CHESTERFIELD, Va. — As the days draw closer to Election Day, the stakes are high for candidates looking to take a seat in the General Assembly.
The voting district map was redrawn this year, after a judge found 11 House districts were drawn in a way that packed black voters into certain areas, which is called racial gerrymandering. More than 425,000 voters from Richmond to Virginia Beach were shuffled into 25 new districts.
Six districts could flip from red to blue if you look at the voting trends from the 2012 Presidential Election, according to analysis by the Virginia Public Access Project, VPAP.
One of those is the 66th District, currently represented by House Speaker Kirk Cox. Democrat Sheila Bynum-Coleman and Independent Linnard Harris are running against the longtime Republican.
As part of a series looking at the 66th District candidates, Capitol Bureau Reporter Sara McCloskey met up with Bynum-Coleman while she was meeting voters last week.
The local real estate agent and mom of five said she never planned on running for office. But after trying to meet with her representative to talk about issues facing her family, Bynum-Coleman decided to run in 2015 against Del. Riley Ingram (R-District 62). She ran against Ingram in 2017, losing by about 800 votes.
When the district was redrawn, Bynum-Coleman faced a new competitor: the House Speaker.
In 2017, she was appointed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe as the first African American woman to sit on the Board of Contractors. While she hasn’t held public office before, Bynum-Coleman says voters see it is as a benefit.
”That have said to me, just do not stay in there for 30 years,” she explained. “They do not want someone to be in office that will be in there for 30 years which I do not plan to sit in this seat for 30 years.”
While knocking on doors in a Chesterfield neighborhood, Bynum-Coleman was a mom on mission to meet as many people as she could before nightfall. Even a barking dog on a walk didn’t stop her from dropping off information to voters.
“Most important is being able to talk to people that may not necessarily agree with me and find a place that we can agree,” she said. “I actually enjoy talking to the people that don’t agree with me.”
Bynum-Coleman says she can usually find common ground with residents, even on gun control. She described talking to man who was a member of the National Rifle Association a few weeks ago.
”I met a gentleman while knocking on doors and he was outside. I stopped to talk to him,” she explained. “When he goes to the gun shows he sees people getting guns without a check and he thinks people should have a check.”
The issue of gun control has taken hold of the General Assembly. Following the deadly shooting in Virginia Beach, Gov. Ralph Northam called lawmakers back to Richmond for a special session to prevent this type of violence from happening. After about 90 minutes, lawmakers adjourned. Republicans tasked the Virginia State Crime Commission, a bipartisan group, to look at the legislation proposed and to develop a report back to the General Assembly. Both parties have been going back and forth about how to address the issue. Lawmakers are expected to return to Richmond Nov. 18, after the election.
Gun violence isn’t something Bynum-Coleman takes lightly. In 2016, her daughter was shot and injured. Since then, she’s tried to be a voice for the community.
”Common no matter who I’m talking to, with this religious or political background is people want to make sure that their streets are safe,” she said. “These are real issues, real concerns that people have. And we have to address it.”
Another issue close to her campaign is education. While door knocking, she spoke with many residents about the needs of seniors and how to support local businesses.
There are concerns about her campaign’s advertisement attacking Speaker Cox. The commercial accused Cox of joining “with special interests to deny teachers a raise.” The citation used to back this claim was inaccurate. The ad was pulled and a new one with different citations were released, each being at least seven years old.
During the 2019 General Assembly session, Cox pushed to give teachers a 5 percent raise.
When asked about this issue, Bynum-Coleman said more is being done to ensure problems like this don’t happen again.
“In life humans make mistakes. There’s no one that’s perfect and it wasn’t intentional. I wasn’t trying to misinform anyone,” Bynum-Coleman said. “More eyes are on it to make sure those mistakes don’t happen.”
Moving forward with the General Assembly, Bynum-Coleman says more change needs to happen. Even if lawmakers are staying in office for multiple terms, she says Virginians aren’t seeing enough happening in their communities.
“No matter your social economic status, your religion or your political beliefs there are so many people that have the same problems. They have the same issues that are not being addressed,” she added.
Election Day is Nov. 5. If you haven’t registered already, the deadline to do so is Oct. 15.