Kirk Cox and Sheila Bynum-Coleman Face Off in Virginia's 66th House District
VPM News is profiling some of the most competitive General Assembly races in this November’s elections. State politics reporter Ben Paviour takes a look at the race for Virginia's 66th House District.
From the VPM Newsroom in Richmond, I’m Ben Paviour.
We’re profiling some of the closest General Assembly races in this November’s elections. Today we’re looking at the 66th House District, home to Republican Speaker of the House Kirk Cox.
Cox has held the seat since 1989, and hasn’t faced a serious challenger since then. Now real estate agent Sheila Bynum-Coleman has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in a bid to unseat arguably the most powerful Republican in Virginia.
They’re fighting in a new, more Democratic-leaning district that now stretches from Colonial Heights north through parts of Chesterfield. It was redrawn after federal court judges said the old one was racially gerrymandered by House Republicans.
At a candidate forum last week, Cox pointed to 30 years of legislative accomplishments. That includes a 5% pay raise for teachers and a state college tuition freeze passed this year.
Cox: “I was in the classroom for 30 years. I thought that was essential for us to do, to keep good teachers. Freezing college tuition. Think about this for a second. You've got almost a big $1 billion worth of student debt. And I sort of laugh -- I have four boys, so you can imagine I'm pretty broke. But when you put four boys through college, it's very, very difficult. So not only did we freeze college tuition, but I have basically committed to freezing college tuition again next year. And I think that’s a very important issue.”
But Bynum-Coleman suggested Cox was more in touch with business interests than his constituents. She said even with those teacher raises, salaries are still below the national average.
Bynum-Coleman: “This election is so much about people versus corporations. I'm challenging someone who is an entrenched incumbent who has been in office for 29 years. And when you talk about teacher pay not being able to meet the national average, we have to look at who has been in charge. And it has not been the Democrats.”
Cox said he’d also like to get salaries to the national average. And he accused Bynum-Coleman of rejecting a bipartisan plan to add more school resource officers.
Cox: “You know, I did a school safety commission that also did 24 key recommendations that dealt with school safety. And one of those key recommendations was to enhance not only security but our school resource officers and the funding for school resource officers, which my opponent has come out against and actually said that we should remove those from the schools, which I think would be a very, very big mistake.”
Cox has repeated this charge in new attack ads. But Bynum-Coleman said Cox wasn’t telling the full story.
Bynum-Coleman: “Chesterfield County has a problem. They're sending more black and brown kids to police referrals. And we have seen time and time again where black and brown kids are being mistreated by the police officers in the school when their white counterparts are not for committing the same offenses. So what I said was that I wanted to see the police out of this school when it comes to discipline and only deal with protecting the school building and the people inside.”
That issue came up when the candidates were asked about gun safety. For Bynum-Coleman, it’s a topic that’s personal. In 2016, her daughter was a bystander in a gunfight and ended up shot in the shoulder.
She received backing from gun control groups like Everytown for Gun Safety, which says it will invest $2.5 million in Virginia races this fall. Last week, Bynum-Coleman spoke at a press conference the group held. She blamed Cox for not pushing gun control legislation in the wake of the Virginia Beach shooting.
Bynum-Coleman: “And when the governor called for the special session and all of the lawmakers came down to Richmond, what did the Speaker of the House Kirk Cox do? He had the NRA sit in his conference room. And he took marching orders from the NRA. He shut down the special session without one vote -- without a discussion -- and kicked the can down the road to a commission. That is not acceptable.”
Cox has called the timing of the special session hasty and suspect. At the candidate forum, he said sending the bills to the state crime commission allowed a more deliberative response. The commission won’t meet until after the election.
Cox: “We need to basically have the crime commission go look at those various proposals and come back and see what works for other states. But let me remind folks, Virginia has the fourth lowest violent crime rate there is. And some of the states that have really adopted some of those aggressive measures, or cities like Chicago and Maryland, certainly have not had good returns.”
Cox has also questioned the influence of special interest groups like Everytown, which was started by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Left-leaning political groups have pledged millions of dollars to flip Virginia’s legislature from red to blue. Republicans like Cox are also taking in big donations, but they’re more likely to come from business interests. It’s all perfectly legal under Virginia’s campaign finance laws, which, unlike many states, don’t cap donations.
Cox: “The advantage of a system like that is no one's that much trying to cheat the system because it's very transparent. But I will say I'm very concerned about the hoards of out-of-state money from special interests that are coming into Virginia. So that might be something we have to take a look at.”
Bynum-Coleman called Virginia’s current system the wild west.
Bynum-Coleman: “A lawmaker should not be able to take money from Dominion. Virginia regulates Dominion. And so how can our lawmakers do what's in the best interest of the citizens when they're taking money from the same companies that they regulate?”
The candidates also touched on minimum wage and Virginia’s right-to-work law. Cox said keeping right-to-work was key to the state’s economic health. Raising the minimum wage, on the other hand, would cause businesses to cut jobs.
Cox: “And so the unemployment, what you're trying to bring down, you're not bringing down. The other thing you get is a lot of automation. You can look at [automated] kiosks in various restaurants today, et cetera. You can see various industries that have automated very quickly in some other states that have aggressively raised the minimum wage. Once again, a good economy and smart business practices will always generate good wages, which we have today.”
Bynum-Coleman said she doesn’t support right-to-work. And she disagreed that wages are currently in a good place.
Bynum-Coleman: “I just don't see where it's going to hurt the economy for people to make more money and to be able to take care of their families and be able to pay their light bill and the rent.”
Cox’s basic pitch is that his policies -- and by extension, Republican policies -- are working. The state’s economy is strong, unemployment is low, and he says the GOP deserves credit for that.
Cox: “I think there's a tremendous contrast between the two parties. We have gotten to where we are in Virginia. I think because of very balanced sound policies. And as a Republican majority, I always strive to keep those. I'm afraid of Democrat majority would not keep those.”
But for Bynum-Coleman, the status quo isn’t cutting it. And the best way to fix that, she says, is to flip seats like this blue.
Bynum-Coleman: “Making sure that people can afford their medication, that they can afford their insulin, that people have access to an education and a quality education. That's what a Democratic majority will look like.”
Bynum-Coleman ran against a different Republican incumbent twice before. In 2017, she lost by less than 1,000 votes. Now she’s hoping the third time’s a charm.
And on paper, she could do well in the redrawn district. Hillary Clinton, Ralph Northam, and Tim Kaine won here by at least four points.
But she’s got a strong opponent in Cox -- a veteran lawmaker who has sometimes worked across the aisle on issues like Medicaid expansion. He taught civics to students who are now his constituents.
It’s one of the most closely watched races this year. And you can keep tabs on this and other races by listening to VPM News or by going to vpm.org.
Editor's Note: A previous version of this story said Cox had a larger amount of campaign cash on hand than his opponent. We've removed that reference to reflect campaign finance records posted on Wednesday, which show Cox trailing Bynum-Coleman.