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Quiet time

SoVaNow.com / May 30, 2019
On the editorial page of today's News & Record (print edition, May 30), you’ll find a couple of Viewpoint letters that show someone out there is paying attention to the June 11 Republican Party primary in the 15th Senate District. Honestly, I was having my doubts. The race, if you want to call it that, pits five-term incumbent Frank Ruff of Clarksville against Dale Sturdifen, also a Clarksville resident and chairman of the Mecklenburg County School Board.

The eastern half of Halifax County lies in the 15th Senate District; the western half is in the 20th District. (I happen to live in the portion of South Boston that falls in the 15th District; lucky me.) The GOP primary race has been an extremely sleepy affair, and I can only guess this is by design as far as Ruff is concerned. He ended March with nearly $243,000 in his campaign account, compared to just $4,000 for Sturdifen. If not for the few signs that have gone up around the area for both candidates, you’d hardly know there’s an election going on.

I know both Ruff and Sturdifen, in large part because of the work of our sister newspaper, The Mecklenburg Sun. Ruff, of course, has been around for a long time. Eons ago, I would cover meetings of the Mecklenburg Board of Supervisors for The Sun’s front page, back when Ruff was the board’s vice-chair and leader of the finance committee. It’s a little-known fact, but even then, Ruff was a real piece of work — he actually had the audacity, virtually unprecedented in local government in Southside Virginia, to propose a county budget that relied on deficit financing to bring the tax-and-spend numbers into balance. This is New Jersey-grade lousy governance, the kind of thing that can throw municipalities and counties into default. All the talk you’ve heard since then about Ruff’s so-called fiscal conservatism and rectitude? Pfffft.

None of this is to say I have any brief for Sturdifen, who has a solid record of public service (Virginia State Police investigator, Marine veteran, School Board member) to his credit. Just to state the obvious, I’m one of the last people you’ll want to consult when deciding how to vote in a Republican Party primary. Not my cup of tea. I’ll admit to being slightly crestfallen when I visited Sturdifen’s campaign Facebook page and saw the candidate hyping a recent appearance with E.W. Jackson, the 2013 GOP nominee for Virginia lieutenant governor and a first-rate political grifter. Jackson got walloped in his statewide run, deservedly so, and he just might be the most deplorable candidate ever put forward by the Virginia Republican Party, which is quite a distinction. For some odd reason, my name is on Jackson’s email blast list, and as such I get the daily dose of his incessant right-wing nuttiness. He’s running a fund raising scam, poorly no doubt, and I pity anyone who may have taken leave of his or her senses long enough to answer one of Jackson’s regular appeals for donations. Fools and their money …

So, getting back to the point: what’s the deal with Frank Ruff laying so low in the primary? (Sturdifen has an obvious excuse: No funds.) The 15th District is overwhelmingly Republican, so whoever wins the party nod on June 11 is highly likely to capture the Senate seat in the November general election. (There is a Democratic candidate running in the district, Virginia Smith, a retired Prince George County educator.) Whatever else can be said about Ruff, he’s a vigorous campaigner and not one to shy away from his own E.W. Jackson-style moments. His first race for state office, for the House of Delegates in 1993, succeeded on the strength of his shameless demagoguery over the Lake Gaston pipeline, an issue that no one much remembers or cares about today (because, contrary to what Ruff claimed at the time, the pipeline didn’t drain our Southside lakes dry.) Lewis Parker, the incumbent delegate, had suggested negotiations with Virginia Beach to gain compensation for the area’s water, and Ruff ate him up over this presumed heresy. In doing so, he also cost Mecklenburg County tens of millions of dollars of free cash that would have come at absolutely no cost to the area. Virginia Beach got its pipeline, Frank Ruff won his first statewide office, Buggs Island Lake and Lake Gaston have as much water as ever, Lew Parker passed away years ago — God rest the soul of a good man — and life putters on.

So why is Frank Ruff just sitting there, with a campaign fund flush with a quarter of a million dollars in sweet, sweet cash, and yet he’s doing nothing with the money? The best answer I can come up with is that he doesn’t want to pull an Eric Cantor — if the reference makes no sense, my apologies, and please allow an explanation. You probably remember Eric Cantor, the 7th District Republican congressman who was one of the most powerful members of the U.S. House of Representatives, until he wasn’t. In 2014, Cantor drew a little-known primary challenger, Dave Brat, a Randolph-Macon College economics professor who never seemed to know much about economics, and his shocking downfall began. Cantor ran the standard campaign consultant playbook, choosing to bury Brat under a deluge of negative advertising, and all this massive spending effort accomplished was to build up Brat’s bad-boy reputation. Cantor lost his seat to Brat in a huge upset — a Tea Party takedown of the Republican establishment, although Cantor was himself pretty right-wing — and the powers-that-be of the Republican Party got the message: Don’t stir up the crazies. In fact: feed the crazies.

So I imagine Ruff is hoping no one pays TOO much attention to his record, lest inconsistencies start to hamper his re-election efforts. (Dubious Tobacco Commission spending? Support for almost tripling Virginia’s gas tax? It’s all there if you look hard enough.) The real secret here, however, is that a lot of Republican officeholders — eminences just like Frank Ruff if not Ruff himself — are terrified of their own voters: You never know what these people will think or do. For that reason, a poorly-funded, straight-outta-nowhere candidate like Dale Sturdifen can actually represent a real threat to incumbents like Ruff — such is the legacy of Eric Cantor’s shocking loss that, believe you me, is burned into the circuitry of every Republican officeholders who ever is at risk of being labeled as “Establishment.”

Serving in the statehouse for most of three decades is a great way to earn the establishment tag. (In their letter published at right, GOP party chairs in the 15th District describe Ruff as a “small businessman.” That hasn’t been true since the 1990s, when Ruff’s furniture store in Clarksville went out of business.) Ruff is a professional politician at a time when the brand is especially bad. What do Republican incumbents do in such a fraught position? I was reading Politico this week when a headline caught my eye: “How the anti-vaccine movement crept into the Republican mainstream.” Long story short: A lot of Republican officeholders around the country — some of them doctors! — are too cowardly to tell some of their most loyal voters that their beliefs about disease prevention and vaccine science are crazier than an insane wildebeest. Either these incumbents are nutty themselves, or merely pretending to be so.

The end result is the same: leaders with real responsibility lend their so-called moral authority to crank nonsense that can do genuine harm, as evidenced by the record-breaking measles outbreaks this year in the U.S. Honestly, it raises the question of how these officeholders can look in the mirror each morning and say to themselves, “I got this.” Honestly, what have they got?

Aside from money in the campaign account?





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