COVER- Reading the tea leaves: Who will come out on top in the 5th District?
On the websites of the Republican candidates itching to take on 5th District freshman Congressman Tom Perriello, it's pretty likely there will be a photo of the candidate with his lovely family. Throw in a picture of the wannabe U.S. representative talking to a farmer with green, John Deere-like equipment, and you've got two images that capture the conservative values of this largely rural district that stretches from Albemarle to the North Carolina border.
Once dotted with tobacco fields and thriving textile mills, today the 5th District, particularly Southside, is the scene of painful unemployment that, at 14 percent in March, was nearly double the state average of 7.6 percent.
Ivy-raised Perriello slid into office on Barack Obama's coattails, narrowly defeating once-untouchable Republican incumbent Virgil Goode by a mere 727 votes.
Flash forward two years. A near-economic collapse and bailout and record government spending have given birth to the Tea Party movement and a white-hot rage throughout the country against government.
And with Perriello seen as one of the most vulnerable Democrats in the House of Representatives in a race that could be a bellwether of President Barack Obama's midterm angst, a horde of Republican candidates has come forward to try to take the 5th District back. Three of those candidates– Ken Boyd, Michael McPadden, and Laurence Verga– live in Albemarle, with the latter two self-funding their campaigns with hundreds of thousands in loans.
Conventional wisdom says State Senator Robert Hurt from Chatham has the early edge in a seven-way race. His campaign released a poll May 18 claiming a 25-percent margin over all the other candidates out of a survey of 300 potential Republican primary voters, with Boyd coming in second at 10 percent.
But, way back in 2004 when state government was bent under with another massive shortfall, Hurt voted for Governor Mark Warner's tax increase, and conservative stalwarts have never forgiven him.
"The Republican Party across the country and in Virginia takes tax increases very seriously," explains Isaac Wood at the Center for Politics. "Most Republicans can't fathom casting a vote for anyone who would ever raise taxes. Even though it's an old issue, it's important, especially for the very conservative– who show up at the primary."
One more Hurt obstacle: Should he win the primary, independent Jeff Clark stands in the wings to make it a three-way race in November.
And in these contentious times, Republicans are very much aware that a third candidate could create a "New York 23rd" situation, which happened in November when the party split over moderate Dede Scozzafava, allowing a Democrat to win the congressional district.
Even the 5th District party leadership was contested at a May 1 convention near Farmville. There, at Hampden-Sydney College, Fluvanna party regular Feda Kidd Morton won a straw poll, the significance of which her opponents are pooh-poohing.
On June 8, GOP-anointed Hurt will try to fend off six other candidates, most of them with little name recognition or political experience. How to sort through the field?
The Hook introduces the seven candidates and consulted Lynchburg Tea Party chair Mark Lloyd and the Center for Politics' Wood for the buzz on their strengths– and their weaknesses.
Supe seeks larger seat
Reside: Albemarle County
Occupation: Financial planner
Family: Wife Brenda. Children: Casey, Patrick, Kelley, and Cory.
What do you do better than Tom Perriello? I understand that the cost of improving healthcare doesn't have to bankrupt the country, infringe on our personal liberties, or create an unsupportable new entitlement.
Past political experience: School Board 2000–2003, Board of Supervisors 2004–present
Political hero: Ronald Reagan
Top donor: My wife, Brenda. She has devoted herself to our campaign and put much of her own life on hold.
Favorite gun: The 16-gauge shotgun I was using on the dove hunt that was the first date with my wife.
Should pot be legalized? As with many other issues, it should be left up to the states.
Last book you read: Liberty and Tyranny by Mark R. Levin
What do you do for fun? Fishing with my grandchildren.
First thing you'd do after being sworn in to Congress? Create a healthcare bill we can afford to replace the one we can't.
Supervisor Ken Boyd has held elected office since 2000 and has name recognition down in Albemarle County. It's just farther afield in the 5th District that's a problem, even though he has family ties in Martinsville.
He'd been eyeing the congressional race for a long time. "I didn't want to run against Virgil Goode," says Boyd. But once Goode signaled he wouldn't try for a rematch with Perriello, Boyd announced his candidacy. And the floodgate of opponents opened.
Shortly after Boyd announced his candidacy, it was reported that he also sought the chairmanship of the Board of Supervisors. Republicans Duane Snow and Rodney Thomas had been elected to the board, shifting the balance of power and causing some to scratch their heads that Boyd wanted to lead the board while seeking congressional office. "It wasn't my idea," says Boyd. "A lot of people were encouraging me to step up after the election last fall. And there were some politics going on." Boyd wisely bowed out of a second term as chairman of the board.
He's also been in the news for asking county staff to work on an economic development plan without notifying his fellow board members. "I think they felt a little hurt I didn't bring them in early. That was never my intent," says Boyd. "I think that was a little bit couched by [Charlottesville Tomorrow's] Brian Wheeler, who called it a secret meeting. It wasn't."
Wheeler declines to comment, and his article does not use the words "secret meeting."
Strategists see money as a problem for Boyd, but he couches that: "I'm the second top fundraiser as of March 31 except for Robert Hurt," says Boyd. "I didn't put a half-million dollars in like McKelvey or $275,000 in like Laurence Verga or $200,000 like Michael McPadden. He also notes that the self funders haven't been around at the Republican breakfasts or mass meetings before their runs for office.
"It's really discouraging to me because it implies only rich people can win. We're running a grassroots campaign."
Message over money
Occupation: Business owner. I produce videos for corporate and political web sites.
Family: Wife, 3 daughters, 1 granddaughter.
Why the 5th District congressional race? I felt the middle class was being under represented.
Past political experience: None
Political hero: Ronald Reagan
Top donor: Ron Navratil
Favorite gun: Any one that stops an intruder from harming my family. I've owned several and have no make/model favorite.
Should pot be legalized? No
Last book you read: Primary Colors
What do you do for fun? Ride horses
First thing you'd do after being sworn in to Congress? Introduce the Liberty Recovery Act of 2011 to reinstall the Constitution as the guidebook for our laws.
Ron Ferrin is the funniest candidate running, and according to primary watchers, has the longest shot of securing the Republican nomination. And unlike some of his competitors who have zilch for political experience, Ferrin has always been a bit of a political junkie and has worked the polls. His decision to run came from a town hall meeting with Tom Perriello.
"So many questions were not being answered," he says.
He talked to friends, who said, after a long pause, "Ron, you'd be a perfect congressman," he recounts. "And that takes into consideration most people don't like their congressman."
Ferrin insists he's running as the middle class guy. "I'm a business owner, not a politician. I know what it's like for people to get an electric bill three times normal and you've got to rearrange the budget to pay it."
What he didn't fully appreciate is how money fuels a candidacy. "I thought the message was more important than money in the bank," says Ferrin. "The people who said, let's get money out of politics, the first thing they want to do is look at my bank account."
"Ron is quick on his feet, very sharp mentally, he's funny and he can entertain a crowd," says the Lynchburg Tea Party's Mark Lloyd. "But he's not raising any money, and he has a name recognition problem. He's not seen as viable by many people."
"If I knew that that one day I was going to run for office, I would have done several things differently," concedes Ferrin. "But the ability to debate Tom Perriello is more important than the ability to read a speech or bring people to a convention."
The burden of being anointed
Family: Wife Kathy and sons Charles, Clement, John
What do you do better than Tom Perriello? As a member of the Virginia Senate, I represent 170,000 constituents. I listen to them, and I stand up for them in Richmond. Tom Perriello does not.
What do you do better than your six rivals for the Republican nomination? I have a proven conservative record in the Virginia General Assembly, and I have won five elections in the last 10 years, always with at least 62 percent of the vote.
Political hero: George Washington.
Top donor: Because of FEC limits, I have many top donors [at $2,400–editor]; however, my grandmother, Frances Hallam Hurt, may be my top donor because of the love of Virginia she instilled in me at a very young age.
Favorite gun: Remington 870 12-gauge shotgun
Should pot be legalized? No.
Last book you read: I Am Murdered by Bruce Chadwick, a fascinating account set in Richmond in 1806 of the poisoning of George Wythe, one of America's founders and Thomas Jefferson's law professor.
What do you do for fun? Get our boys and the dog together and wade the Rapidan River fishing for smallmouth.
First thing you'd do after being sworn in to Congress? Go to work for the people.
Robert Hurt is the only candidate to hold state office, and that seems to have put a target on his back with the other contenders who call him the GOP's anointed one.
"I find that a total distraction," declares State Senator Hurt. "I don't believe I'm anointed by anyone. I've been in five elections in 10 years. I don't look at that as anointment. It's hard work, it's experience, it's trust."
What's shaken the trust of the arch conservatives is Hurt's aforementioned vote for Governor Mark Warner's budget in 2004, which his opponents decry as a tax increase.
"I've signed a no-tax pledge," says Hurt. "I'm dedicated to reducing federal spending. I ask people to look at my whole record. I've voted against tax increases. That's one vote out of 3,000."
Hurt already represents about a third of the 5th District from his southside home in Chatham, and his family has lived in Pittsylvania County for generations– although Hurt was born in New York.
"That's where my mother was," Hurt acknowledges a bit ruefully. His father worked at Reader's Digest in Pleasantville, but now they're back on Main Street in Chatham. "I live in a house across the street from where I grew up," he says.
Although Hurt has inspired an independent candidate who vows to run if Hurt gets the nomination, he does have his supporters in Tea Party circles, according to Lloyd.
And the seven-way race helps him, says Wood at the Center for Politics. "I think Hurt holds the advantage because the other are just not well enough known to have name recognition." And with over $210K cash on hand, that leaves Hurt in good shape for the final primary push.
Too big to talk to the Hook
Occupation: Residential and commercial developer
Family: Two daughters, and a wife in a separate household with a separation agreement
Biggest donor: Lent his campaign $500,000
What do you for fun? Ride around in the McKelvey for Congress bus
First thing you'll do after being sworn in to Congress? Refuse to take a salary or health benefits for the first term.
Let's be clear, the Hook supplied these answers based on McKelvey's website because his campaign did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.
"He's not going to have time," says campaign manager Brian O'Connor after more than a week of unreturned phone calls and emails. And McKelvey has to be concerned with "the source" of media requests, says O'Connor cryptically. "We don't want our name out there just anywhere. We're getting a lot of mainstream radio station and TV station requests."
The Hook's not sure, but thinks it just got dissed.
But there is something refreshing about a political candidate who is so rich he doesn't need Charlottesville newspaper publicity in a crowded race where his name recognition is practically nil. Instead, he's funneling funds into two television ads starting May 17.
If elected, McKelvey has vowed to limit his time in the House to two terms, and to not take a salary the first term. Despite his lack of political experience, McKelvey is one of two candidates the Lynchburg Tea Party could endorse, says Lloyd.
"Jim McKelvey connects very well," says Lloyd. "He has this Everyman persona. The ladies love him, and he is in a better financial position. He can tell the story of a self-made man."
McKelvey's newness to politics could be a negative, says Lloyd. "He doesn't yet fully comprehend the political arena," says Lloyd. "He's very passionate in his belief, but at times, he has a hard time articulating that. Sometimes it's hard to get his message out."
"McKelvey is another one where the jury is still out about whether the $500,000 loan is a help or a hindrance," says Wood. "It lets him compete. Others may see it as an illegitimate way to use your funds to buy an election."
Citizen wannabe legislator
Reside: North Garden
Occupation: Airline captain, Delta Airlines.
Family: My wife, Meggan, and I have been married for 30 years. We have four adult children; Katie, Jake, Hunter, and Sami.
Why the 5th District congressional race? I live in the 5th, and I will represent the 5th. Tom Perriello does a better job representing Nancy Pelosi and her constituents in San Francisco.
What do you do better than Tom Perriello? I can address the economic issues that we are facing today and offer constructive market based solutions. Nationalizing healthcare, cap and trade, government bailouts and stimulus plans are not solutions.
Political hero: James Madison
Top donor: On the FEC report. [It's him with $214,950–editor.]
Favorite gun: The M-16. This is the Colt automatic rifle that our military men and women are using to defend our country.
Should pot be legalized? With unemployment at almost 20 percent in parts of the 5th district, I am much more focused on addressing the economy. I believe drug laws should be left in the control of the states.
Last book you read: Influence, Science and Practice by Robert B. Cialdini
What do you do for fun? Spend time with my wife and family. We like to hike, hunt, fish, snowboard, wakeboard, and garden.
First thing you'd do after being sworn in to Congress? Begin the hard work of restoring our Constitutional republic and true freedom for every citizen.
Mike McPadden was a naval officer before he went to work for Northwest Airlines, now part of Delta, and he points out he's the only candidate running who has military experience.
He sees himself as the citizen legislator the Founding Fathers envisioned, one who has had real life experience negotiating with the union– or management– and a formidable knowledge of the Constitution. Ask him about the 10th Amendment.
For someone who's never run for office, McPadden has picked up considerable support in some quarters, particularly with the Lynchburg Tea Party, which is pretty evenly split between endorsing him and McKelvey.
"Mike is a very well read, very smart man," says Lloyd. "He has the ability to take charge. People see his leadership capability, and that he's very confident. And sometimes because of that confidence, he's perceived as arrogant."
Lloyd notes McPadden's libertarian tendencies. "For dyed-in-the-wool Republicans and social conservatives, they see a libertarian stance as a negative," he explains. "The Tea Party sees that as a positive. But Lynchburg is in the Bible Belt and Mike's got to balance that with the religious parts of the district."
"I think he's got one of the best chances to become the anti-Hurt candidate," says the Center for Politics' Wood. "He has money and grassroots support."
McPadden has lent his campaign over $200,000, and how he uses it will come into play in the final weeks before June 8. Says Wood, "Nobody outside the most fervent followers of the race know who he is."
Social conservative insider
Feda Kidd Morton
Reside: Fluvanna County with Scottsville mailing address
Occupation: High school teacher at Fluvanna County
Family: Mother of 5 children
What do you do better than your six rivals for the Republican nomination? I have been fighting this battle for years on the ground. This is a passion to preserve the American dream for my children's future, not a political advancement opportunity.
Past political experience: School Board in Fluvanna County, chairwoman of Fluvanna Republican Party
Political hero: Ronald Reagan
Top donor: My aunt and uncle in Oklahama
Favorite gun: Taurus .38 Special
Should pot be legalized? No
Last book you read: The Five Thousand Year Leap
What do you do for fun? Kayak
First thing you'd do after being sworn in to Congress? Present legislation to defund and repeal the government takeover of our healthcare program.
Feda Kidd Morton has been active in the Republican Party for over 20 years, and it showed when she won the straw poll at the convention to elect a 5th District chairman May 1 at Hampden-Sydney.
And it shows with the endorsements she's racked up from social conservatives in Virginia, like Mike Farris, founder of Patrick Henry College (for whom she campaigned when he ran for lieutenant governor in 1993), and nationally, like Eagle Forum founder Phyllis Schlafly and former Family Research Council president Gary Bauer. Morton had national party support before entering the race.
"I felt it was an opportunity God presented to me," she says. "I didn't seek it."
She's been fighting for pro-life, traditional family values, one-man/one-woman marriage, a strong military, and less government. "It's time for one of us who've been in the trenches to step up and run," she says.
And while Morton can marshall supporters to win a straw poll, she can't match the wealthy candidates who've put up their own money. Her cash on hand was about $8,000 in the March 31 FEC report.
"I'm not a wealthy person," says Morton. "I figured it would be a grassroots campaign because that's what I'm good at."
"Feda has been a tireless worker for conservative causes," says Lynchburg Tea Party leader Lloyd. "She's very well-respected in the movement."
The problem from the Tea Party perspective: "Feda doesn't connect well with some of the people because of her social conservatism," says Lloyd. While he estimates 90 percent of the Tea Partiers are social conservatives, among the top priorities of the movement are limited government and fiscal responsibility rather than abortion and gay rights.
And whether the traditional values candidate's child custody problems will be a factor remains to be seen. [See related story in news section–editor.]
Still, Morton has enough political savvy to know the primary will have low voter turnout, and says, "That's when social conservatives tend to come out."
Investing in politics
Occupation: Real restate investor
Family: Wife Elizabeth and four children– Oliver, 6, George, 5, Agnes, 3, and Charles, 1.
What do you do better than your six rivals for the Republican nomination? Unique business experience, tough leadership, a real plan for growing jobs and the economy. Not corrupted or corruptible by our political system.
Past political experience: None– proudly!
Political hero: The American entrepreneur
Top donor: A few have maximized
Favorite gun: .38
Should pot be legalized? No
Last book you read: The Life and Times of Thelonius Monk
First thing you'd do after being sworn in to Congress? Form a caucus of like-minded conservative representatives to stop the Obama Socialist agenda, repeal and defund the healthcare bill and put together legislation to drastically reduce over-taxation on our citizens.
Laurence Verga may not have run for office since serving as high school treasurer in Monterey, California, but he's pretty clear that Robert Hurt is his main opposition, and he doesn't hesitate to attack. Hurt, lobs Verga, is "a career politician," "bought and paid for," and "establishment."
Just don't call Verga a rich carpetbagger. "A carpetbagger is someone who moves in just to run for office," says Verga, who moved to his house at the Rocks, a pricey Ivy subdivision, in 2004. "I wanted to move to a state where it's easier to do business than California, that has a better social environment, and the best schools. Anyone who questions that doesn't care about the American dream."
And that is Verga's story. His grandparents immigrated from Argentina. They worked in the canneries, picked tomatoes, and fished. And he was the first in his family to go to college, attending UC Berkeley. He got a master's at Antioch University, and pursued doctoral studies at the University of San Francisco.
He was the first to declare his candidacy. "I realized people were starving for leadership, and that's something I've done my entire life," says Verga.
"Laurence speaks the Tea Party language," says Tea Party leader Lloyd. And indeed, Bill Hay, former head of the Jefferson Area Tea Party, now works for Verga's campaign. And Verga's business background is a plus, observes Lloyd.
On the negative side, says Lloyd, "He seems laid back, doesn't seem to have fire in his belly, and perception is reality."
Adds Lloyd, "A lot of people have questions about Laurence's health issues, though he's addressed those directly."
Verga suffers from polycystic kidney disease, a genetic disorder that killed his grandfather and uncle. His wife, Elizabeth, is a compatible donor, and he says the operation will only take him off the campaign trail for two weeks, but he doesn't rule out the transplant before the June 8 primary. "I'm probably at my nadir now," says Verga, "and it hasn't stopped me. I believe God gave me this disease to inspire others."