GOP candidates debate issues at Suffolk forum

Published 10:59 am Tuesday, May 2, 2023

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Three Rivers Republicans Women’s Club brought together five Republican candidates who presented their stands on issues including abortion, gun control, school safety and veteran suicide.

Five state House of Delegates candidates seeking their party nomination participated in the forum at Crittenden, Eclipse and Hobson Ruritan Club Monday, April 24, along with one seeking the GOP nod for state Senate. Republican candidates seeking the 84th House of Delegates nomination who participated are Rod Thompson and Mike Dillender, while Don Carey, Jason Wooldridge and Baxter Ennis attended in their bid for the GOP nomination in the 89th District. Del. Emily Brewer also participated as she seeks the nomination in the 17th District state Senate race. She faces Hermie Sadler, who did not attend, in a June primary race.

The forum began with two questions directed individually to Ennis and Carey.

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Ennis was asked if voters in Suffolk, Isle of Wight and Franklin would be strongly represented in the 89th District due to “representation for Chesapeake being small,” He responded on how the 89th District has 70% of the vote being in Chesapeake with 30% being in Suffolk. 

“I will have an office over in Suffolk, so even though 70% of the vote is in Chesapeake, I will also make sure I spend one full day each week over in Suffolk,” Ennis said.

Carey’s question dealt with his plans to protect unborn babies from abortion. He responded by explaining that he serves on the board of the Crisis Pregnancy Center and how he fights against the abortion industry.

“In Virginia, the abortion industry is moving from the brick and mold that we’ve seen, in the wake of the Dobbs decision and trying to get the abortion pill to our citizens through telehealth mainly,” Carey said. “We need to have legislation cut them off at the knees so we’re not doing those things, killing our children. They’re not potential life, they’re life with potential and they deserve to live the same freedoms that you and I have.”

Carey also said he wants to find help for mothers who are going through these difficult situations.

“We can point them to the Crisis Pregnancy Center, we can point them to nonprofits, we can point them to churches to say ‘you don’t have to kill your child, there is a social network here for you.’” he said. “Government’s number one job is to protect life. I will always fight to protect life. We have to be a community to make sure that we give these women the help that they need.”

From this point forward, questions went to each of the five House of Delegates candidates individually, with their fellow opponents responding after their answers.

The next question posed to Wooldrige asked: “What will you do about veteran suicide?” to which he opened his response with “22 a day.”

“That’s a whole big part of my heart to make sure that they get the care that they need,” Wooldrige said. “There’s a lot of issues and things about mental health that are wrong right now, and the 22 a day has to stop. The PTSD has to stop.”

Speaking on the Marcus Alert system, named after Marcus-David Peters, a biology teacher who was killed in 2018 by Richmond police during a mental health crisis, Wooldridge said he wants improvements in the system. 

“It’s designed for mental health intervention,” he said. “It’s designed to preempt police intervention, which is what causes a lot of the bad things that happen when you have a mental health crisis, lots of people end up on the wrong end of the taser or even worse than that. When I get to Richmond, I am going to work on expanding Marcus Alert.”

Following up on the question, Ennis noted the lack of beds “across the commonwealth” to help behavioral health issues. 

“We are just in the process of building a brand-new veterans administration facility right beside the Chesapeake Regional Hospital — 200,000 square foot facility, much, much needed,” Ennis said. “We’ve all got to put pressure on our elected officials, whoever they are, that we need more behavioral health beds in the state.”

The forum then moved to the next question aimed at Dillender: “What is your plan to increase school safety?” 

Dillender said they are working hard to get security in place.

“We want an armed guard at school time. We’ve not had that until recently,” Dillender said. “Regardless of whatever it is, a public school or a private school, I’m for more security in Virginia schools and I will work to make sure that that happens because I think the gun free zones that we have, everybody in this room realizes that it’s not the guns that are killing people, it’s the people behind the guns.”

Carey followed up on the school safety question noting there are more security guards for elected officials than children.

“One of the things that irritates me about school safety is that as an elected official on city council, we have armed guards that protect us. If you look at our businesses, they have armed guards there. Our children deserve the same attention, the same protection,” Carey expressed in response. “I am all for making sure that we have armed, trained professionals at every single school and I don’t care what it takes when I am in a General Assembly, I will fight to make sure that we are protecting our children.”

Thompson followed as well, raising the issue that Virginia does not allow teachers to carry concealed weapons and pointed to the vulnerability that bomb threats leave for school communities.

“There are programs throughout the country, one particularly called FASTER where teachers once a month have to go away for a weekend and do gun training. They do simulation training, they do range training, they do safety training. So you’re not going to have some school turning into the wild west because teachers are armed,” Thompson said on the issue. “We can talk about security guards all day, we just had bomb threats over at King’s Fork High School and my first question was ‘you got all these kids exiting out into the ballfield, into the parking lot, who’s protecting them?’”

Carey, Ennis and Dillender agreed to supporting the nominee regardless who wins, however when it came to Thompson regarding Dillender, he spoke on how he’s “seen things on both social media and on Mike’s emails that cause concern.”

“I will not air the dirty laundry I have on him, but I have proof of misleading the public. Of saying things in his emails that he got through me. My vote is earned, and if I don’t win this primary, Mike is going to have to shift gears in his campaign to get it,” Thompson said.

Dillender responded saying he has “maintained a positive campaign throughout” both the past and current election cycle.

“I plan to maintain a positive campaign all the way through. I have no idea what Rod is talking about, but I’m positive and I have no reason to be negative at this point because we’re sailing towards victory,” Dillender said.

Following up the moment, Wooldridge refocused on the question and said that he would “shoulder up” and “fight right there.” 

Thompson later addressed the issue of supporting Dillender if he wins the nomination “even if that is standing outside the fire and continuously talking about integrity.”

“He’s not an egregious man, he’s not bad,” Thompson said. “He’s a good candidate, but he’s not the best candidate. But I will support him if he beats me in the primary.”

The final question of the night went to Carey on healthcare. He responded by wanting to make healthcare more accessible and affordable by being “more competitive” so industries “cannot monopolize by state.”

Carey said that he is not a healthcare professional but explained how he would address it.

“I don’t know all the ins and outs about that but I am willing to sit down, have conversations with constituents, have conversations with professionals and figure out a way that we can operate within a free market economy to bring those prices down for our citizens,” Carey said.

Due to Sadler, Emporia businessman, not being in attendance, Del. Brewer only presented before the start of the debate before sitting alongside the audience. She discussed what’s at stake for November and the power of the majority running through Suffolk, Isle of Wight and Chesapeake.

“We have an opportunity to repeal the electric vehicle mandate that has tied us to California,” she said. “We will have the opportunity if we take back the Senate and hold the House to be able to make sure that we can repeal all the extreme gun control issues that Democrats passed through two years ago.” 

“Even though we’ve got into a little bit better time — it’s great to have a Republican governor — our work is not done,” she said. We have a ton of work still to accomplish and part of that is holding a House and taking back the Senate this November.”

Early voting for both the 17th District Senate and 84th District House races begins Friday, May 5. The 89th District House race is a Republican Firehouse Primary on May 6.

For more information on early voting, go to