Colonial Heights, Va – With the retirement of Del. Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) from the House of Delegates, the race to fill his seat is heating up. Either Mike Cherry (R-Colonial Heights) or Katie Sponsler (D-Colonial Heights) will be the next representative for the people of Colonial Heights and part of Chesterfield.
Cherry and Sponsler have similar professional backgrounds. Both served in the Air Force, Cherry works as a chaplain for the local police department and Sponsler was a police officer for the federal government.
After retiring from the Air Force in 2011, Cherry became a full-time pastor and eventually began running a Christian Pre-K-12 school called Christian Life Academy in Chesterfield and Colonial Heights. He was also elected to serve on the Colonial Heights City Council in 2016 and won his re-election bid in 2020. “I have won elections within the district that encompasses the 66,” Cherry said in an interview. “I think I am very qualified and ready to run to take Kirk Cox’s seat and to represent this district well.”
Now a mother with two children on the spectrum, Sponsler first spent her time after the Air Force as a park ranger for the National Park Service before becoming involved with political activism. “I have spent most of my adult life fighting to make sure those values reflected in what I have done for a living are protected in legislation and law,” Sponsler said in an interview. “It was a natural progression for me to start running for office and getting involved with politics.”
Sponsler lost handily against Cox in 2017 when the district boundaries were still gerrymandered. After a court-ordered redraw of the lines made the district much friendlier for Democrats in 2019, Sheila Bynum Coleman was still unable to defeat Cox, who was the Speaker of the House at the time.
But Cox was widely known and liked within his party and had successfully effectively advanced legislation throughout his three-decade career in the General Assembly. Cherry and Sponsler don’t have nearly the same name recognition or powerful friendships that Cox possesses — this leads experts to think that the results in this race will largely hinge on the statewide environment with the gubernatorial race.
“It is a good example of the kinds of challenges that both parties are facing right now,” said Richard Meagher, a professor of political science at Randolph Macon College. “Which is the battle of the suburbs. It really is a testing ground this year in the sense that the Republicans want to crawl back the suburbs.”
Virginia’s suburbs have trended to the left quite drastically during the last four years. Democrats were able to flip enough seats to gain control of both chambers of the General Assembly and their statewide candidates won their races with wide margins since 2018 and 2020. While many consider Trump’s unpopularity in the Commonwealth as the main driving force behind the blue wave, Meagher doesn’t give the former president all of the credit for Virginia’s shift to the left.
“I don’t think it is just Trump. The suburbs have become more Democratic,” Meagher said. “The suburbs have become more like cities, more cosmopolitan, less [about] gun culture — they’re more interested in sort of bread and butter economic issues and less interested in fighting culture war issues.”
Meagher noted that the candidates in HD-66 might be trying to appear more moderate in an attempt to attract the middle-of-the-road voters they need to win. “You have got this conservative pastor who is trying not to play up his conservative pastor-ness too much, you have got a Democrat who is also a veteran trying to play up her veteran history,” Meagher said. “They are trying to appeal to the middle.”
While the candidates might be trying to appear more moderate, they are still far apart on the issues. Cherry did not seem excited about the legalization of marijuana, but he did say he would have preferred the legislature wait until 2024 to make sure that all of the systems would be in place. “They kind of got ahead of themselves with the rush to legalization. But again the cats out of the bag, it is what it is,” Cherry said.
He also noted that he would stand up against ending qualified immunity for police officers and defunding police departments if elected. “I don’t see how you think defunding the police and ending qualified immunity is going to make our communities safer,” Cherry noted.
The first piece of legislation that Cherry would sponsor in the House would be to allow school choice for parents. “I think we need to give parents the option with their tax dollars of where to go,” Cherry said. He currently serves as the head administrator for a private Christain school.
Legislation like this would allow public funding to follow students if they want to explore private school options. Cherry addressed concerns over school choice possibly decreasing the funding to public schools. “But in that caveat, I want to make sure that I say I am not about defunding public schools either. I think there is a balance that we can reach.”
The Democrats have passed hundreds of pieces of legislation during their two years in control of the government, but Sponsler believes work can still be done — specifically on criminal justice reform. “From someone who has been on the ground as a law enforcement officer, that is a unique perspective in that conversation about reform,” she said.
Sponsler noted that this is one way she believes she and Cherry differ. “We both know how to operate a firearm, but I know what it is like to be at the opposite end of it. I know what it is like to both hold it and draw it on another human being and have it drawn on me,” she said when discussing the differences between her and Cherry. “There is an incredibly important aspect in that perspective because it creates this idea that maybe the world isn’t the way I thought it is. Maybe I need to expand what I have seen and look around.”
Sponsler also noted that she believes the legislature could do more for environmental protections like protecting clean water and air for residents below the poverty level, fully funding the education system in Virginia equitably, and protecting children with disabilities. “JLARC has said that we are failing our disabled students so we have it in the stats, it’s not just the personal testaments that so many parents and disabled children have been giving for years,” Sponsler said. “I think we can do a lot more to protect our children with disabilities.”
A lot of attention will be on this race as Republicans look to try and gain back some of the seats that they lost during the last five years and Democrats look for more opportunities to gain.
Cherry and Sponsler face-off Nov 2.
For more on this race between Cherry and Sponsler, listen to the latest Virginia Scope podcast below with an in-depth look at the race:
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