The sign entering Ashland welcomes visitors to “The Center of the Universe.” For once, it may be true.
This sleepy college town of about 8,000 people just became home to one of the most interesting congressional election story lines, well, ever. Tuesday night, Dave Brat, a professor from Ashland’s Randolph-Macon College, toppled House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a shocker of a Republican primary. This would be exciting enough for the town, and for the college, but it gets better: His Democratic opponent, Jack Trammell, is also a professor at the school.
“It was surreal,” Robert Lindgren, the president of the college, said about learning that two members of his faculty would be squaring off in one of the highest-profile congressional races in the country. Wearing tortoiseshell glasses, a paisley tie and a herringbone jacket, Lindgren looked like a college president out of central casting. Which was fitting, considering there were two cameras pointed at him.
It takes a matter of minutes to drive through Ashland, a whistle-stop town whose only disruption tends to be the trains that rumble through each day. The school has about 100 professors and 1,300 students. It’s the kind of college and the kind of town where everyone knows everyone else.
Even the two men running against each other consider themselves casual friends and are occasional basketball partners.
“We’ve had a good working relationship,” said Trammell, noting the two of them exchange friendly hellos in the faculty lunchroom and have traded thoughts on major news events of the day. “Dave is the kind of person who doesn’t shy away from sharing his opinion.”
Brat is known as a token conservative on a campus that has many liberal faculty members.But that doesn’t mean he is ostracized. Roxane Gilmore, an adjunct professor at the school and wife of former governor Jim Gilmore (R), described Brat as “always with a smile on his face,” “jovial” and generally well liked on campus.
Trammell is a fan of “The X-Files,” Marvel comics and “Star Trek” who often brings his dog, Ranger, into class, said 20-year-old Derek Dittmar, describing the sociology professor.
“ ‘A gentleman farmer’ is a really good way of looking at him,” Dittmar said.
And while Roxane Gilmore says that most faculty members try not to mix work and politics, that may be hard to avoid in the coming months.
Trammell is not expected to prevail in this heavily Republican district, but as Tuesday’s GOP primary suggests, it may not be wise to embrace conventional wisdom. Yet faculty members and students are confident about one thing: The contest between the relatively unknown candidates/professors will undoubtedly captivate the campus during the next few months.
“Already I’m seeing so many people on Facebook talking s---,” said Bashil Singh, a 20-year-old junior who has taken an economics course from Brat. Singh said that other than Brat’s talks about free-market principles, he didn’t know much about the professor’s politics at the time. Brat told his students to dress in business casual when attending his class and once told Singh to not “dress like you just came from a rock concert,” when he showed up wearing a hoodie and jeans.
Still, Singh said he liked the class, and not just because he thought it was an easy A.
“If I didn’t know him, some of that criticism might sway me,” he said of the comments he has seen online. “But he’s a cool guy, so maybe I’m a bit biased.”
It’s going to take some getting used to, Singh said, seeing his professor on TV. Not to mention having to worry about bumping into nosy reporters as he walks to grab lunch at the school cafeteria. In this small town, he’s not alone with this concern.
“You know, when you’ve been doing this a long time, exciting to you might look a little different than exciting to us,” Mayor Faye O. Prichard said in an interview at Town Hall. For Prichard, who recently won reelection with a total of 294 votes, crowds arriving en masse remind her of getting pushed into traffic by a looky-loo when a presidential candidate swung through town during the last election. But, she added, “it’s certainly not going to be all bad.”
The newfound interest in the town — perhaps most famous for being the birthplace of both Henry Clay and Patrick Henry (though the latter was born before the town officially existed) — does offer the chance for economic development.
For Lindgren, this represents a golden opportunity to put the school on the map. The journalists that hang around leaning on lampposts, chewing on their pens and waiting to waylay students taking summer courses do so outside plenty of new buildings to show off. Lindgren said he hopes that the two candidates will have a debate on campus and that the attention “will help raise the visibility of the school, and in a way that is completely not contrived.”
But, of course, the pressure is on not to mess it all up.
Over a meal of corn dogs and potato salad at the school cafeteria, Bennett Pribulka, a 22-year-old senior, talked about the last time there was media attention at the college — last year when a fraternity hosted a “Border Patrol vs. Mexicans”-themed party.
“That gave the school a bad image,” Pribulka said, noting he was glad he didn’t go. “In light of that, hopefully people will curb what they say. They will probably be more careful about talking to journalists, but if a camera catches them at the wrong time, not much they can do. . . . I’d like to say we learned from it, but this is a whole new level of attention.”
Moments earlier, a group of students walked through the quad and noticed they were being filmed.
“We’re going to have to get used to this,” one said to another. “It’s going to be like this until November.”
Antonio Olivo and Jeff Simon contributed to this report.