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'We can win': Democratic candidates in Virginia's 5th District say they still have a chance

Three candidates running for the Democratic nomination to represent Virginia’s 5th Congressional District addressed issues affecting voters in Amherst County on Thursday with laughter and cordial exchanges in stark contrast to the highly contentious battle playing out on the Republican side of the race.

Amherst resident Gloria Witt, Crozet resident Paul Riley and Danville resident Gary Terry spoke for an hour during a question-and-answer forum that drew more than people 50 to Second Stage Amherst. They are each looking to come out on top of a June 18 primary and achieve a feat no Democrat has done since former Rep. Tom Perriello of Charlottesville, who left office in January 2011: turning the red district blue.

Riley, a retired U.S. Army officer and defense contractor, said his unhappiness with recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions he called “injustices” and lack of effective legislating in Congress spurred him to run.

“It’s all about trying to one up each other on the other side and who has the sound bite to take to Fox News,” Riley said. “They are not interested in governance. We really need that now. We need to pivot back to the center. We need to work across the aisle if possible.”

Witt, president of the Amherst County branch of the NAACP, said she could no longer sit on the sidelines while “our rights and freedoms are under attack” with the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade and affirmative action. She said she is energized to get those disgusted with the current state of politics to vote.

“I just want to reach out to them and let them know democracy is on the ballot, and this is no time to sit it out, and you must vote to stand as a citizen of this country,” Witt said. “It’s voting time, so get disgusted enough to vote.”

Terry said he sees a lot of suffering — food and housing insecurities, children under stress — and he is concerned “our democracy is under attack and rights are being eroded.” He criticized comments from former President Donald Trump about terminating parts of the Constitution to restore him to office after the 2020 election and not supporting allies against Russia.

“And then you have his minions that would advocate for shutting the government down,” Terry said. “Those are not American values.”

Terry, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, said he took an oath to protect the country and democracy from all enemies, foreign and domestic.

Candidates each addressed an uphill battle in winning the district that has firmly leaned Republican for more than a decade. In the Republican primary June 18, Republican Rep. Bob Good is trying to stave off a challenge from the right from state Sen. John McGuire of Goochland, who has consistently accused Good of being disloyal to Trump in a race filled with finger-pointing and personal attacks.

After talking to many people in the district, Riley said they are ready for change and he feels he can make a positive difference.

“I really think this district is in play,” Riley said. “I feel it in my heart of hearts.”

Witt said Good is “no good for District Five.”

“I want to use my voice to knock down walls and build bridges for ‘we the people,’” Witt said.

A small business owner, Witt said she has decades of experience collaborating, listening and compromising to move organizations and people forward. She hopes for a “butterfly effect” of voter turnout that can turn the tide in Democrats’ favor, boldly adding: “We can win.”

Terry said a Republican friend told him the choice between Good and McGuire is like choosing suicide by gunshot or hanging.

“We have to get excited so we can protect our Constitution and our rights,” Terry said of the Democratic turnout.

Riley said he is optimistic President Biden and Virginia’s U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, both Democrats, will win reelection in the Nov. 5 election. In the 5th District, Riley feels Democrats will be in good shape after the primaries settle the nominees.

“There’s infighting, they’re cannibalizing each other right now, depleting their war chests just to try to beat each other,” Riley said. “Bob Good will not go quietly into the good night. He will be a sore loser, just like the guy he admires most, and it will be a bloody, protracted battle.”

Terry said Democrats need to target more center-right Republicans who are not “drinking the red Kool Aid” and he believes Good, chairman of the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus, has disenfranchised Democratic, independent and Republican voters. The Democratic nominee will have an easier road in defeating Good, according to Terry.

“He’s so far right he’s out of the ballpark,” Terry said.

Riley said Democratic leaders have to reach out to those who feel marginalized and be assertive in their campaign efforts. The ground game in the largely rural district will be a lift, Witt said.

“Our message from the Democratic perspective is about upholding democracy, it’s about codifying reproductive rights, rethinking education systems and economic growth in rural American, and it’s about addressing gun violence,” Witt said. “Nowhere we go are we safe anymore.”

Witt and Terry said the country is at risk of dictatorship if Trump wins a second term.

“It’s hard out here,” Witt said. “Inflation is real, climate change is real, but we just have to have conversations about it and try and listen and understand … because if we lose democracy, it’s only going to benefit certain people in power and position,” Witt said.

Riley said he would introduce legislation to keep women’s rights and reproductive decisions in their own hands. He described Republicans opposed to abortion as “so far removed from reality” on the topic and said many women face tragedies when they don’t have the right to choose, especially cases where pregnancies endanger their lives.

Many have claimed “it’s my body” in refusing vaccines for COVID-19 but have no problem telling women they can’t have access to abortion, he said, calling it hypocrisy. “It’s just fraught with peril,” he said of abortion access being left to the states.

Women’s reproductive rights, Witt said, was a catalyst for her candidacy because she realized her granddaughters would not have the same rights she’s enjoyed, which is “unconscionable.”

“We have to codify Roe v. Wade,” Witt said. “I think abortion should be accessible, safe and used sparingly, and trust us to make that decision about our bodily autonomy.”

She added “Christian nationalism has hijacked our rights” and the country was built on freedom and choice. “I love Jesus, but I should also have rights over my body. It’s just that simple,” Witt said.

Terry said government should not be in the business of restricting abortion access and neither he nor anyone else as a lawmaker should be at any family’s kitchen table telling them what to do with their lives.

“My stance is ‘Hell yeah, let’s take care of our women,’” Terry said.

The candidates each talked about improving health care in the district, pushing for more broadband and boosting public education.

Terry said his extensive experience as a corporate and nonprofit executive will be effective if elected to represent the district.

“I have the necessary skills it takes to represent this district in Washington, D.C.,” he said.

Riley said both parties have their fringe groups, but the far right “wants to take us back to 1957” and the progressive side of the Democratic Party is looking forward in tackling crucial problems such as climate change.

Witt said her vision for the district is investing more in education and making career and technical education more accessible in high school. That will help current businesses grow and attract new ones into the district with a needed skilled workforce, she said.

“If we can reshape our minds to shift our education system, it will definitely impact our community,” Witt said.


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