Image isn’t everything
Michael Webert is trying to keep his 18th District seat after the Republican won for the first time in 2011. Photo courtesy of Webert campaign
Democratic challenger Colin Harris is a 2013 Dartmouth University graduate and son of former Obama administration lawyer Scott Harris. Photo courtesy of Harris campaign.
On the surface, it would appear that the House of Delegates 18th District race is one between two starkly different candidates.
Republican incumbent Michael Webert is a 34-year-old father who runs a farm in northern Fauquier County. He has a young son, a friendly demeanor and often comes to his campaign office adorned in a baseball cap.
Democrat challenger Colin Harris is a polished, articulate 2013 Ivy League graduate and son of former Obama administration attorney Scott Harris.
But Harris believes if you look closer, the two aren’t so different.
Neither candidate was born in Fauquier County. And while Harris concedes he’s garnered large cash donations from outside the county, he claims that more than half of his smaller donations (under $100) are from inside the 18th District.
Per Virginia campaign finance rules, only donations of $100 or more need to published with an associated donor.
“The real salient difference is that I have over 500 people contributing to the campaign, he has one-fifth of what I have,” Harris said. “And the vast majority [of Webert’s] are from special interest groups or PACs. The argument that I am some sort of [Capitol Hill] insider and he's some grassroots activist [is wrong]. Nothing can be further from the truth.”
The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.
So far, Harris has outraised Webert $115,470 to $60,920 and has 545 donations to Webert’s 148. More than 70 percent of Harris’ donations are from out of Virginia while the vast majority of dollars flowing to Webert’s campaign have come from the Old Dominion.
While Webert has received money from the tobacco, coal and electric industry (Dominion), Harris has received cash donations from both the nuclear energy industry and an electric transmission company in Texas.
However, both candidates say it’s the people, not the special interests, that will decide the November election.
In an interview with the Fauquier Times last week, Webert touted his record in Richmond as one that is business friendly. Webert pointed to his role in the formation of a Business Development Caucus during his first term as a way to hear from local businesses all across the state.
Last year, Webert was successful in co-sponsoring a bill which allows students of all community colleges to use new equipment donated by those in the machinery business. In return, companies would receive up to 20 percent of the cost of the equipment from the state.
Webert also sponsored successful legislation that essentially denies a Homeowners Association the ability to completely prohibit a home-based business that complies with all local zoning ordinances.
“Apple, Google, all of them started in garages,” Webert told an audience at a recent Fauquier Chamber of Commerce event. “We want that kind of innovation.”
Harris said Webert has too often sided with folks in Richmond on several issues and believes that more control needs to be put back in the localities’ hands despite Virginia being a Dillon Rule state.
The Dillon Rule is used in interpreting law when there is a question of whether or not a local government has a certain power.
Dillon's Rule construes grants of power to localities very narrowly. The bottom law is -- if there is a question about a local government's power or authority, then the local government does not receive the benefit of the doubt. Under Dillon's Rule, one must assume the local government does not have the power in question.
Harris conceded that last year’s highly controversial agricultural legislation called the “Boneta” Bill isn’t an issue that easily fits on a bumper sticker.
Sponsored by Delegate Scott Lingamfelter, R-31st and voted for by Webert, the Boneta Bill attempted to better define what a farmer can do on his property after Fauquier’s Martha Boneta was issued a zoning violation by the county for her retail practices on her farm in Paris.
The bill passed the House floor but was left in the Senate Committee on Agricultural, Conservation and Natural Resources.
“I am entirely in sympathy with the overarching goal of promoting the freedom to farm, but I disagree with the tactics of taking that away from the county,” Harris said.
A committee has been formed with multiple local and state stakeholders to discuss the issue. However, a conclusion has yet to be reached.
Lingamfelter said he won’t champion the bill again until the issue is better defined by the committee.
Webert said there are plenty of things that individual jurisdictions should have the right to control, especially ones that involve public safety and transportation around a given property. However, Webert said he would like to see a more uniform policy on what is considered agriculture and what isn’t.
“Where do you draw the line in the sand on whether something is commercial or whether it’s agricultural?” Webert said.
Staff writer Kipp Hanley can be reached at (540) 878-2414.
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