Local Charlottesville attorney Elliott Harding is challenging incumbent Virginia State Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, for the 25th District Virginia Senate seat this week as an independent candidate. Harding, a 2012 University alumnus of the College, previously worked as legislative director for former 5th District Rep. Tom Garrett, R-Buckingham, and served as chair of the Albemarle County Republican Committee. On his campaign website, Harding highlights criminal justice reform, equal access to education and energy deregulation as some of his top priorities.
Since 2001, Deeds has represented the 25th District, which encompasses the City of Charlottesville, most of the Albemarle area and five surrounding counties. He lost the 2005 attorney general election and 2009 gubernatorial election to Republican Bob McDonell. While in office, he has supported legislation for gun rights, environmental protection and stronger punishment for criminals. If Harding were to beat Deeds this November, he would be the only independent in the Virginia General Assembly.
“The reason I'm running as an independent is because I think we live in a really hyper-partisan, very political time where people are putting themselves in proverbial boxes and just kind of revert to a team-based, tribalistic type of atmosphere where they're unwilling to listen,” Harding said.
According to Harding, both parties are at fault for legislation inaction in the Virginia General Assembly. Running as an independent would allow him to serve as a vehicle for parties to come together on particular issues, Harding said.
“For example, here locally, our incoming delegate is going to be Sally Hudson,” Harding said. “She’s more of a progressive left-leaning individual, and there’s certain things on her platform like rank-choice voting that I would love to be a patron for on the Senate side, while also cultivating relationships on the right to get behind that kind of thing.”
As a criminal defense attorney, Harding cited his number one priority as criminal justice reform. He criticized Deeds for disagreeing with the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling Roper v. Simmons, which made it unconstitutional to execute minors. The first bill he plans to introduce would be to try to end capital punishment in Virginia.
Harding also cited his opposition to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and support for LGBTQ rights among issues he falls further to the left on than his opponent.
Harding was also previously involved with the Monument Fund, an organization that — along with several other organizations, including the Sons for Confederate Veterans — filed a lawsuit against the Charlottesville City Council vote in February 2017 to remove the Robert E. Lee Statue in Market Street Park.
“I don't think three out of five members should be able to dictate the removal of something that's been there for over a hundred years,” Harding said. “I would be open to seeing something like a referendum… as long as the costs of removal are on the ballot, so that you know. I think that that would be something that potentially could pass.”
Personally, Harding believes the statues should be further contextualized and more historical figures should be recognized. He also noted the cost of removing the Lee and Jackson statues, estimated to be about $700,000, as a reason for his opposition to their removal.
“It's kind of a short-sighted, hollow symbolic action that in reality isn’t going to eradicate any vestiges of white supremacy or institutional racism that still exists, whether that be racial achievement gaps in our education system or arrest rates for people in our criminal justice system,” Harding said.
According to third-year College student and University Democrats Communications Chair Kathryn Williams, Harding’s stance on Confederate statues and his past involvement with the Republican party make him an unfit candidate for the largely blue 25th district.
“Harding paints himself as the more liberal candidate, but he fails to mention his Republican past and his stance on confederate statues on his website,” Williams said. “Left-leaning voters are looking for someone they can count on to support the issues they are passionate about, and Deeds is a much more sure bet than Elliott.”
In the early 2000s, Deeds’ voting record did not mirror constituents’ needs, but he has actively changed his positions to reflect the progressive beliefs held in Charlottesville.
“A look at his recent voting records show that he has effectively represented constituent issues in Richmond,” Williams said. “Elliot Harding, with his volatile opinions on different issues as well as his lurking Republican past, is not the answer.”
The College Republicans did not respond to a request to comment about Harding’s past. As an independent candidate, Harding said he hopes to work with political leaders on both sides of the aisle.
Harding — who graduated from the University and lives in Charlottesville — says that one of his priorities is to work with the University to resolve local issues facing the community.
“Working with U.Va. going forward, there are a lot of things I would like to do … we've seen tuition spike, and that's more of a federal issue due to the financing of loans and things like that, but the state can have a place in that discussion with our public institutions,” Harding said.
Harding also noted the need for more affordable housing and local partnership in Charlottesville.
“I think that the University could be more of a participant in the local discussion as far as affordable housing is concerned,” Harding said. “As you can see, the hospital continues to grow. But unlike other places like VCU or other large University-related hospitals, they don't provide housing for families of patients that are up here.”
As a result, Harding says that many families come from rural Southern Virginia for treatment at the University Health Center and don’t have a place to stay.
At 29-years old, Harding said he hopes to provide a generational perspective to the General Assembly if elected.