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Henrico supervisor candidates speak at environment-focused forum

Candidates speak on a stage during a forum in Henrico County.
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
Tom Lappas, founder and owner of the Henrico Citizen, moderates a Wednesday forum at Reynolds Community College for candidates running for positions on the Henrico County Board of Supervisors.

The Sierra Club, Partnership for Smarter Growth and Henrico Conservation Action Network hosted the event.

Nine candidates are running in contested elections for Henrico County Board of Supervisors positions in the Brookland, Fairfield, Tuckahoe and Three Chopt districts this year. Four of them took part in a Wednesday forum sponsored by a coalition of environmental groups at Reynolds Community College.

The event — presented by the Sierra Club, Partnership for Smarter Growth and Henrico Conservation Network — was an opportunity for candidates to engage with voters on the county’s environmental challenges.

Tim Cywinski, a spokesperson with the Sierra Club’s Virginia Chapter, told VPM News that environmental concerns have become a central issue in local races. That’s especially true in Henrico, as the county faces scrutiny and legal consequences over its environmental stewardship.

“We all see the stakes. We see what's going on with the climate, and we see what's going on in our communities,” he said. “The best way to hold people in power accountable is engaging with them as much as possible and to make sure they’re engaging with the communities.”

Candidates were asked questions by Tom Lappas, publisher of the Henrico Citizen, who acted as the forum’s moderator. The candidates addressed local issues like land-use, housing, transportation and climate change.

The participating hopefuls included independent Stephen Rast, and Democrats Jody Rogish, Misty Whitehead and Roscoe Cooper.

Cywinski said every candidate received an invitation to the forum, but not all were able to attend. Among the absentees were incumbent Three Chopt supervisor Tommy Branin and Brookland supervisor Dan Schmitt — both Republicans.

Whitehead is a trial attorney, military veteran and mother running against Three Chopt district incumbent Branin. If elected, she would be the only woman serving on Henrico’s five-member board after the expected retirement of Republican Tuckahoe supervisor Pat O’Bannon.

“That’s a big deal to me,” Whitehead told the audience. “Part of why I’m running is to provide a different perspective to the board, and I hope to change people's mindsets in the future.”

Rast, a civil engineer with experience in the private sector who currently works for the county, is running against Brookland district incumbent Schmitt, a Republican.

Rast said the county needs to usher in a “new generation of political leadership” to promote smarter and more sustainable growth.

Cooper has served on the Henrico School Board for the past eight years and is running in the Fairfield district, where retiring supervisor and board chairperson Frank Thornton resides. His opponents include independents Delta Bowers and James Middleton, who did not attend the forum.

Cooper has served on a number of local appointed boards, including the Capital Area Health Network.

“We do know if we don’t make changes then life as we know it is going to be drastically different,” Cooper said about the environment. “So, I’m committed to making sure we can keep Henrico safe.”

Rogish is running in the Tuckahoe district and has an educational background in public policy, as well as experience as an IT project manager with the Virginia Department of Corrections.

Rogish said he’s learned a number of techniques in the past 25 years working in government and technology, and said if elected, he’ll implement transparency and sustainability practices to maintain the county’s growth and well-being.

Rogish’s opponent is Greg Baka — who’s served on the county’s planning commission since 2016 — didn’t attend the event.

“We couldn’t get everyone, but the people who wanted to be here were the voters,” said Cywinski after the forum. “They know this election is really high stakes, where there’s going to be a floor of policies protecting people from pollution. The people who came here today and got information about the candidates are optimistic about the future.”

Aileen Rivera, an environmental activist who lives in Henrico was among the attendees. She said she was impressed by the candidates' responses.

“I was happy to see all the people that came, and I'm hoping that more candidates will gather not just in this forum, but get out there and speak to these issues that people want to hear,” Rivera said.

Rivera is originally from Puerto Rico and has lived in the county for around 26 years. She said she’s concerned about the Henrico's communities of color and how climate change is affecting parts of the county.

“We can see what's happening because of climate change and how it’s affecting our everyday lives. I'm hoping voters will get to know candidates that are actually doing the work,” Rivera said. “We need candidates to be involved, to be people who are really out there talking and walking the walk.”

Voters in Henrico — and across the commonwealth — will soon have a chance to choose their preferred candidates in local elections. In-person early voting begins Sept. 22. Election day is Nov. 7.

Lyndon German covers Henrico and Hanover counties for VPM News.