Wren Williams and Bridgette Craighead are both business owners younger than 35 who are newcomers to Virginia politics.
That’s about all the opponents running for the 9th District House of Delegates seat in the General Assembly have in common.
Craighead is the Democratic candidate. Williams is the Republican. Williams is an attorney from a prominent Patrick County family. Craighead overcame a difficult childhood to start her own beauty parlor.
Craighead is a Black Lives Matter organizer. Williams is a Trump supporter who made legal arguments in Wisconsin to overturn the 2020 presidential election results. Williams is white. Craighead is Black.
Both have been profiled by national news organizations, Craighead a few more times than Williams. Flare-ups over Confederate flags in schools, over the Confederate statue at the courthouse and over town police officers charged with participating in the U.S. Capital riots have lent themselves to portrayals of Franklin County, population 56,000, as a surrogate for the entire American South.
Craighead first shared on social media the infamous selfie that former Rocky Mount Police officers Thomas “T.J.” Robertson and Jacob Fracker took while they were inside the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6 riots. The two are awaiting trial on federal charges. The two earlier had danced with Craighead during one of her Black Lives Matter events.
“I felt like they were changing the world with me. I did,” she said. “That’s why it hurt the most seeing them. I thought, of all the officers, you two? You cannot judge a book by its cover, you’ve got to read the contents.”
“I condemn all riots and wish that BLM and antifa were held to the same standard, for the billions of dollars worth of damage that they caused, unchecked,” Williams said.
Both Williams and Craighead started out campaigning against the 9th District’s seven-term Republican incumbent, Charles Poindexter, perceived as one of the House of Delegates’ most conservative members. Both made claims that Poindexter has done little to help out the district he serves. The dynamic of the race changed dramatically when Williams flattened Poindexter in the June 8 Republican primary, scoring a 63% to 37% upset.
“People in this district did not like his do-nothing attitude. He was always very, ‘That’s not my job, you have to talk to somebody else,’ not very responsive when it came to constituent services,” Williams said.
Williams and Craighead, who are both congenial to chat with one on one, pledge they will be dynamic representatives for their district, which incorporates all of Patrick County, most of Franklin County and a portion of Henry County.
Their styles in public can sometimes make for a sharp contrast.
In summer 2020, in an incident described by The Washington Post and recorded by a photographer, a white man in a pickup raised a middle finger repeatedly and shouted obscenities at Craighead as she led a small Black Lives Matter demonstration in Hardy. Craighead shouted back to the man, “You can hate me, but I love you!”
In September, at the end of a Franklin County School Board meeting, Williams went to the podium, his voice raised as he complained about the board’s newly enforced policy of not letting politicians and candidates speak during public comment. At a previous meeting, Williams voiced his opposition to the teaching of critical race theory — a subject that staff in Franklin County and statewide say is not taught in schools.
During the September argument, Williams reiterated that he was a state House candidate, and went on, clearly outraged, “I wanted to get on the agenda, and say something, et cetera, I have to get it approved by somebody —”
“Mr. Williams, I appreciate your opinion on this,” said board Vice Chair Jeff Worley, speaking over Williams.
“You’re cutting me off now!” Williams said.
“Yes I am. Have a good night,” Worley said.
“OK. That’s your school board,” Williams said, turning to a mostly empty room.
Williams has given support to three first time Franklin County school board candidates, Kevin David, Dawn McCray and Carletta Whiting, who share his anti-critical race theory views.
He insists critical race theory is indeed part of school curricula. “Even when not taught by name, the ideas and vocabulary from critical race theory are everywhere in our schools and society,” he said. “You hear the CRT terms ‘systemic racism,’ ‘privilege,’ ‘implicit bias,’ and ‘equity, diversity and inclusion’ and others all the time.”
Craighead first made national news as a young organizer who helmed Black Lives Matter protests in Franklin County in the wake of the May 2020 murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. She went on to found an official BLM chapter.
She emphasized that protests she has organized in Franklin County have not been angry in tone. “We were calling it ‘protests with love’ because how we protest was different than how the world was protesting. When we protest we have music, we might have refreshments and we’re dancing. We’re showing love,” she said. “We want good change for everyone, not just for one side and for the minorities, we need change for the majority, for everyone.”
Sometimes she’s been confronted with hateful comments. Thursday, Craighead shared images of an anonymous letter mailed to her campaign address that contained racist insults. The letter, which she described as “sticky and yellow,” read, “If you don’t like it here you’re free to go back to Africa. We gave it a good try to domesticate you but I see we failed.”
A Franklin County parent who has been regularly attending school board meetings in order to oppose school mask mandates has tried to paint Craighead in a more combative light. Michaelynn Hanson has sworn out a pair of warrants through a magistrate in which she accuses Craighead of using abusive language in a Sept. 24 confrontation with a group that was protesting the school system’s recently imposed mask exemption requirements.
Craighead, though her communications director Eleanor Roy, has declined to comment directly on Hanson’s allegations, other than to call the warrants “unfounded” and “politically motivated.” A hearing is scheduled Oct. 28 in Franklin County General District Court. An abusive language conviction carries a maximum possible punishment of a $500 fine.
“The criminal justice system has often been used and deployed against, especially, women of color to silence their voices,” Roy said.
Williams said he has no involvement in the case.
The candidates have met once, a chance crossing of paths in a parking lot. Williams described it as a friendly encounter. Craighead was a little more reserved.
“It wasn’t a bad meeting at all,” she said. “Being a Black woman, I felt that when I met him I needed to look him in the eye and shake his hand firm, so he can, you know, take me seriously.”
‘It got really loud’
Williams’ entry into politics began with a nonpartisan issue: broadband. Specifically, he was appalled at what he described as an active disinterest in pursuing broadband by at least one member of the Patrick County Board of Supervisors, an attitude that “people moving to Patrick County didn’t want broadband, they wanted peace and quiet.”
Williams had returned to his home turf after earning his law degree and an MBA in Alabama. “I knew that my family would be helpful and that they could use my help with legal matters,” he said. His family runs the business in Stuart that his grandfather founded, Ten Oaks Hardwood Flooring.
He and his wife Britt, who he met in law school, co-founded their Stuart firm, Schneider & Williams P.C. At first he avoided politics, but the need to speak up about broadband changed that, he said.
“I realized that all of these people who I knew and trusted and loved and respected, they were all sort of biting their tongue while all of these people that were doing damage to our community were out there just running rampant,” Williams said.
In September 2018, he volunteered to run the Patrick County Republican Committee, which he described as essentially defunct at the time. He brought new energy and aimed to back like-minded candidates for the board of supervisors and school board, so that a Republican majority would take charge of the county. He achieved those goals through the November 2019 election, he said.
“I don’t want to say we hand-picked them, but I definitely encouraged at least four of them to run,” Williams said.
When a call went out for attorneys to volunteer for Donald Trump’s efforts to challenge the 2020 election results, Williams was eager and honored to help, especially when he got the chance to make arguments before the Wisconsin Supreme Court. “I was happy to do so because it was pretty much a once in a lifetime opportunity,” he said.
He framed his efforts in terms of an attorney’s vigorous representation of a client. “If [President Joe] Biden was on my team, if you will, and I was called to help with that lawsuit, I would have been arguing just as effectively and zealously,” he said.
He maintains the election was rigged against Trump and that enough irregularities existed to overturn Wisconsin’s results. “The courts didn’t have the backbone to apply the laws as written for fear of the leftist mob, so they turned a blind eye to the violations and dismissed all the cases on technicalities,” he said.
Four of the seven justices on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, including a conservative, disagreed. The court ruled Dec. 14 that three of Trump’s claims were filed too late and the other was without merit, the Associated Press reported.
It was one of more than 60 legal challenges to Trump’s 2020 election defeat by Biden that Trump’s campaign lost, including before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Williams said he has been encouraged to run for office before, but “when I got back from Wisconsin, it got really loud,” he said. “Everybody I talked to said I needed to run for House of Delegates.”
One of the first things Williams did after winning the Republican primary was issue a pledge stating he intends to introduce legislation banning the teaching of critical race theory statewide. “Obviously my individuals in my district, they hate CRT and they’d love for me to pass something that bans it,” he said.
As for needs specific to the 9th District, he’d like to see an infrastructure alliance between the district’s counties and neighboring communities to bring more broadband to all the rural areas that need it. “I don’t want to step on anybody’s toes or get in the way of what people are doing, I just want to help them.”
He’s also looking into what it would take to reestablish a hospital with an emergency room in Patrick County. At the moment, anyone in the county with a dire health emergency faces a 30 to 45 minute ambulance ride, he said.
Beyond his potential legislative agenda, Williams said he intends to do everything he can to put Virginia back under Republican control. As just one example, “I’ve been taking my team and my efforts and the money that I’m raising and going up to the 12th District and helping Jason Ballard knock doors and put out information and raise awareness about his race to beat Chris Hurst.”
Voting records strongly suggest the 9th is a safe district for Republicans. The GOP has held the seat continuously since 1994.
Nonetheless, Williams plans to stay on the campaign trail until the end. “For me to just sit back and say, ‘Elect me, I’m the Republican’ . . . I don’t want to treat it like that.”
‘That gave me a fire’
Craighead and her campaign manager, Stephen Kaplan, are well aware of the 9th District’s Republican history and the voter demographics that regularly see about 70% supporting conservative candidates and causes.
“When we see that 70-30 split, we’re only seeing one third of registered voters show up for that opinion,” said Kaplan. “Especially here, the Democratic voice has all but given up over the last 20 years, but we’ve got to do it, it’s got to happen.”
They’re also well aware that Williams has raised and spent more than six times the funds Craighead has, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. At the end of August, Williams’ campaign had raised $256,240 to Craighead’s $42,598.
“It’s tough. I do need help,” Craighead said. “Closed mouths don’t get fed. I need money. If people want to really see a change in this community, in this district in Virginia, I need help.”
A single mother who founded and runs El3ven11 (pronounced “eleven-eleven”) Beauty Lounge in downtown Rocky Mount, Craighead acknowledges that campaigning can be challenging for a working class candidate.
Yet she said she’s not letting these things daunt her. “Who knows? By Nov. 2, I could have a million. That is the type of attitude that I’m going to continue to have until that day.”
Her potential legislative agenda is much broader than Williams’, she said. “I want to build coalitions to work together on solutions that meet the needs of all people,” she said. “I want to improve access to quality, affordable health care and mental health resources so every Virginian can get the care they need when they are sick.”
She wants to close the gaps in rural broadband and transportation access — “we live in a district where if you don’t have a car, you are stuck” — and fully fund school budgets.
She and Williams “do agree on one thing, Patrick County is in desperate need for their own hospital, and that’s one of the things I want to do as well,” she said.
Regarding his focus on critical race theory, she said that hers and his “attention should be on what is mattering in our district, we should not be entertaining national distractions that have taken us away from the real issues here.”
A Rocky Mount native, her family enrolled her in Roanoke schools because in Franklin County schools, “I got in trouble a lot,” she said. “I was a bully’s bully. If I saw something that wasn’t right, I always stuck up for somebody.”
Attending cosmetology school, she got her first taste of politics in February 2020 when she traveled to Richmond to speak before a General Assembly subcommittee about how a change to licensing requirements would harm her chosen industry. “I was so nervous. I never talked in front of anybody before,” but by the end she had the room laughing and clapping.
Her move into political activism started with a Lynchburg news clipping. “Seeing all white people holding Black Lives Matter signs did something to me,” she said. “Usually Black people, we have a hard time standing up for each other because we do worry about retaliation. But seeing white people do it, that gave me a fire.”
Craighead’s efforts founding Franklin County’s first Black Lives Matter chapter made national and international news. Despite the dizzying publicity, she decided to keep her efforts focused close to home, and when no other Democrats declared against Poindexter in the 9th District race, she stepped up.
“I decided to run for office to give the people a choice who they want in power,” she said. “I want people of all political views to know that they have accessible and accountable representation.”