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Dawn Adams And Garrison Coward Compete For Virginia's 68th House District

Dawn Adams and Garrison Coward

VPM News is profiling some of the most competitive General Assembly races in this November’s elections. Here politics and statehouse reporter Ben Paviour takes a look at the race for Virginia's 68th House District. 

Transcript:

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 68th House District. 

It includes parts of the Fan and West End in Richmond and stretches south to parts of Midlothian. It used to be a reliably Republican seat, but Democrat Dawn Adams won by a few hundred votes in 2017. This year, she’s up against 29 year-old Republican Garrison Coward, who is a former aide to Congressman Rob Whittman.

An early focus of the race is lawsuit filed by Adams’ former legislative aid, who claims her boss hacked into the aide’s social media and email accounts. Adams has asked a judge to throw out the case, but I asked if she’s worried it will affect her campaign. 

Adams: I’m running my race and I’ve had a really good response to the work that I’ve done over the last two years. You know, my lawyers are vigorously at work, doing their job. And I’m doing my job. I’m out there, I’m knocking on doors, I’m talking to people, I’m doing my best to get people to see why we have so much opportunity in Virginia.

Coward says the case raises questions about whether voters can trust Adams.

Coward: I think it's a liability for sure. You know, right now we're kind of watching it and seeing, you know, what really happens and how does it unfold. But I think at the end of the day, you want to have a representative that you can trust.

He’s pitching himself as a moderate, focusing on what he calls kitchen table issues like lower taxes and better technology in schools. On issues like gun control, he’s reluctant to pin himself to specific policies. He says it’s about having a conversation. 

Coward:  There’s a lot of different proposals out there. On the federal level, you hear about folks who want to beef up background checks. You also hear about red flag laws. There are obviously some constitutional issues with that. As to whether or not localities should have more say in what they do -- you know, again, I think that's a conversation that needs to be had by the state as a whole.

Adams backs gun control proposals that have been introduced by her fellow Democrats. 

Adams: I think that there are reasonable changes that we can make that if it wasn't so politicized, most people would agree on and that those changes don't affect second amendment rights. There's probably a fairly significant list, but I think universal background checks, one gun a month, limiting the purchase of high-capacity magazines. I mean these are just reasonable proposals.

Adams has a doctorate in nursing, and says one of her proudest moments was passing Medicaid expansion in 2018. She’s made healthcare a focus of her campaign. She’d like to see the state test new models for delivering care, including ones that would bypass insurance companies. 

Adams: So, for example, what if we thought about having conversation with one of the larger healthcare organizations and just test out whether or not you could buy a plan directly from them so that you could use all their preventative services and then that you paid out at some prescribed cost of what it would cost if you had to have a surgery. What would that look like? Would we be able to actually run without going into a deficit for that agency? 

Coward says he’s a proponent of telemedicine, and wants to loosen up some rules around insurance plans. 

Coward: I think that small companies should be able to have the same access to health care packages and plans that larger companies do. I also think that you should be able to buy healthcare across state lines. I think that's very, very important. Right? Access is always an issue, whether that be an urban community or the rural. So quality and then access. 

The candidates also had different approaches to how they would improve schools. Adams supports state-funded pre-kindergarten education and is open to sending more state money to school construction. And she thinks kids are more stressed now than ever.

Adams: And so we need the wraparound services of people like social workers or stress management practitioners to help guide kids with how to deal with the stress of being a student. And I think that's important to learning because when you're stressed out, you can't learn. I think that having an environment that's structurally sound, where you're not like sweating or freezing or you know, you can't go to the bathroom cause the plumbing is broke, you know, these things all interfere with learning.

Coward wants to see schools perform audits to check for cost savings, and backs public charter schools. He believes schools should start workforce training earlier.

Coward: We know that in sixth grade, seventh grade is when, you know, Ben says, ‘Oh, I want to be an architect or I want to be a coder or I want to be this awesome producer.’ Right? I think you should be able to have access to real life skills right at that moment so that you're not creating a pipeline of folks who go through secondary school, then get out and they're like, ‘Okay, well if I don't get to college, what do I do?’

The district includes stretches of Monument Avenue, which is home to several Confederate statues. Right now, cities like Richmond can’t modify or take down these statues without permission from the state. I asked both candidates whether the General Assembly should change that, and give that power to localities.

Adams said she’s on the fence.

Adams: I can tell you that I don't have a firm answer on that, is what I can tell you. 

Adams said she believed the monuments were hurtful, and she can understand the arguments for both taking them down and modifying them. 

Adams: Even to put it things in museums -- sometimes I think it's out of sight, it's out of mind. I think it's really important that we remember that there is a extraordinary history within Richmond around slavery, and all the horrible, and horrific, things that have happened in Virginia's past. And I think sometimes the only way to heal is to really confront things head on. 

Garrison Coward, who is one of two African American Republicans running this year for the House of Delegates, said he thought the law should change. 

Coward: I think so. I think it s it also should be a community discussion, right? I don't think that folks should be able to unilaterally do something of that nature, but I think for each locality issue, the folks, the residents in each locality should have a say in what goes on.

Coward previously led the Republican Party of Virginia’s outreach to minority voters. He was one of Virginia’s delegates at the 2016 Republican National Convention, supporting Senator Marco Rubio. That role required him to support the ultimate nominee: Donald Trump. I asked what he said to voters who might like some of Coward’s policies, but who dislike the president and don’t want to vote for his party. 

Coward: I tell folks that you really need to separate what's going on in the national level from what's going on in Virginia. Because at the end of the day, there's not too much that we can do to change that, that narrative. And as unfortunate as it may be, as, as angry as folks may get about it, you know, you really make the most change on the local and state level, I believe.  And that really impacts on your day-to-day. What are you paying in tolls? What are you paying in your BPOL [Business, Professional, and Occupational License] taxes? What are you paying for your kids to go to school? You know, that kind of stuff. 

Coward and Democrat Dawn Adams will continue making their case to 68th District voters in the coming weeks. For more of our interviews with the candidates, go to vpm.org

You’re listening to VPM News. 

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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