by Brandon Jarvis

The residents in the 66th House of Delegates district have been represented by Kirk Cox for over 30 years. This year that will be changing.

The borders of the district have been altered multiple times during that time frame but it has always been anchored by the small conservative city of Colonial Heights. This is Kirk Cox’s home field, where a few houses in every neighborhood are currently displaying signs to show support for his gubernatorial campaign. 

The district was a reliably Republican stronghold for Cox’s first 29 years in office, but due to special redistricting in 2019 after a court ruled that the lines were racially gerrymandered, the district took a 32-point swing to the left. Cox lost the rural and suburban south-Chesterfield voters and gained the middle chunk of Chesterfield from Colonial Heights to the Richmond border, a much more diverse set of communities.  

But even with that swing to the left, Cox, the Speaker of the House at the time prevailed by four points over Sheila Bynum-Coleman in a race that cost more than $3 million. 

Two years later, however, Cox is dedicating all of his time to run for governor and will not be seeking reelection to his seat — meaning the district will have new representation for the first time in over three decades. “It has been the honor of a lifetime to represent my hometown in our citizen legislature for over 30 years and to have served as Speaker and Majority Leader,” Cox said in a statement Tuesday. “I am immensely proud of what we have accomplished for the 66th District, from making Virginia the most veteran-friendly state in the country to standing up for the unborn to giving Virginia students the educational opportunities necessary to succeed. Thank you to the 66th District for putting your trust in me; I hope to continue to serve you as Governor!”

Three candidates, City Councilor Mike Cherry R-Colonial Heights, activist Katie Sponsler D-Colonial Heights and Linnard Harris D-Chesterfield are running for the seat.  

For Katie Sponsler, an Air Force veteran and former park ranger, this is her second time running. Her first campaign in 2017 took place under the previous boundaries that skewed heavily to the right. Sponsler lost that race by 26 points and was outspent by more than $1 million. Sponsler realizes that the 2019 redraw has made this a much more friendly race for her. “It is a completely different district,” she said in an interview.

Sponsler cited the experience she gained in the last four years as an activist as something that helped mold her candidacy for this cycle. “I have certainly seen a lot more of the political angle and the man behind the curtain, so to speak,” she said. “I definetly do not pull punches like I was at first. At first I was reading the room. I am not a politician by birth or by trade, so I was kind of a newbie in this world four years ago.”

Sponsler said that while she was hesitant at times during her first candidacy, she doesn’t plan to hold back anymore. “I know who is in the room now, I know where they’re standing, what they are representing, and I am not afraid to be very clear when I disagree,” she said. 

Mike Cherry, a current member of the Colonial Heights city council is the only Republican running in the race, clearing the way for him to focus on the general election in November. Cherry retired from the Air Force after serving 20 years and went to six of the seven continents during that time, he says. “I got to live a very cool existence,” he said when reflecting on that time of his life. “Even the crappy days were better than going in and punching the time clock.”

Cherry will be the first Republican not named Kirk Cox on the ballot in HD-66 since 1987. With the new district’s lines making it tough for the Republicans to hold the seat, Cherry said he is prepared to work just as hard as Cox did in 2019. “To be honest with you, we are going to follow Kirk’s blueprint,” Cherry said. “I am already out knocking doors now and there are a lot of folks telling me that it is too early and people won’t remember me. But our plan is to double knock every door in the district.” 

This is reminiscent of 2019 when Cox could be seen nearly every day walking through Colonial Heights neighborhoods talking to potential voters. It showed to pay off. Bynum-Coleman won the new, Chesterfield portion of the district by a little less than 2,100 votes (54%). Cox made up the difference in Colonial Heights where he won by more than 3,400 votes (79%). 

Lacking incumbency in perhaps the most competitive House seat in Virginia, Cherry will also have to raise a significant amount of money to remain competitive in November. In 2019, Cox spent over $2 million to secure the four-point victory. Cherry is aware of the task in front of him and is hopeful that the Democrats will be distracted by a primary.  “[The race] has the potential to cost that much again just because the [Democrats] really think this is a winnable seat for them because of the demographics,” he said. “So we are trying to get out ahead, I know the Democratic side of the ticket is embroiled in a primary, so they can’t focus on anything other than each other now. I think that gives me the advantage of getting out and saying I am the nominee.” 

In addition to Sponsler on the Democratic side, Linnard Harris Sr. is seeking the nomination. Harris ran as an independent in 2019. He spent $10,999 and earned 1% of the vote. 

In an interview, Harris said he ran as an Independent in 2019 because he wanted to make sure he would make it onto the ballot. “I felt like I wanted to be part of the race and part of the fight for the people and be a voice for the people,” Harris said in an interview. “The only way I was going to get in to be that voice was to run as an Independent candidate.” 

Harris said he agrees with the basic principles of the Democratic Party’s platform. “The basic principles, yes. I don’t agree with any party 100%, but basically yeah they are on the line of my thoughts in politics,” he said. “For me it is not about a party, although I will be running as a Democratic candidate, but it is moreso about the people and what they believe should be done in their community.” 

Harris is also a veteran, a former police officer and a substitiute school teacher. He said that he believes it is time for a new dynamic in representation for the district. “A lot of people will say that Kirk Cox has been representing the district for 31 years so everything has gone smoothly, but everything has not gone smoothly for everybody,” Harris said. “Everything has gone smoothly for everyone that has voted for him. We need to try and do something different to make things more equal for everyone.” 

Harris also touched on his personal experience of homlessness and how that would differentiate him as a legislator. “I understand how it is to want to have a roof over your head and I really plan to fight to come with some kind of idea to help get homeless people off the streets.” 

Sponsler said she would help the communities that have been overlooked by past representation as a way to differentiate herself. “There were a lot of communities and populations that were overlooked or missed,” Sponsler said, before noting that she would want to go out into the community to hear directly from constituents — specifically the residents that were added to the district in the 2019 redraw. “Those folks who are not our traditional donor class, not our traditional political class are definetly concentrated in this district having been gerrymandered for nearly a full decade.”

Cherry, the candidate that has to somehow climb out from behind the substantially sized shadow of the former House Speaker wants to stress that he will not be a cloned version of Cox if he were to be elected. “To be honest with you, I am Mike Cherry. I love Kirk, I think he did a great job of representing the district, but I am not Kirk,” he said. “There are things that we do differently. We are certainly going to provide great customer service, we certainly are going to be available if constituents have issues, but I don’t want to be compared and make everyone think that I am Kirk 2.0, or that I am going to be exactly like Kirk.”

Cox endorsed Cherry’s campaign in March. “Mike has a strong record of conservative leadership on the Colonial Heights City Council, one that I am confident he will continue in Richmond. For those of us who advocate for effective and responsible government, Mike is our candidate.”

The Democratic Party of Virginia (DPVA) is optimistic that they can win this seat. “With endorsements from right-wing radicals like Bob Good and E.W. Jackson, Mike Cherry is another sign of how out of touch the Virginia GOP has become,” said Grant Fox, the communications director for DPVA. “With an open seat and Republicans scrambling to out-Trump each other up and down the ballot, this race is an opportunity for us to expand our House majority.”

Rich Meagher, associate professor of political science at Randolph Macon College said the Democrats have good reason to be interested in this race. “Democrats have many reasons to be optimistic about this race,” he said in an interview. “Despite a powerful incumbent in Kirk Cox, they ran a very competitive race in 2019. Republicans have not exactly lined up to grab Cox’s seat, suggesting they see hanging onto it as a challenge.” 

Sponsler and Harris will continue to campaign for the nomination until the June 8 primary when Democratic voters decide. The general election between Cherry, and the Democratic nominee will take place on Nov. 2. 

Virginia Scope is an independent news publication that is funded largely by donations and subscribers. As local newsrooms are losing writers each day, we are trying to fill the void to ensure that the public is informed and that leaders are held accountable for their actions. If you can chip in a monthly subscription of whatever you can afford, even $1, it will go a long way to helping us. Subscribe here. You can also make a one-time donation below:

By vascope

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *