June 02, 2015 News & Features » Cover Story

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The Race to Watch 

With three Democrats, a Republican and a Libertarian hoping to replace state Sen. John Watkins, the 10th District has become one of the most competitive races in Virginia.

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click to enlarge Candidate Emily Francis meets with supporters at C’est Le Vin in Shockoe Bottom. She says she’s “the only true progressive in the race.” - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Candidate Emily Francis meets with supporters at C’est Le Vin in Shockoe Bottom. She says she’s “the only true progressive in the race.”

One of his opponents in the primary, Francis, says that there are big contrasts between her and Gecker. “My background as a progressive working with nonprofits is extremely different than a status quo politician with 20 years in elected or appointed office,” she says. “I’m not a status quo politician.”

Raised on the banks of the Gunpowder River northeast of Baltimore near the Chesapeake Bay, Francis earned a degree in environmental science from Rutgers University. In 2007, she got a job working for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group. She moved to Richmond “and fell in love with the city,” she says.

Working there and later at the Virginia League of Conservation Voters introduced Francis to the workings of the General Assembly and Virginia politics. She is self-employed as a consultant for CleanPowerVa.org, a group that pushes renewable energy and dealing with climate change. Its members include the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Sierra Club, which endorsed her last week.

“Sierra Club believes that Emily will put the interests of people and the environment ahead of special interest lobbyists,” Glen Besa, director of the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club, said in the announcement. “That’s what she’s done as a nonprofit professional, and we are confident she will continue to do that in the Senate.”

Her issues aren’t much different from Gecker’s — education, health care and creating jobs that pay well. She says that teachers need support and the Standards of Learning standardized tests need to be reformed.

On health care, she says it’s a shame that many people avoid going to a doctor because they can’t afford it. Like Gecker, she thinks Medicaid should be expanded. She supports the Affordable Care Act and notes that she’s the only candidate who came out clearly for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. She’s also for Hillary Clinton — “and I’m the only candidate who says that,” she notes.

click to enlarge Candidate Alexander B. McMurtrie Jr., in his law office on Forest Hill Avenue, served as a state delegate in the 1970s and ’80s. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Candidate Alexander B. McMurtrie Jr., in his law office on Forest Hill Avenue, served as a state delegate in the 1970s and ’80s.

If elected, she says, she’ll be a bit of a rarity. Only 17 percent of the General Assembly is made up of women, even though they are the majority of the state’s population. She isn’t afraid to take a stand on feminist issues.

Among the State Capitol protesters in 2012, she helped draw attention to the legislature’s attempts to require ultrasound tests and force women seeking abortions to see the results. “These are not decisions politicians should be making, ” she says.

During the protests, she says she was there with others staring at legislators while they walked from the General Assembly building to the Capitol. “It was extremely powerful,” she says. “I felt there were thousands of eyes staring.” At one point in March she says she watched nervously while a police SWAT team started to clear protesters from the Capitol steps. News photos of women being carried away were shown across the country.

Regarding jobs, she says education should play a role by making sure that people are educated to fill what jobs are needed. One place to look is in renewable energy such as solar or wind. “They could provide 30,000 to 40,000 new jobs in the next 15 years,” she says.

“Climate change is what we’re talking about but it is extremely difficult to have that conversation in the General Assembly,” she says.

Francis doesn’t support Dominion Resources’ plans for a $5 billion natural gas pipeline, saying, “renewable energy is the energy of the future.” She also says that she hasn’t accepted any money from the utility — and records from the Virginia Public Access Project show that Gecker hasn’t taken money from the utility either.

Another change Francis will seek if she wins is to make the General Assembly more open. Transparency Virginia, a group of open-government advocates, recently published a report saying that many votes aren’t recorded and that little notice is given when a particular bill might come up for debate. The loose rules favor inside lobbyists who stay close by when the General Assembly is in session — something Francis says she intends to change.

 

click to enlarge The winner of the Democratic primary will face Republican Glen Sturtevant, a Richmond School Board member, in November. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • The winner of the Democratic primary will face Republican Glen Sturtevant, a Richmond School Board member, in November.

Francis has raised $61,180 from friends and supporters — a fraction of what Gecker has drummed up. McMurtrie has raised even less, about $50,000.

McMurtrie, who is 79 and served as a delegate from 1971 to 1981, is a lifelong conservative. He’s placed himself as a champion of education, and has criticized the General Assembly for taking $2 billion in funds from education and giving it to roads programs. His claim has been challenged.

What’s more, McMurtrie, a lawyer and member of the Board of Visitors of Virginia Commonwealth University, was involved with the corruption scandal that took down former Gov. Bob McDonnell. It was disclosed that McMurtrie, who had been a member of the Commission on Government Reform and Restructuring, had paid $10,037 to McDonnell when he was attorney general in 2009 so McDonnell and his family could fly to the University of Notre Dame for a football game. McMurtrie also donated $15,000 to McDonnell’s gubernatorial campaign.

McMurtrie’s relevance in the primary seems to be that he may take conservative votes away from Gecker, giving Francis a better chance. “The Democrats have only a handful of shots and this is one of them,” analyst Holsworth says.

Loser says Gecker has conflicts because of his ties to the development industry and also must pledge to cut taxes. Gecker says that if he goes to the Senate, he’ll stay away from tax-credit issues that might conflict him.

Loser says Francis “seems very nice,” but may not be “people friendly,” while McMurtrie has only one issue — education.

Whoever wins the Democratic primary and Loser will face Sturtevant, the Republican nominee. He grew up in Spotsylvania County and serves on the Richmond School Board, where, he says, he’s worked to save money. “We had Richmond school buses driving around at millions of dollars in gas costs with no kids in them,” he says. The 32-year-old made Style’s “Top 40 Under 40” list last year.

As is typically the case, the 10th District primary may be decided by voter turnout. A big turnout favors Francis while a small one helps Gecker.

One thing is certain: The primary race is another example of how Virginia is shifting from being reliably conservative to more diverse.

At Francis’ fundraiser at C’est Le Vin, Candy Graham, a member of the Chesterfield County Democratic Committee, observes that “the 10th District is moving from red to a lighter shade of magenta.” Adds Julie Emery, a Francis supporter: “I spend too much time staring at a not-too-diverse group.”

The primary and general elections will underline just how much Virginia is changing. S

Editor's note: This story includes a correction to the print version, which reported that Gecker said Loser had development conflicts. But it was Loser who said Gecker had the conflicts.

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