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7th House District: Veteran and Trump loyalist ready for battle

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7th District candidates

The 7th District state House candidates: Democrat Derek Kitts, left, and Republican Marie March.

The race for Virginia’s 7th House of Delegates District will show whether an Army veteran can emerge victorious against an outspoken and locally popular business woman in a territory that has long emanated volcanic red.

Earlier this year, Marie March clinched the GOP nomination for the seat that Del. Nick Rush, R-Christiansburg, will leave at the end of this year. Some time after, Derek Kitts won the Democratic nomination in the race.

March owns the restaurants Due South BBQ and Fatback Soul Shack, with the former having a location in both Christiansburg and Roanoke.

Kitts, also a business owner, served three combat tours in Iraq and another in Afghanistan. He received two Bronze Star Medals and a Purple Heart, all for action in Iraq.

Neither candidate has held public office before, but they have dabbled to varying extents in politics.

Prior to gaining greater regional attention for her demonstrative support of former President Donald Trump, March was already a familiar face in Montgomery County due in part to her past clashes with Christiansburg’s government. Her interest in local politics helped her develop a following and has in fact led to some changes on the Christiansburg Town Council.

The 7th District race isn’t Kitts first run for office as he in 2016 unsuccessfully vied for the 9th Congressional District seat currently held by Republican Morgan Griffith of Salem.

While he’s certainly no stranger to adversity, Kitts is up against what seems to be an almost insurmountable wall as the 7th District has long been a conservative stronghold.

Rush, also an Army veteran, served five terms as the district’s representative and comfortably defended the seat during that period. His Republican predecessors enjoyed similar successes.

March’s controversial brand of politics continues to resonate well with conservative voters across the board. She has publicized the former president in some of her campaign material and said she believes her outspoken support of him and other affiliated politicians has endeared her to many voters in the New River Valley.

March referred to COVID-19 as “some Communist Chinese virus” in one campaign mailer, reflecting some of the controversial language Trump himself previously used in his description of the virus.

March, however, said she believes the hostility toward her has been overblown or has died down significantly over the past several months.

“Honestly, a lot of people are coming around,” she said, adding that she’s heard of some Democrats who have quietly expressed their support for her. “Even the Democrats, they’re sick of what’s coming out of Richmond right now. I think what’s going on nationally, a lot has changed since January.”

March drew condemnation from many in the region earlier this year for attending Trump’s infamous Stop the Steal rally in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, the day of the Capitol riot that turned deadly.

March, however, defended her actions, maintaining that she left hours before the riot and that one of her major reasons for attending the rally was so her father could hear the former president speak. She has also said there was nothing criminal about listening to the president speak.

Despite the difficulty of the task in front of him, Kitts insists, perhaps ironically, that he’s truly not a politician and that he intends to serve the interests of Southwest Virginia residents. He said he believes many of the needs in the region shouldn’t be aligned with certain political parties.

Kitts has touted his military service, a background that often resonates well with conservative voters.

“It’s a good thing,” he said, adding that he’s part of a four-generation military family. “Some people like to use patriotism as a prop. Some of us wear it because that’s who we are.”

Kitts brought up his military background to give one strong reason for his support of the Second Amendment, which has generally drawn far less scrutiny among Republicans.

Kitts is also against efforts to remove qualified immunity, a measure that protects government officials — including police — against frivolous lawsuits. He said he understands reforms are needed in law enforcement, but argues qualified immunity needs to remain due to the complex nature of police work.

Kitts said calls to remove qualified immunity are of particular concern for rural police agencies. He said removing the measure can hamper recruitment efforts, which are even more difficult at the small town level. He said that’s another issue in which he feels he strongly represents the New River Valley.

“This would add an undue burden to them,” he said.

While March claims that some Democrats are in fact supportive of her, Kitts himself is certain he’s earned the backing of many he described as moderate Republicans.

Kitts said there are conservatives who want nothing to do with anyone who was on the ground in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6. He said he takes offense to descriptions of the insurrectionists as patriots.

“True patriotism is serving in defense of freedom,” Kitts said. “I don’t think she [March] knows the first thing about it.”

March dismisses questions about her patriotism. Throughout her campaign, she has espoused her support for veterans and has specifically referred to her grandfather, who she said was a surgeon who served during World War II on a Navy battleship. She has said her father served in the Air Force.

Still, Kitts and March do stand far apart on a number of issues.

One recent issue that has sharply divided many Democrats and Republicans is the question of whether vouchers should be provided to public school students who decide to switch to private or homeschool.

March strongly favors vouchers, whereas Kitts opposes the idea.

March said she’s for vouchers due, in part, to what she sees as excessive state and federal government interference in the functions of public schools. She specifically referred to issues such as the enactment of policies in the schools for transgender students, a subject she called deeply personal and argued shouldn’t be imposed by government.

Groups on both sides of the issue have cited safety in their arguments for or against the policies.

Proponents have said the policies effectively combat bullying of transgender students, whom they say are bullied much more frequently than other groups. Opponents have argued the policies will endanger certain students in places such as bathrooms where some classmates could take advantage of the policy by lying about their true gender identity.

“I would choose a school that leaves politics out of everything,” said March, who describes the debate over transgender students as purely political. “Boys coming into a girl’s bathroom, that is complete chaos.

“They certainly shouldn’t be testing it in the public schools with the kids.”

Another point from March on the vouchers falls more along economic lines, but still drew criticism from Kitts.

March said vouchers give parents greater control over how their tax dollars are spent. She argues that choice ought to be honored due to the fact much of the public school funding ultimately comes from parents and because they ought to have a say in their children’s education.

“I just want people to have choices,” she said. “In a way, it’s giving people back their hard-earned money.”

Kitts, like many voucher opponents, argues such measures would effectively shift funding away from already under-funded public education systems to private schools, which he added aren’t held to the same regulations as their public counterparts.

Kitts said he has concerns about what seems to be calls from March to want to privatize certain government functions.

“I don’t think she understands the repercussions of that,” he said.

Kitts said adequately funding public schools in Southwest Virginia is one of the keys to pulling the region ahead.

“This is the great equalizer,” he said.

March said she’s a staunch believer in the free market and that she anticipates the vouchers would lead to competition between different kinds of schools, an outcome she doesn’t view negatively. She said it would force public school systems to rethink how they operate, including how they spend their money.

“This would fix the whole problem of politics going in our schools,” she said. “Competition truly drives excellence. It could change the whole playing field for how our kids are taught.”

While the history of the 7th District and her own victory during the GOP primary suggest an all but foregone conclusion in March’s favor next month, it was unclear at one point how far the businesswoman would get in her first run for office.

In addition to March’s contentious history with the Christiansburg Town Council and the aftermath of the Jan. 6 trip to D.C., several Republican elected officials in the area openly threw their support behind past opponent Sherri Blevins during the spring primary. Blevins currently serves on the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors and has strong ties to institutions such as the local law enforcement community.

March, however, insists much of the local GOP has come around.

March has raised a total of $138,662, according to the latest campaign finance figures tracked by the Virginia Public Access Project. That amount includes a nearly $40,000 loan to herself.

Other major donors to March’s campaign include Rush himself, who has made a cash contribution of $8,000 and another in-kind of $2,160 for advertising. The owners of Christiansburg-based Shelor Motor Mile, who have donated to conservative candidates in the past, have contributed $10,000 to March’s campaign.

Kitts has raised $105,005, according to VPAP. Among the donations to his campaign are $5,000 from the Montgomery County Democratic Committee, $1,000 from former Montgomery County School Board member Connie Froggatt and another $1,000 from state Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke.

Former Christiansburg council member Harry Collins, who serves on the Montgomery County Republican Party’s executive committee, said he supports March and pointed to her conservative platform.

“I like what she stands for,” Collins said. “She’s pro-gun, likes the Second Amendment. She stands up for what she thinks is right. Those things are the reasons.”

Collins said he’s also concerned about other recently passed laws that probably wouldn’t have moved forward with more Republicans in office.

“She’s a very strong candidate, and we need all the Republicans we can get in the General Assembly,” he said, adding that he also feels Southwest Virginia has been neglected by state lawmakers who he argues seem to favor the state’s more left-leaning regions.

Blevins didn’t outright name March herself, but the supervisor said she’s a staunch supporter of the Republican Party and its representation in the General Assembly.

Blevins, however, does in fact share at least some views with March, particularly on the issue of the school vouchers. Blevins, who forms part of her board’s 4-3 GOP majority, was one of the Montgomery County supervisors who has pushed for the inclusion of a pro-voucher item on the elected body’s annual legislative priorities.

“I just feel that education is something each parent, family should be actively involved in,” Blevins said. “And they should be the first ones to make the decisions for their families.”

Other Republican elected officials such as some of Blevins’ fellow supervisors and Rush himself couldn’t be reached to comment on the race.

Kitts himself does have support from several local political figures who, among other points, have voiced confidence he would be better at working with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

Jenni Gallagher, chairwoman of the Montgomery County Democratic Committee, has maintained her scrutiny of March’s decision to go to D.C. on Jan. 6 and of some of the business woman’s past commentary on national issues.

Among other things, Gallagher touted Kitts support of increased funding for education.

“He is the only candidate who could be the kind of representative that the 7th District deserves: one who believes that government can work, who can build relationships in Richmond — on both sides of the aisle — to bring change that will benefit the entire region, and who cares more about service to the community than partisan national politics,” Gallagher wrote in an email.

Outgoing Christiansburg Councilman Steve Huppert said he supports Kitts and has in fact written a letter-to-the-editor to The Roanoke Times in favor of the Democratic candidate.

Huppert’s recent letter references the rancher attire that March has worn at events and that she has been photographed in for her campaign material. The councilman said while he sees that she’s trying to connect to a certain base of voters, he’s not sure how much of her campaigning will translate to effective lawmaking in Richmond.

On the other hand, Huppert touted Kitts’ military background as a potential sign of his law making ability. Huppert himself is a Vietnam War veteran.

“I think just being a Democrat right now in the district, and having the determination to run against the strong odds, it shows maybe the man has character and a good willingness to succeed in tough situations,” Huppert said.

Huppert, however, said he’s well aware of Kitts’ odds in the race. Huppert said voters in the district have long almost uniquely supported Republicans due to their strong desire to see conservative causes protected. He said Trump’s influence in the area is also still very much in play.

“One of the big things, of course, is gun control and Second Amendment rights,” Huppert said. “And this area is so, so strong on not wanting anybody to mess around with their guns.”

Another Kitts backer is Floyd Mayor Will Griffin, who described the House of Delegates candidate as a “good level-headed guy.” Griffin echoed other supporters’ confidence in the veteran’s ability to work with others from across the aisle.

Griffin, however, said he’s not sure if Kitts or March will stay in the seat for the long-term or even have any serious success in Richmond due to the 7th District’s pending future. He referenced the ongoing redistricting process, which he said could significantly alter the district’s political demographics if some of the changes are in fact made.

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