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Army vet takes on Cantor



RICHMOND—Democrats who run against Rep. Eric Cantor in Virginia’s 7th district usually share a fate: a double-digit November loss.

Richmond attorney Wayne Powell knows that might be his fate this year, too. Cantor’s a formidable opponent with millions of dollars in campaign cash, a high profile and clout in Washington.

But Powell decided to try anyway, running as this year’s Democrat against the GOP majority leader in the district that includes Spotsylvania, Culpeper, Orange and Louisa counties.

Powell is a Richmond-area native, a lawyer and Army veteran with five years of active duty and 25 years in the active Reserve, retiring as a colonel in 2002.

Powell says he’s running because he’s frustrated with Congress—the partisanship, the refusal to talk to one another, the unwillingness to compromise, the brinkmanship—and he blames Cantor for fostering such an intransigent environment.

The tipping point, Powell said, was possibly last year when his son—a major in the U.S. Army, now serving in Afghanistan—got an email warning him his paychecks might stop while Congress held up a bill to avoid a government shutdown over a fight on an amendment to defund Planned Parenthood.

“We’ve got this dysfunctional group that’s totally dedicated to this social agenda and willing to let this country dissolve,” Powell said. “Eric Cantor symbolizes a lot of the dysfunction.”

A large part of Powell’s message is anti-Cantor; he casts his opponent as an inside-the-Beltway partisan whose leadership has helped Congress become mired in petty ideological battles while ignoring the serious and growing economic peril facing the U.S.

“What this man symbolizes and what he’s been doing the last 12 years, I think he’s hurt this country,” Powell said. “He’s not in the real world.”

Earlier this week, Powell tied Cantor to Missouri Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin, who spoke about “legitimate rape”; Powell said Cantor has co-sponsored multiple bills related to abortion.

He also criticizes Cantor for supporting legislation Powell thinks is frivolously ideological, like a bill that would bar federal regulatory actions from going into effect—including those involving clean drinking water—until the unemployment rate drops below 6 percent.

“It’s like reading a sci–fi novel,” Powell said.

Cantor spokesman Ray Allen says Powell’s approach to the campaign is “relentlessly negative.”

“It’s unfortunate the way he’s chosen to run his campaign,” Allen said. “The 7th District people are fair-minded folks who aren’t going to respond to a wholly negative campaign, where he says nothing about what he wants to do.”

Allen said Powell has a “very extreme agenda” and that district voters know and like Cantor. “Eric is very well-known and very well-respected, and he’s representing the people.”

Powell pairs his Cantor criticisms with a populist economic message. He says the middle class is increasingly bearing the burden of taxation and that there’s a growing wealth disparity in the country. He complains that Republicans won’t consider increasing taxes on the top 1 percent of earners and says if the country doesn’t reverse course, a depression more dire than the recent recession is looming.

Powell wants to see the U.S. close corporate tax loopholes and end subsidies to companies—like the big oil and gas companies—that already make profits. He thinks there should be incentives for companies that outsourced jobs to other countries to bring those jobs back, and punishments for companies that outsource jobs in the first place.

Powell thinks the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling—which essentially said corporations are people for campaign-cash donation purposes and opened the door to huge-money interest PACs running ads in campaigns this year—should be overturned. “To call money speech is crazy.”

When he decided to run, Powell took a different tack than some of his Democratic predecessors in the district: He hired campaign strategist Dave “Mudcat” Saunders, who first gained attention helping Mark Warner appeal to the conservative rural demographic in the 2001 governor’s race. The colorful Saunders had Warner—a Harvard-educated multimillionaire—campaigning with a bluegrass theme song and sponsoring a NASCAR racer. Warner won; Saunders went on to consulting work with some national campaigns.

Powell says he feels comfortable with Saunders, and they’ve crafted a strategy aimed at getting national attention. Powell’s Twitter feed regularly announces appearances—by him or Saunders—on national left-leaning talk shows.

Back home in the district, Powell is holding town hall meetings in every locality and doing the neighborhood-walking, door-knocking rounds that come with any local race. He’s raised about $260,000 through the end of June, more than was raised by any of Cantor’s past opponents for the 7th District seat.

Cantor also has agreed to debate Powell, the first time Cantor has debated a general election opponent since 2002. It will be sponsored by the Virginia Chamber of Commerce on Sept. 28.

“They sponsor a lot of debates and they’ll be a good fair debate and we thought it made sense to debate this year,” Allen said of Cantor’s decision to accept the invitation.


AGE: 62

RESIDES: Chesterfield County

OCCUPATION: Lawyer with the law firm of Powell and Parrish

EDUCATION: Graduate of University of Richmond; master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin; and law degree from University of Richmond

MILITARY: Five years active duty in the Army; retired from the Reserve as a colonel. He also was reactivated to lead an intelligence unit after 9/11.

FAMILY: Married; two adult children; five grandchildren

Chelyen Davis: 540/368-5028