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After serving 28 years in the state Senate, Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, announced Monday that he would not seek reelection this year.
“I have thoroughly enjoyed my many years of service in the Senate and the honor and opportunity to improve the lives of my constituents and all Virginians,” Edwards, 79, said in a statement. “I am proud of the many accomplishments I have worked on and I look forward to continuing my work through the remainder of my term.”
Edwards began his career in public service in 1993, when he was tapped to fill a vacancy on the Roanoke City Council. In the May 1994 general election, he was elected to a four-year term and served as Roanoke’s vice mayor.
A little over one year later, Edwards was elected to the state Senate representing the 21st District, defeating Republican incumbent J. Brandon Bell. He was reelected in 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011, 2015 and 2019.
Edwards currently co-chairs the Judiciary Committee and serves on the Commerce and Labor, Education and Health, Finance and Appropriations, and Rules committees.
Among Edwards’ biggest accomplishments as a lawmaker was sponsoring a measure establishing the Roanoke Higher Education Center, which he chairs, and he is widely known for getting Amtrak to Roanoke – a route that has since been so successful that Amtrak has added a second train to Roanoke that is now being extended to the New River Valley.
Edwards also has successfully carried legislation requiring character education to be taught in public schools, requiring coverage for pre-existing health conditions for persons changing individual health insurance carriers and establishing the Health Practitioners’ Intervention Program and the Virginia Department of Veterans Services.
Edwards strongly supported environmental protection, conservation and preservation legislation, and has promoted renewable energy, including solar energy. He successfully sponsored Virginia’s first power purchase agreement legislation in 2013 and legislation to facilitate localities’ ability to obtain solar energy services from third parties in 2017.
In 2001, Edwards sought the Democratic nomination for attorney general in a four-way race. He finished second with 29.5%; Don McEachin, who later represented the 4th Congressional District in Congress, won the nomination but went on to lose the election.
In the upcoming Nov. 7 election, during which all 140 legislative seats are on the ballot, Edwards would have faced Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, after both senators were drawn into the same district in a new map approved by the Virginia Supreme Court in December 2021.
The new district covers Roanoke, Salem, most of Roanoke County and part of Montgomery County, including Christiansburg.
Based on previous election returns, the special masters rate this district as 52% Republican, 47.9% Democratic (using the 2017 attorney general’s race), or 54% Republican, 45.9% Democratic (using the 2017 lieutenant governor’s race).
Suetterlein said in a statement Monday that he and Edwards have “very different views on many issues, but, more importantly, a shared love of the Roanoke Valley” that allowed them to work together.
“One of the most recent examples of that shared love is the new neonatal intensive care unit being developed right now in Salem to help our youngest Virginians. I have great respect for Senator Edwards, and thank him for his dedication to the commonwealth and his service to the people of our region,” Suetterlein said.
And Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, besides Edwards the only other Democrat in the legislature from west of the Blue Ridge, said that he was “extremely thankful” for the senator’s “long history of distinguished service” to the nation and the commonwealth. “Layaly and I wish all the best to John and Cathy[e] in their next chapter,” Rasoul said in a text message. He did not say whether he intends to run for Edwards’ seat.
Larry Sabato, the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said that once upon a time, a large majority of the senators from Roanoke west to Lee County were Democrats. “Now Edwards is the only one left, and he’ll soon have departed. The Southwest is now voting Republican in huge numbers,” Sabato said. “Of course the suburbs are now mostly Democratic, as are the cities. It’s a shame we no longer have many General Assembly members left who can bridge the urban-rural divide.”
Edwards was a moderate or moderate-liberal during his career, Sabato said. “He was loyal to his party but also willing to join compromise coalitions when things needed to get done. Edwards wasn’t a shouter; he knew a soft voice and sweet reason could get you further in a legislature.”
Sabato added that the most recent redistricting has “swept away some of the best and brightest from both sides of the aisle” in the General Assembly. “I’m sure the reformers are very proud of themselves, but Virginia will be worse off. Experience and institutional memory, such as that possessed by John Edwards, aren’t valued nearly as much as they should be,” Sabato said.
A native of Roanoke, Edwards in 1962 graduated from Patrick Henry High School, where he was the pole-vault champion. He then went to Princeton University, majoring in history doing independent work on Woodrow Wilson, the Cold War and Soviet-American relations. He wrote his senior thesis on “The Making of the Marshall Plan,” and he graduated cum laude in 1966.
Edwards then went to the University of Virginia School of Law, and he was writing instructor assistant to then-professor Antonin Scalia, who later became a Supreme Court justice. Edwards also served on active duty in the U.S. Marine Corps as a captain from 1971 through 1973, serving with the First Marine Aircraft Wing in Okinawa, Japan, and later with the 2nd Marine Division at Camp LeJeune, North Carolina.
In 1980, Edwards was appointed by then-President Jimmy Carter as the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Virginia.
According to the biography on Edwards’ website, during his time in that office he achieved several milestones, including prosecuting the largest bank robbery in Virginia history. Edwards also had the best record in the country at the time in enforcing criminal provisions of the Mine Safety and Health Act, and prosecuting public corruption in the Mine Safety and Health Administration.
Edwards also prosecuted the first criminal civil rights case in Virginia, as well as organized crime cases, and he increased debt collections substantially from prior years, the bio said.
Edwards is among more than a dozen lawmakers not seeking reelection this year, including Sen. Dick Sawslaw, D-Fairfax, the Senate majority leader, who announced last year that he would retire after 48 years in the legislature.
Edwards said in his statement Monday appreciated the many who have urged him to seek another term. “I look forward to continuing my law practice and spending time traveling and with my family,” Edwards said.