GOP Candidates in Debate in 17th District Forum

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Josh Johnson, Chris Head, Melvin Williams, Bill Cleaveland and Mike Wray before Tuesday night’s forum.
Josh Johnson, Chris Head, Melvin Williams, Bill Cleaveland and Mike Wray before Tuesday night’s forum.

Attorneys Bill Cleaveland, Josh Johnson and Melvin Williams, along with small business owner Chris Head, and former Roanoke County Supervisor Mike Wray, all converged for an open forum on the Patrick Henry High School stage Tuesday night.

“They all did a great job,” said one attendee, as she watched the five Republican 17th District candidates make their case for being selected in the June 9 primary, for the right to face Democrat Gwen Mason in the fall for a House of Delegates seat.

It may have been difficult for some in the audience to differentiate between the candidates, based on questions about taxes, registering by party, transportation and funds for non-state agencies.  About 100 people showed up for the forum, sponsored by the Roanoke Valley Republican Women and moderated by Kathy Hayden Terry (with the Republican National Committee).

“Any one of them is better than their Democratic counterpart,” said Terry as the forum opened.  Whoever wins on June 9 she declared, “will beat Gwen Mason.”

During opening remarks, Williams, a part time minister, called himself a “person of conviction,” chastising President Obama’s Supreme Court pick earlier that day of Sonia Sotomayor as someone “who will not be that type of person.”

Johnson, the youngest candidate at 30 years old, said he would, “represent a new generation of Republican leadership. I have a lot of new ideas.”

Head, who lives in Botetourt County, (as does Cleaveland) asked the audience if they were “satisfied with the direction that our nation and the Commonwealth is going in right now?”  Many in the audience responded “no!”

Cleaveland said he was “100% committed,” to making a difference. He displayed a Taxpayer Protection Pledge he has signed, along with State Senator Ralph Smith (in attendance), which states he will not raise taxes.

Wray, who served one term in Cave Spring on the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors, touted his experience as an elected official and said he had pushed for job creation while chairing the board.

On the question of whether voters should register statewide by party, Johnson and Cleaveland were opposed to the idea, while the other candidates said they could back such a measure.

On most other questions, there was more cohesiveness. All said they would not raise taxes under any or most circumstances, agreeing that eliminating waste in the state budget and realigning funding priorities were more important.

Transportation funding emerged as the top priority for most candidates, with Cleaveland pushing education.  Johnson would “look at toll roads,” but others were hesitant to support tolls or a gas tax increase.

Johnson pushed for offshore drilling as a way to raise revenue, while Cleaveland (also supporting offshore oil drilling) wanted to know why the $2 billion in waste identified several years ago by the Wilder Commission had not been slashed.

“That’s the first place I’d start,” Cleaveland said.

Cleaveland also provided the only note of disharmony of the night, disputing Wray’s claim that he had cut taxes as a supervisor. While the rate per $100 of assessed value was lowered by a penny or two, Cleaveland noted that sharply rising assessments had more than negated that reduction.

As for funding non-state agencies, like Center in the Square, some said a cost-benefit analysis of some sort would be in order first; others touted more public-private partnerships as a way to fund museums and the like.

“Sometimes you do need a little help,” said Wray, recognizing the “quality of life issues” cultural organizations can provide.

Cleaveland, an attorney, prosecutor and substitute judge over the past 30 years, said he would provide “straight talk” to his constituents if elected, while Johnson vowed to “work hard.” Williams read from an endorsement just given him by Don Huffman, former chair of the Virginia Republican Party, and Head pledged to follow through on promises made during the campaign, saying, “you can take that to the bank.”

Hollins University political science professor Ed Lynch, a former GOP chair in Roanoke County, was among those in the audience. If it made the task more difficult for voters, to distinguish one candidate from another, he said that was “a good thing.”

“The answers were very thoughtful. It was clear that they all knew an awful lot about state government. They all have a lot of great experience [and] all have a lot to bring to the table,” Lynch said.

“Each one of them brings their own strengths,” said Fred Anderson, the former Roanoke County treasurer and current 6th District Republican chairman. He sported a Mike Wray button and said he was supporting the former supervisor because of a long-standing friendship. “I’d really like to have one candidate with all those strengths. Each one will appeal to a certain element in the party. I just hate that we have five good candidates, but only one nomination [to select].”