The two candidates in a highly contested state Senate race that could change the power balance in the General Assembly faced off over the car tax, abortion and LGBTQ+ rights at a forum hosted by Cardinal News at the Jefferson Center in Roanoke on Thursday.
Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, is facing Democrat Trish White-Boyd, a Roanoke City Council member, in the Nov. 7 election. For more than an hour, they quarreled over hot-button issues at the event that was moderated by Dwayne Yancey, the executive editor of Cardinal News.
Both came out swinging just minutes after Yancey asked White-Boyd about her sudden support for the elimination of the car tax, a proposal that has been embraced mostly by Republicans since 1997, when Republican Jim Gilmore made repealing the unpopular tax a staple of his successful gubernatorial campaign.
“I think it’s a little disingenuous to say that she’d like to end the car tax, because the car tax is a 100% local tax,” Suetterlein said, referring to his Democratic opponent. “She’s voted on it four times since she’s been on the city council, and during that time it’s increased 31% on working families, just in the last four years.”
White-Boyd, Suetterlein said, never mentioned the idea until mid-August — two months after she had secured the Democratic nomination — and only after a poll revealed the popularity of more tax relief legislation in the district.
“I don’t think it’s a genuine pursuit of hers,” Suetterlein charged. “Roanoke city’s budget this year grew by about $35 million. That’s the exact amount of the car tax that Roanoke city residents are paying. If she wanted to eliminate the car tax, she’s had the chance every year she’s been on city council.”
White-Boyd countered that as just one of seven city council members, she does not have the authority to repeal a tax but that this is something that has to be done on the state level.
“We are a Dillon Rule state,” White-Boyd said, referring to a doctrine determining that some states, including Virginia, operate under the assumption that localities can only wield powers explicitly authorized to them by the state.
“We only have the authority that is given to us by the General Assembly,” White-Boyd said. “If I were to get rid of the car tax at that time, we would have had to increase property taxes.”
Suetterlein responded that the Dillon Rule gives localities the authority to set their own car tax rate. “You could also make the rate zero, you could lower the rate. The car tax rate varies from community to community, you could have set that every year on city council.”
Suetterlein also said that he has attended every annual legislative meeting between members of the General Assembly and Roanoke city councilors since White-Boyd joined the body, but the car tax was never discussed.
“Not once have you asked us for car tax relief. You could set the rate right now to lower it or eliminate it all, if you wanted,” he said.
In Southwest Virginia’s only competitive state Senate race, Suetterlein and White-Boyd are seeking to succeed Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, who announced in February that he would retire by the end of the year after he and Suetterlein were drawn into the same new 4th Senate District, which covers Roanoke, Salem, most of Roanoke County and part of Montgomery County.
The mapmakers who drew the lines approved by the Virginia Supreme Court two years ago rated the new district 52% to 54% Republican based on election returns from 2017. The nonpartisan 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.
For Democrats, keeping Edwards’ seat is crucial to the party’s majority in the state Senate; and for Republicans, the district is a must-win if they want to retake the chamber.
Suetterlein, 38, has been a member of the state Senate since January 2016, when he succeeded Sen. Ralph Smith, a former mayor of Roanoke who retired after serving two terms and for whom he had worked as legislative director.
During his time in office, Suetterlein has gotten more than 50 bills passed with bipartisan support. He currently serves on the Transportation, Education and Health, and Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources committees.
On Thursday, Suetterlein said that he was most proud of his record of focusing on legislation that helps working families.
“In the Senate, I have worked very hard for fair electric rates. The year right before I got elected the General Assembly passed a rate freeze, in which electric rates were artificially frozen. I worked to end that, at the time I was the only member of the state Senate that didn’t get support from the electric monopolies,” he said. “It was a lonely fight for a long time, but I was glad that we were able to pick up more support along the way.”
Suetterlein is a Realtor with the Roanoke Valley owned and operated MKB, Realtors. He lives in Roanoke County with his wife, Ashley, and their four children.
A native of rural Florida, White-Boyd, 60, has lived in Roanoke since 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.
As a runner-up in a previous election, White-Boyd was appointed to Roanoke’s city council in January 2019, filling the seat of former councilman John Garland, who had stepped down that month. She was formally elected and served as the vice mayor until the end of last year.
Before beginning her stint on the city council, she was also a community activist who worked on numerous Democratic campaigns on the local, state and national levels, including as a grassroots coordinator for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2007.
White-Boyd has been married to her husband, Culbert, for 30 years, and the couple has six children and two grandchildren.
At Thursday’s forum, White-Boyd said that as a successful business owner, she has created “dozens and dozens” of jobs in Roanoke. “And I am a business owner that does not start with a rate of less than $15 an hour,” she said.
White-Boyd added that as a city councilor, she has worked to create economic development in the area, such as Melrose Plaza, which she was particularly proud of “because it also brings a grocery store to an area that was considered a food desert in the Northwest, and it’s also going to have a wellness and banking center.”
Referring back to her experience as a businesswoman and elected official, White-Boyd said that, if elected to the state Senate she would not just advocate for the repeal of the car tax, but would “love to see us look at” Virginia’s income tax structure.
“The highest amount we are at is 5.75% for an income of $17,500, that’s what somebody at Burger King makes,” White-Boyd said. “It is really unfair for an individual to pay the exact amount as someone who makes $600,000. This has not been evaluated in more than 30 years.”
And tax reform shouldn’t be a partisan issue, White-Boyd added.
“The Democrats could have done it, and Republicans could have done it, but no one has done it, so Richmond has failed us. It is not a fair structure, and neither party has taken a look at that,” she said.
Suetterlein said that he has “long supported comprehensive tax reform,” and he pointed toward his record in sponsoring successful tax relief legislation in the two years since Youngkin’s election.
“I was very happy that we were able to get rid of the state grocery tax, and I think we should also get rid of the local grocery tax as well, because groceries are incredibly important for families, and it’s the most regressive tax we have,” he said.
“I also have worked to pause the gas tax, and I have not been enthusiastic about the gas tax increases like some other people have. I wish Governor Youngkin’s pause on that would have happened.”
Suetterlein added that he also worked to enhance the standard deduction, “which is what most of us use when we pay our income taxes, and we are going to see $400 in savings for about 85% of Virginia families this year.”
The candidates found at least some common ground on the need for the creation of a marketplace for cannabis. A Democratic-controlled legislature legalized possession of small amounts of cannabis in 2020 but failed to set up a retail market for legal sales.
The result is an unregulated market operating in a legally gray area, such as the emergence of a number of so-called “adult share” stores that offer a “gift” of cannabis to buyers of items like t-shirts or stickers.
As one of about just half a dozen Republicans in the Senate who voted in favor of cannabis decriminalization, Suetterlein said that at the time many prosecutors had already stopped pursuing charges for simple possession.
“I don’t think it makes sense for us to have laws that we don’t intend to enforce,” he said. But the “terrible system” that Virginia is currently in was predictable, Suetterlein added. “It was obvious that this was going to happen.”
Suetterlein said that he would be happy to work with the next General Assembly to move Virginia towards a safer and better regulated market. “If things are going to be sold, we have to make sure they are a safer product, I think the people should know what they are getting.”
White-Boyd also pushed for regulations in public places to create designated smoking areas. “And with the legalization of that, we would make sure that would include marijuana. We’ve got to make it safer, tax it and use the revenue to go into our local economy,” she said.
Suetterlein and White-Boyd also widely agreed that Virginians’ access to guns should not be restricted further.
“In Northern Virginia, you can call for the police and they may get there in one or two minutes. But here in Southwest Virginia, you may not even have cell service,” White-Boyd said, adding that she understands why many people in her district consider their right to have access to guns essential.
“I have no issue with that,” she said. “The only thing I have advocated for is common sense gun safety legislation, like safe storage. If (guns) are laying around anybody can get them. We don’t want our children around that. We have to practice safety, and safe storage.”
Suetterlein said that he has always stood for protecting the Second Amendment. “It provides an individual with the right to self protection, and I vote accordingly on that,” he said.
However, the candidates shared very different views on access to abortion in Virginia.
As a candidate who says he is “pro-life,” Suetterlein said that he “strongly supported” Youngkin’s proposal to limit abortions to the first 15 weeks, with few exceptions, which Senate Democrats blocked during the 2023 legislative session.
“More importantly, I think it’s really important that we try to do things so that no one wants to make this decision,” Suetterlein said. “I feel very strongly that it’s a tragedy, and we need to do things to support women so it’s less likely to happen.”
Suetterlein said that he has been working to improve health care so “mothers facing potentially difficult pregnancies know that the hospital that they deliver in” has the critical services that they need.
While he supported contraceptive benefits for women on Medicaid, Suetterlein added that he would not back taxpayer funding of abortions — which White-Boyd called “unfortunate.”
“Women are afraid, they are really afraid of losing a right that they had” for more than 50 years, White-Boyd said, adding that the access to abortions should remain as it is under current law, where two doctors have to sign off on an abortion in the third trimester of a pregnancy.
Another point of contention Thursday were policies on transgender students. While both Suetterlein and White-Boyd agreed that teachers should notify parents if one of their students confided in them about identifying as a different gender, White-Boyd said that she believes the state should not set the rules for transgender students in school sports.
“I think that this is something that should be left up for an athletic director at a school to decide. I don’t think a candidate for the state senate should make those decisions,” White-Boyd said, adding that “we need to get rid of the culture wars and take politics out of the classroom.”
Suetterlein countered that it would be “inherently unfair” to ask a female athlete to compete against an athlete who had been competing in the male division just two years earlier. “The fact that an athletic director at a competing school would allow that, that means you’re fine with that,” he told White-Boyd.
However, both candidates said that they would support a referendum seeking to remove the 2006 amendment to the state constitution banning same-sex marriage after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized the latter in 2014.
“I would and I already have, I supported that on the Senate floor, and I voted to advance the repeal of that amendment,” Suetterlein said. “I don’t think it’s the sort of thing that should be in the Constitution generally. I think that it should be legally recognized, I have taken several votes on that, and I would continue to vote the same way.”
White-Boyd agreed. “I support same-sex marriage, and I will be very clear on that,” she said. Individuals should decide who they want to marry, and it shouldn’t be something that we decide.”