and holding regular digital town halls, the physician has been assisting with COVID-19 care, which he said has given him new insight into systemic issues. Webb’s more recent efforts have been to increase testing in communities of color.
“There are a number of inequities in health care and there have been more COVID-19 cases in Latinx communities and more deaths in black communities,” he said. “By expanding accessible and free testing to these communities, hopefully we can help end those trends.”
Webb’s campaign also attracted the attention of Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., who recently endorsed him.
Webb said he has long been interested in how policy and health care collide, an interest that helped earn him a White House fellowship that spanned the end of Barack Obama’s administration and the beginning of Donald Trump’s tenure.
In addition to health care, Webb said the biggest issues facing the 5th District are climate change and social mobility, the latter of which has been exacerbated by the pandemic, he said.
“The disparities we’re seeing in terms of economic mobility are only going to widen as the pandemic affects every aspect of our lives,” he said. “But another facet is the need to ensure that schools are well resourced; if all children aren’t getting access to a high-quality education, then these disparities will further widen.”
The current civil unrest prompted by the deaths of several black Americans at the hands of police is not solely a police issue, Webb said.
“I think the circumstances that we’ve seen have made it abundantly clear that we need reform,” he said. “Frankly, we need reform throughout — sentencing, corrections, adjudication, reentry — in all those areas, there are racial disparities.”
Webb said he is uniquely qualified to represent the district given the intersection of racial and health inequalities facing the nation right now.
“I’m able to speak on issues of racial injustice and health care in a way that is meaningful and substantive,” he said. “I’m a healer by vocation, and healing is precisely what we need right now.”