Three Democrats are seeking their party’s nomination in a recently redrawn 4th state Senate District to succeed Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, who announced in February that he would retire by the end of the year after occupying the seat for 28 years.
The winner of the June 20 primary will face Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, in the general election in November after he was drawn into the same district with Edwards in new legislative maps approved by the Virginia Supreme Court in December 2021.
The Democratic candidates hoping to take on Suetterlein, who faces no primary challenge, are political newcomer DeAnthony “DA” Pierce, Roanoke City Council member Luke Priddy and Trish White-Boyd, also a city councilor and a former grassroots coordinator for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2007.
For Democrats, keeping Edwards’ seat is crucial to the party’s majority in the state Senate.
Edwards is the last remaining Democratic senator from west of the Blue Ridge, but the new district, which now covers Roanoke, Salem, most of Roanoke County and part of Montgomery County, including Christiansburg, leans Republican, which makes it an uphill battle for a party that has lost almost all representation in the rural Southwest.
The court-appointed mapmakers who drew the lines rated the district 52% to 54% Republican based on election returns from 2017. The Virginia Public Access Project says Democrat Tim Kaine took 51.4% of the vote in the district in the 2018 U.S. Senate race but Republican Glenn Youngkin took 54.7% in the 2021 governor’s race.
“The big challenge for Virginia Democrats in any rural Virginia district is to figure out a way to thread the needle in a way Edwards did,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington. “You have to be sufficiently conservative to not scare voters who are independent, but sufficiently liberal so Democrats turn out in decent numbers.”
A lot of Democrats have struggled with that challenge, as rural areas in the commonwealth have gotten redder, and bluer areas have gotten bluer, Farnsworth said.
“That new Senate district, which will be key to the majority control of the legislature, will require a Republican candidate to not make any major mistakes and a Democratic candidate who can pull off that double play for that party to win.”
Priddy, who was the first Democrat to file his candidacy just days after Edwards’ retirement announcement, is well aware of the dynamics at play. The 31-year-old has served as the senator’s chief of staff for the past five years, and he will continue in this role — albeit in reduced capacity — until the end of Edwards’ term.
“Originally, when I decided to run I had submitted a resignation letter because I wanted to focus full time on this race,” Priddy said in a recent interview. “We ended up having a discussion following that, and he said he’d rather not see me leave prior to the end of his term. So we reduced my hours severely, and I will be in more of a support role as we go to transition his office from legislative to law work, while I move on to what I’ll be doing next.”
A native of Roanoke, Priddy attended Cave Spring Elementary School, Hidden Valley Middle School, Hidden Valley High School and Virginia Western Community College before obtaining a bachelor of arts in government from the University of Virginia.
During his undergraduate studies, Priddy interned for U.S. Senator Mark Warner in Washington and for the Office of the Secretary at the U.S. Department of Transportation, according to the biography published on his campaign website.
In 2022, Priddy, who lives with his husband, Gem Czar Geolina Indino, in Roanoke’s Old Southwest neighborhood, was elected to the Roanoke City Council, where he serves as chair of the Legislative Committee and works in coordination with the city attorney and the city’s legislative liaison to advance and promote the interests of the city and its school system.
Priddy said in the interview that his work with Edwards in recent years has inspired him to run for the state Senate in the new district.
“I’ve been watching Senator Edwards directly, and I’ve seen the policies he’s put forward, the work he’s been able to do improving people’s lives,” Priddy said. “I really want to put my best foot forward, as I see the needs that the people have across this district, and to try to improve their lives and focus on the same mission that Senator Edwards had while he was in office.”
Priddy said that in recent weeks he has “really been thinking about” the things that help distinguish him from Suetterlein, who would be his Republican opponent this November.
“It’s focusing on education, support and access for reproductive healthcare and public safety, but really as it relates to taking action on the regulation of firearms in order to make sure that the people that have access to them are doing so safely, so that we don’t lose more lives,” he said.
Priddy added that he would also continue Edwards’ efforts to make the Virginia Museum of Transportation in Roanoke a state agency. “That was something that my capacity in the office really helped thrive to get to the point that it did. I remember meeting with the museum and helping them have realistic expectations about what they would be able to achieve,” Priddy said.
After a Democratic-controlled Senate committee last year blocked Edwards’ proposal, he gave it another shot this year by filing SB 1020. The legislation establishing the museum — which is currently operated as a nonprofit — as a public entity and educational institution under the commonwealth, governed by a 15-member board of trustees, passed unanimously in the Senate in February, but it failed to report in the House Education Committee.
Priddy said that, if elected, he’d also help advocate for the Valley to Valley trail project that would connect the Roanoke and New River Valleys.
“We’ve seen some funding go to some other portions of the commonwealth in the past, but that would be a recreational opportunity that would really help connect the two regions in a stronger way. It would be a way of extending our greenway system that we have here, all the way up to the New River Valley to connect with the Huckleberry Trail,” he said.
Priddy said that he is the candidate best suited to take on Suetterlein in November because of his many interactions with the Republican in Richmond, where he already had the chance to “go toe-to-toe with him” in his role as Edwards’ chief of staff.
“It’s given me the background to know what it’s like to face him in a political forum and to know what he is going to talk about, and know what he is going to say about my campaign, and what his points are going to be. And I think that gives me an edge of being able to face him in the November election,” Priddy said.
However, White-Boyd, Priddy’s colleague on Roanoke’s city council, told Cardinal News that her experience as a business woman and community leader for many years prepared her to be the ideal Democratic candidate to win the general election this fall because she would be able to gather much needed support from both sides of the aisle.
“I’m running as a Democrat, and for us Democrats this is the only seat we have left in Southwest Virginia. But I want to represent everybody in the district, so I am talking to voters about things that matter to them, whether you are a Democrat or a Republican or independent,” she said.
Hailing from rural Florida, White-Boyd moved to Roanoke in 1984. For 18 years, she worked for the city’s Division of Child Support Enforcement as a liaison between the court and the agency, before starting her own home care business. “I know what it’s like to be a small business owner. I’ve been in the community for decades, and I guess that’s why people know me,” she said.
White-Boyd, 60, has been married to her husband, Culbert, for 30 years, and the couple has six children and “two beautiful grandsons.” In March, she was the second Democrat to announce her candidacy, and she has since collected numerous endorsements, including from Roanoke Mayor Sherman Lea, council members Peter Volosin and Vivian Sanchez-Jones, and city treasurer Evelyn Powers, among others.
With a total of almost $16,000, she has also been outraising her two opponents in campaign contributions. Priddy has raised $5,000 so far, and Pierce just $240, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonprofit organization tracking money in politics.
And while she is aware of the new district’s Republican title, White-Boyd said that she isn’t too worried.
“The Republican will have just as much of a challenge as I will. This district is going to be new for them as well, we all have the same challenges, and that is being in a different district,” she said in the interview.
Part of her strategy has been to network and make contacts with people from both sides of the political aisle in the entire district to make her case. “Whether it’s leaning Republican or not, there are Republicans who are on my team because they are not happy about losing their right to choose,” she said of the failed GOP attempts in the state legislature earlier this year to limit the access to abortion.
“Women are women, no matter if they are Democrat, Republican or independent, they have been rallying around me and my campaign. We are just going to galvanize throughout this district to address the things that matter,” White-Boyd said. “I am not concerned, it can be done.”
Besides protecting abortion rights, White-Boyd has also added economic development (“sometimes we feel like we are forgotten in Richmond because we are out here kind of by ourselves”), gun safety legislation and education to her campaign platform.
“Education is key,” she said. “Roanoke city is doing well, but as a whole, Virginia doesn’t rank very well, and that’s not good for our kids. We also need to look into healthcare and address some of the disparities we have among our elderly and our disadvantaged citizens,” White-Boyd said.
In order to try and win over Republican voters, White-Boyd said that she would travel the district in the weeks leading up to the primary election to speak with them and hear about their concerns.
“We have to communicate with the residents in the rural areas. I’m not even going to say what it is that I am going to be doing, because I am going to canvas those areas to talk to people individually,” she said. “The best thing to do is to talk to these farmers and find out what it is they need. I can go to Richmond with a list of things that I want to do, but it may not be what these residents want. That’s why it’s important to talk to them and find out directly what those needs are, and that’s what I have been doing, I’ve been going out there every week.”
If elected, White-Boyd said that as the lone Democrat from Southwest Virginia in the state Senate she would be open to working with Republicans on issues that both parties can agree on.
“We have to work together, you’re not going to get anything accomplished if you don’t work with your Senate colleagues, it’s impossible,” she said. “Even here in Roanoke on the city council we work together, and I have that experience to work together with all people, no matter what side, to get things done. I don’t see myself going in with partisan issues, I think you won’t go very far.”
For Pierce, taking on two campaign-savvy elected officials may pose a challenge, but the 34-year-old remains unfazed. “Regardless of who wins the primary, I think either of us would be a better choice than Senator Suetterlein,” he said of his Democratic opponents.
Pierce grew up in Roanoke, and after graduating from William Fleming High School in 2007, he served four years in the U.S. Air Force, deploying to Afghanistan during his enlistment. Back home, he made several unsuccessful attempts at starting his own business, but these setbacks prompted him to enroll at Virginia Western Community College, where he graduated with an associate degree in management in 2014.
But Pierce, who has two children with his wife, Sameria, said that his life story sets him apart from his Democratic opponents, who he said have less in common with the majority of residents in the district.
“I think my background is more relatable to normal people who aren’t politicians,“ he said. “I’m not an incumbent politician, I didn’t go to college immediately after high school. I tried my luck as an entrepreneur, and when that didn’t work, I went to my local community college.”
While attending Virginia Western, Pierce founded a small business called PacMül. With help from two friends, he sold and installed lockers designed to hold cellphones in courthouses throughout Virginia, including Roanoke and Roanoke County. The venture ended in 2019 when he became an engineer draftsman, a profession that he held until recently. Today, he is working as an order selector in a distribution warehouse.
“Every step of the way, everything I had to earn in my life has been more difficult, and I had to fight twice as hard to get it,” Pierce said. “So I understand what it feels like to work hard to earn success and to receive it, but I also understand what it feels like for people to struggle.”
As a Democrat running in a Republican-leaning district, Pierce said it is important to distinguish himself from Democrats in other, bluer parts of the commonwealth.
“I feel like if I can get myself in front of the voters who lean Republican, they can see that my message still resonates with them and that if I can pass pass legislation about medical care, housing and education, they can understand that those type of policies can help them in their lives,” he said.
While he has mostly similar legislative ideas as his primary opponents, he underscored that access to abortion is not in his top priorities — at least not as a singular issue.
“However, medical access is important, and I’m referring to access to facilities and doctors, but other care as well,” he said. “What we shouldn’t do is have retrograde-style legislation, we shouldn’t be taking away what rights access people already have. I would not be in favor of supporting any legislation that takes away rights that communities, families and women have today.”
Besides health care, Pierce said his platform also includes housing and education — issues that he believes transcend party affiliation. “I think that regardless of where you live, you want to be able to have access to medical care facilities and personnel, and particularly those individuals in rural areas where clinics are closing and medical care providers are leaving because they don’t have enough resources to stay in those communities.”
If elected, Pierce vows to not forget about Republican voters and their needs in the district. “Roanoke city may be mostly Democratic, but we still have conservatives and Republican voters here, and I don’t want to just ignore them, and I don’t want to dismiss their issues,” he said.
And as a “new person coming into the state legislature,” Pierce said he would be open to reaching out to anyone, “regardless of party affiliation,” especially Republicans.
“I want to meet them, I want to befriend them, and I want to hear what their concerns are. I want to hear from the people in the rural communities and hear what their issues are, what’s important to them, and what they think needs to be done to help them out.”
While he may not always agree with something that a Republican candidate may be in support of, he would always be willing to listen to them, “because I hope that they can listen to me as well so we can find some compromise. One thing I’ve been able to do as a private citizen and as an entrepreneur is to reach people from different party affiliations to solve issues.”
With three candidates from various backgrounds, Democratic voters will have “a range of options in this primary, which is a rare development in Southwest Virginia,” said Farnsworth, the political scientist.
But for those on the ballot, it remains an uphill battle that requires a lot of strategizing, Farnsworth added. “The candidates will have to figure out a way to seem sufficiently Democratic to win over primary voters, but at the same time not to do something that will be a liability in the general election to come,” he said.