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Virginia House Speaker battles to keep seat in Tuesday’s elections in new Dem-favored district

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Virginia Speaker of the House Kirk Cox is battling to hold onto his seat in Tuesday’s election after a court redraw of House district maps forced him into a Democrat-leaning district.

Cox, R-Colonial Heights, who has represented Virginia’s 66th House District for nearly 30 years, is facing his first serious contender since he won the seat in 1989. His opponent is businesswoman Sheila Bynum-Coleman, a resident of Chesterfield County who was the first black woman appointed to the Virginia Board of Contractors.

After ruling that several of the commonwealth’s house district lines were “racially gerrymandered,” a court ordered the General Assembly to redraw the maps. When the Republican legislature failed to come to an agreement with Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, the court appointed a special master for the task. Along with Cox, five other Republicans found themselves in Democrat-leaning districts.

District 66 shifted by 32 points to give Democrats a 6.5 percent edge. What was once a 62.7 percent Republican district is now 46.8 percent Republican. Democrats shifted from 37.3 percent of the district to 53.2 percent. The district also shifted from being 76 percent white to only 58 percent white. It grew from 18 percent black to 34 percent black.

Chaz Nuttycombe, a Virginia political analyst, has predicted the race too close to call, finding it to be a tossup.

“Although my district was impacted by the redistricting case, I have represented over 65 [percent] of the district for the majority of my time in office,” Cox told The Center Square. “I am a retired 30-year school teacher whose focus has been on best preparing the next generation. Whether it was in the classroom or on the ballfield, my passion has been helping children succeed.”

Bynum-Coleman’s campaign did not respond to several requests for comment from The Center Square via email and phone.

Some issues of contention between the two candidates include education policy, jobs and gun control.

Education

Currently, most reports put Virginia within the top 10 states for public schools. The last budget increased teacher salaries by five percent and education spending by $87 million. Teachers are still paid several thousand dollars below the national average.

Cox has called for the General Assembly to prioritize school funding and to match teacher pay to the national average within the next four years.

“We need to give our teachers the tools they need to prepare our students,” Cox said. “We reformed the state Standard of Learning tests, reducing the number of required tests from 22 to 17 and making major improvements to promote critical thinking and problem solving skills. We have held the line on bureaucracy in education, so that we can prioritize funding to teachers and the classroom. The General Assembly is returning 40% of all lottery proceeds back to school divisions with no strings attached.”

On her campaign website, Bynum-Coleman also called for spending increases on education and teacher salaries, arguing that the increases from the current legislature are not enough.

“Teachers in Virginia face significant challenges,” the website states. “They are underpaid, as salaries have remained stagnant while living costs continue to soar. The current legislature has not adequately funded our schools, and the result is crumbling buildings and overcrowded classrooms. Excellent public education is crucial to ensure our graduates can meet the needs of Virginia’s businesses and to enhance property values in our state.”

Business and Jobs

In CNBC’s 2019 rankings for the best states in business, Virginia ranked first. The commonwealth’s unemployment rate has consistently ranked the lowest in the region.

Cox partially credited the business ranking to cutting regulations and strengthening the workforce. He said that the Workforce Credential grant has helped Virginians get credentials needed for jobs and that the One Virginia Network has helped adults finish college degrees. Going forward, he said the commonwealth should invest further in broadband.

On jobs, Bynum-Coleman’s website states that impoverished people are still struggling. She calls for the minimum wage to be increased from the current $7.25 an hour because “if someone works 40 hours a week, they should be able to provide for their families.” She said that the cost of living is continuing to rise and the minimum wage has stayed the same.

Gun control

After a mass shooting in Virginia Beach, Northam called on the General Assembly to pass several gun control reforms, which included a ban on assault weapons, high-capacity magazines, bump stocks and silencers. It would have also expanded background checks.

During a special session, Cox and Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, did not bring these proposals for a vote and instead referred the proposals to the Virginia Crime Commission to conduct a review. Cox said that the commission is a widely respected bi-partisan body.

“I await the findings of the crime commission and will look for innovative solutions to gun violence while still ensuring we protect the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens,” Cox said.

Bynum-Coleman has called for reforms to gun laws. Her daughter survived a gunshot wound in 2016 and she says on her website that families should not have to experience this trauma and grief.

“We need common sense gun laws, including universal background checks, and surveys confirm that most voters support such legislation,” the website states. “Sheila’s daughter was shot while attending a house party. Fortunately, her daughter survived, but this experience has made Sheila a vocal champion for gun safety laws in the commonwealth.”

Polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 5. Virginians can find their polling location on the Department of Election’s website.