After Delegate Tony Wilt’s (R) campaign declined numerous offers to debate, opponent Brent Finnegan (D) decided to host a Public Town Hall instead.
About 30 people sat in rows of red chairs lining the Northeast Neighborhood Association Community building just after 7 p.m. Monday to have an “honest conversation” about Finnegan’s campaign for the 26th District. Finnegan said that despite the lack of debate, he wanted to provide a conversational atmosphere with the public before election day.
“I hope to represent this area, this community, and this is how I do it,” Finnegan said. “This town hall is an example of how I plan to engage with the community, and this is the kind of thing that, if elected, you can expect [of] me.”
While Finnegan was asked several questions about his stance on alternative energy, ethical leadership and education, many of his answers circled back to addressing the living wage and affordable housing in the area. Finnegan referenced an encounter he had with a man two weeks ago that was living in his car as a result of unaffordable housing to show that people “need to be talking” about these issues.
“Right now, about 50% of the people in the 26th District are either living in poverty, or they’re living in the ALICE [Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed] population,” Finnegan said. “I think when you have 50% of the people in your district living in that population, you need to be speaking to those concerns, and I don’t hear my opponent doing that.”
Adam Moyer, a senior Spanish major at Eastern Mennonite University, was introduced to the candidate during Finnegan’s visit to EMU in the primary race. Since then, Moyer said he’s become a frequent canvasser for Finnegan’s campaign.
Moyer attended the event and asked Finnegan about his thoughts on Virginia’s immigration policies. Finnegan said that he’s willing to work with federal legislators to instill protections at the state level to ensure that immigrant communities are respected.
“There's a lot of issues that Brent has called attention to and proposals for certain issues that really resonate with me,” Moyer said. “The issues brought me here tonight, and I just wanted to show up and show my support for Brent.”
After Finnegan talked about his views on living wage and affordable housing, Nancy Carr, a Fulks Run resident, asked Finnegan about his views on alternative energy, specifically solar energy.
In response, Finnegan said that the first step Virginia should take to pass the Solar Freedom Bill, which according to a bill proposed by Jennifer McClellan (D), “promotes the establishment of distributed renewable solar and other renewable energy.” Finnegan said that because of Dominion Energy’s “influence in Richmond,” it’s placed limits on the use and presence of solar energy in Virginia.
“I'm just so disgusted with that combination — social injustice, lack of progress by our officials and people saying, ‘We just need to change,’ but they don't vote for change,” Carr said. “Brent is a doer and a listener, and I just admire him very much, and he's got a lot of guts to be running.”
To Carr, Wilt’s unwillingness to participate in a debate was unsettling.
“I think it's cowardly,” Carr said. “We want to know why we're voting and what we're voting for; we want to know what the delegate stands for.”
When asked for comment, Wilt said that he and Finnegan have different tactics when it comes to communicating with the public.
“I'm speaking with groups and individual voters on a daily basis, sharing my positions and vision for the Commonwealth,” Wilt said in an email. “Obviously, my opponent has his own strategy for trying to do the same. During my time in office, I've maintained an open door policy when it comes to meeting or speaking with constituent[s] about issues that are important to them.”
Toward the end of the town hall, Finnegan stressed the importance of empowering local communities by giving them the proper “tools” to achieve local government goals.
“If someone says ‘I need a screwdriver,’ and you hand them a wrench and a hammer — these aren’t the tools that I asked for, and they’re not adequate for doing the job of fixing these problems at the local level,” Finnegan said.
Contact Katelyn Waltemyer at email@example.com. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.