Va. House of Delegates race between Armstrong, Poindexter turns heated and costly

October 22, 2011

For more than four years, Democratic leader Ward Armstrong has clashed with the Republican majority in Virginia’s House of Delegates with passionate floor speeches, pithy sound bites and occasional theatrics.

Republicans had enough. They eliminated his largely rural Southside district when they redrew legislative maps in the spring.

Armstrong moved to a nearby district and has mounted a surprisingly formidable challenge against a Republican incumbent: Charles Poindexter, a four-year House veteran who rarely speaks on the floor.

The race is now one of the most expensive and closely watched contests in next month’s elections — with $1 million spent so far. While Republicans aim to grow their solid majority in the House by setting their sights on one of their most vocal critics, Democrats are flanking to protect their leader.

“This race has never been about electing Charles Poindexter. It’s been about getting rid of Ward Armstrong,’’ said Armstrong, who has served in the House for 20 years. “They want to get rid of me because not only do I raise alternative viewpoints, I tend to argue fairly vociferously for those alternative viewpoints.”

Republicans, who have largely focused on seizing control of the state Senate, deny Armstrong’s claims. They say a House seat in Southside Virginia had to be eliminated because of a population loss outlined in the 2010 Census.

Republican leaders, including Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, virtually all of the 59 GOP delegates and the party have contributed a stunning $615,000 to Poindexter’s campaign, paid for TV ads and mailers, and headlined fundraisers. By comparison, less than $200,000 is being spent on average for similar House races, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonpartisan tracker of money in politics.

“It’s about me supporting Charles because I think he’s a fine legislator,’’ McDonnell said in an interview. “That’s a race that we anticipate being the most competitive race in the state held by a Republican challenger.”

But Richard C. Cranwell, a former longtime delegate from Roanoke who served as Democratic leader and chairman of the state party, said he doesn’t understand why the GOP continues to deny the “obvious truth.”

“Ward is a bright, articulate legislator — one who can express his point of view well,’’ Cranwell said. “I know that makes him a thorn in their side.’’

Race has turned nasty

Even if he wins, Armstrong — who is considering a run for state office in 2013 — may have trouble securing the minority leader post again or running statewide. The views he has uttered on the campaign trail to win voters in the new district, including distancing himself from President Obama last week, have angered some fellow Democrats.

With less than three weeks until the Nov. 8 election, the race between two legislators who are opposites in substance and style has turned nasty. “I’m not as flamboyant or flashy as some people,’’ Poindexter said. “I do my homework and think things through.’’

The new Ninth House District includes parts of the economically distressed Southside — Patrick County, most of Franklin County and a sliver of western Henry County.

The south-central part of the state, near the North Carolina border, has suffered from shuttered tobacco farms and textile and furniture factories. Thousands of jobs have gone overseas, leading to the highest unemployment rate in the state: 15 percent in some areas.

A majority of voters in the overwhelmingly white district are solidly Republican — supporters of smaller government and bashers of Washington spending. About 40 percent of the district is new to Poindexter, while 60 percent is new to Armstrong.

Barbara Chauncey, a retired mortgage banker who lives in Franklin’s Rocky Mount, chatted with Poindexter, 69, when he knocked on her door on a recent afternoon. She plans to vote for him to keep government small.

“I don’t mind paying taxes,’’ she said. “I have a great problem with what some of the money is being spent on.”

Janice Wilkins, a former administrator at a Patrick County hospital who ran into Armstrong at a recent candidate meet-and- greet in Stuart, said she will vote for him because he helped the facility get the state backing it needed to be sold and stay open.

Armstrong, a 55-year-old lawyer, moved out of his family’s home in an unincorporated area of Henry County and into a house he and his wife, Pam, own in the Bassett area. It is the second time Armstrong, who was the underdog in his first race, has relocated to run. A decade ago, his district was substantially redrawn again through redistricting, and he moved to a neighboring district.

‘It’s rough and tumble’

In TV ads, campaign mailers and speeches, Armstrong has almost completely hinged his campaign on a local issue — curbing Appalachian Power’s electric rates. Orange-and-yellow signs dot the district: “No more rate hikes. Vote Armstrong.”

He faults Poindexter for not trying to rein in Appalachian’s rates, which have increased nine times in four years.

Poindexter, a former member of the Franklin County Board of Supervisors who retired from the information systems technology industry, said he has done what he could. He has passed legislation to halt interim hikes and give the state more time to review rate requests. But, he said, most of the increases are the result of federal regulations.

“He’s running against the power company, and I’m running to try to fix jobs,’’ he said.

Poindexter, like other Republicans, has tied Armstrong to an increasingly unpopular president in TV ads and campaign mailers. “If Ward Armstrong thinks you need Obama, do you really need Ward Armstrong?” one ad asks.

In response, Armstrong released a TV ad: “That’s a stretch, Charles. I’m pro-life, pro-gun and I always put Virginia first.”

Armstrong’s “pro-life, pro-gun” positions — coupled with his recent remarks about Obama — not only miffed fellow Democrats but also have driven some to consider a future run against him.

“I will not support any Democrat who disses the president,’’ said Del. Lionell Spruill Sr. (D-Chesapeake).

A parade of Republican leaders has traveled through Southside the past few months.

McDonnell has held a pair of fundraisers for Poindexter and will return before Election Day. Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II and a trio of congressmen — Morgan Griffith, Robert Hurt and Bob Goodlatte — have each been in the area at least once.

Of the $376,000 Poindexter had raised as of Sept. 30, $244,000 came from Republican elected officials or state and local parties, according to VPAP. The Southside Victory Fund, a political action committee created to help Poindexter, has received its $371,000 solely from Republican elected officials and parties.

Sen. Mark R. Warner and former governor Tim Kaine, a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate next year, have held fundraisers for Armstrong. Warner plans to visit Franklin County for a rally the Saturday before the election.

But Armstrong has largely raised his $909,000 on his own. Democrats and the party have contributed $66,000.

“When you go into this business, you have to understand that it’s rough and tumble,’’ he said. “It’s not always fair.”

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