RICHMOND – Any freshman lawmaker would embrace finding their name in national headlines just days into their first session, but not of the kind that Wren Williams faced last month over a bill he had pre-filed that noted, in part, that high school students would be required to learn about “the first debate between Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.” Which, of course, never happened.
Williams’s proposal, aimed at eliminating critical race theory, had confused Black abolitionist and social reformer Frederick Douglass with Democratic U.S. Sen. Stephen Douglas, who famously debated his Republican challenger Abraham Lincoln seven times in 1858. By the time the Division of Legislative Services (DLS) – a nonpartisan state agency providing drafting services for lawmakers – claimed responsibility for the error, the damage had already been done. From The New York Times and The Washington Post to popular blogs covering all sides of the political spectrum, Williams, 33, had become the target of widespread mockery and ridicule on social media that lasted a full 24-hour news cycle.
While the story quickly was quickly drowned out by the daily hustle and bustle of Virginia’s busy legislative session, it still marked a sore point for the young Republican lawmaker almost one month later during an interview with Cardinal News at his office at the Pocahontas Building in Richmond’s Capitol Square last week.
“Ultimately, unfortunately it was their fault, and I appreciate them taking responsibility for it,” Williams said, referring to the DLS lawyers who had written up his bill. “At the end of the day, it is something that we can amend in committee, and that’s what we are going to do,” he said of his legislation that, at the time of this writing, still lingered in the House of Delegates.
While the mishap gained him unwanted notoriety, it would be futile to underestimate the attorney and longtime political operative from Stuart, a small town in deeply Republican Patrick County. During the GOP primary last June, Williams managed to defeat Del. Charles Poindexter, the 7-term incumbent in the 7th House of Delegates district, which at the time included not just Patrick County but also parts of Franklin and Henry counties. Not surprisingly, he went on to win his contest against Democrat Bridgette Craighead with 77% of the vote.
And once sworn in last month, Williams hit the ground running. Unlike his collegue Del. Jason Ballard, R-Pearisburg, who has filed 10 bills mostly relating to non-controversial kitchen-table issues, Williams sponsored 15 bills, taking on culture war issues like religious freedom, abortion and critical race theory – the latter being a curriculum unpopular on the political Right that acknowledges that racism is institutionalized and is embedded in America’s history, legal systems, and policies.
“Williams, by comparison with Ballard, for example, he serves as chief patron and co-patron for bills that seem more responsive to social conservatives such as those on religious freedom, abortion restrictions when a ‘human infant is born alive,’” said Karen Hult, a professor of political science at Virginia Tech, citing Williams’s House Bill 776. “These in turn evidently reflect both Williams’s views and those of key district constituencies,” Hult said, adding that Williams has been somewhat more visible, on social media and inadvertently due to coverage of the Legislative Services error on the Lincoln-Douglas debates.
And while his first term as a state legislator may be a new challenge for Williams, it isn’t his first rodeo in politics. Three years before his election as a state delegate, he had played a critical role in reviving his hometown’s Republican committee, working to place Republican candidates in local offices.
And after the 2020 presidential election, Williams took a break from his law firm for two months to join then-President Donald Trump’s legal team challenging the election results in Wisconsin, where Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee, had edged out a victory by a mere 20,000 votes.
More than a year later, Williams still stands by the claim that the presidential election was fraudulent. “I think that ultimately the election was rigged by Democrats, yes,” he said, although he didn’t want to weigh in on Trump’s defeat in Virginia that year.
“I was paying more attention to the battleground states because at the time, Virginia seemed like a lost cause for Trump and we were very heavy blue,” he said. “I saw it during the campaign talking to voters who were traditionally Republican, but they just did not like Donald Trump.” Yet Williams said he was concerned with calls that he received after the 2020 election from voters who claimed to have been told that someone else had voted under their name when they showed up at the polls to cast their ballots. “That was my biggest issue, that probably happened about five times in 2020 for Patrick and Henry counties,” he said.
But despite his doubts over the election, Williams said that he does not agree with a statement recently released by the Republican National Committee that referred to the storm of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 6, 2020, as “legitimate political discourse.”
“You have the right to peacefully assemble and petition your government and protest, but it clearly should be peacefully, and honestly I don’t see any need for them to enter the Capitol, I thought that was beyond what is protected under the 1st Amendment,” he said.
To Williams, his political activism and thirst for public service are part of his DNA. “I have this vice of trying to problem solve, so I solve problems in my district and community that weren’t being solved,” he said in the interview last week. “Ultimately, the people around me in my community who had seen the work that I have done with Donald Trump and others, they felt like I was a good, zealous advocate for their principles, values and community. I want to be a fighter for them, and I think they are appreciating what we are accomplishing right now, which is more than what had been accomplished in the past.”
While the fate of his critical race theory and anti-abortion bills remains uncertain, and although his proposal that would have required localities to appoint an independent panel of experts to determine the fate of war memorials deemed for removal, including Confederate statues, failed before a Republican-led House committee, Williams takes pride in his support of Republican policies, including his vote for House Bill 544, which allows Virginia voters to secure their individual votes through opt-in photo lD. The measure passed the House by a 51-49 vote earlier this month, but Williams had already backed it on the Committee for Privileges and
Elections, of which he is a member (he also, like Ballard, sits on the Courts of Justice and Public Safety committees).
“That bill was actually very creative and cool, I didn’t know how it was going to work, but then I started getting into it, because it allows you to make sure that my vote is given to me, just based on that photo ID,” Williams said. “I’m definitely going to opt in, it just protects your vote, which is nice.”
Williams also said that he was proud to see more representation of Southwest Virginia, – not just in the House of Delegates, where he is one of three freshman lawmakers besides Ballard and Del. Marie March, R-Floyd County – but in the executive branch.
“We’ve seen a lot more appointees and consultants in (Gov. Glenn) Youngkin’s administration, so I feel like we have a much larger voice this year, and we are really driving the agenda that’s inside the House majority,” he said. “Obviously we have disagreements with Republicans that might be in a more populated area, but ultimately we are able to find middle ground and work together to push through good common sense legislation.”
Among the challenges relating specifically to Southwest Virginia are the rising cost of health insurance and the need for workforce development, Williams said. “This a big one that we need in the district,” he said referring to the latter, “because we have people, but they just don’t have the skills needed for advanced manufacturing or other service industries, as well as tourism. It would be beneficial if we can show to potential industries we have a well trained, strong work ethic workforce.”
The Southwest also got hit particularly hard by the opioid crisis, Williams said. According to data from the Virginia Department of Health, Roanoke City and Tazewell and Bland counties top the list of localities with the highest number of fatal drug overdoses in the commonwealth.
“It started with the pills, but it quickly transitioned to methamphetamine or heroin. And now we are seeing fentanyl coming in only as a means to cut the heroin or any of those drugs. So we are still dealing with that fallout and that is the one thing that is driving our crime rates in Southwest and Southside,” Williams said.
When asked why none of his bills attempt to address what he considers to be the biggest challenges in Southwest Virginia, Williams said that there were “some pressing needs and matters that needed to happen this year,” such as his measure that would study options to reopen Patrick County’s 25-bed Pioneer Community Hospital, which had shut down in 2017.
“It’s hard to carry 40 or 50 bills when you run through all these communities, so I tried to be very particular about what I filed,” he said. Take Williams’s religious freedom legislation, that would exempt the exercise of religion in a church, synagogue, or other place of worship, from any order issued by the governor in relation to the Virginia Emergency Services and Disaster Law. “That is very important to me and I put that ahead of the school construction issue,” Williams said.
In dealing with the opioid crisis, Williams deferred to legislation carried by Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, which would direct the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services to study the feasibility of transforming Catawba Hospital into a state-of-the-art campus offering substance abuse treatment and addiction recovery. “I tried to find private entities across the Southwest for my clients who are looking to break their addiction cycle and get them into some of these facilities, but we’re just very limited right now,” he said.
Despite the strategic advantages for Republicans in the legislature, Williams remains aware that he sits on one side of a divided government, where Democrats still hold a narrow 21-19 majority in the state Senate. But the stalemate also allows for opportunity to “get things done,” he added.
“What we have seen is good common sense legislation coming through, just check the uncontested docket on the House floor, a lot of those bills are good, they are clean-up bills, they are charter amendments,” he said. “What will be more difficult is finding holes in that brickwall in the Senate. We need to work on that, just yesterday you had Chap Petersen (a Democratic senator from Fairfax County) aligning with Republicans in the Senate.”
Williams said he believes that the progressive wing of the Virginia Democratic party, which was championed by the Democrats in the House and then got “stamped out by the Senate Democrats” really pushed too far. “And now I believe that the more moderate senators in the Democratic party feel as though they have the opportunity to really buck the progressive wing and go back to common sense legislation,” he said.
But Williams is aware that the biggest political threat he might be facing isn’t from Democrats but from within his own party, as the new district maps approved by the Virginia Supreme Court have drawn him in the same district as his collegue March, the delegate from Floyd County, setting up a potential primary battle in 2023 or earlier, if an election is set for the new districts. March declined the request for an interview.
The court’s decision put lawmakers now sharing a district “in an awkward position,” Williams said. “Are we representing our old district or are we representing our new district?,” he said. “For me, I am treating it as I am currently representing my old district, because if I abandon them, Franklin County has no say, and I am not going to do that.”
Williams said he has not yet discussed a possible primary scenario with March, but he made clear that he rules out moving to a different district. “Ultimately, I am from Patrick County, I return to Patrick County, I plan to spend my life in Patrick County and ultimately I will die in Patrick County,” he said.
As the General Assembly approaches the 2022 session’s midpoint, Cardinal News has interviewed two of the three freshman delegates from Southwest Virginia about their experience in the legislature so far. Del. Marie March, R-Floyd County, declined to be interviewed, citing scheduling concerns.
Yesterday: Del. Jason Ballard, R-Giles County.