Ashland for one night at political center of Virginia politics

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ASHLAND, Va. — Already nicknamed the “Center of the Universe” for its location in Central Virginia, the small town of Ashland also became the political center of Virginia politics for one night on Tuesday. Reporters, camera crews and political supporters descended on Ashland to watch Randolph-Macon College professors and 7th Congressional District candidates Dave Brat and Jack Trammell hold their first and only public debate.

Since economics professor Brat defeated former House Majority leader Eric Cantor in the Republican primary and it became clear that he would face fellow faculty member Trammell in the general election, Randolph-Macon College has been buzzing on politics, said faculty and students there.

“There’s reference to it all the time on campus, ‘I’m Brat’ or ‘I’m Trammell’,” said Randolph-Macon senior Kailee Cross.

Shortly after news broke of the Republican primary election results in June, faculty and staff at Randolph-Macon College realized that two of their professors would be running against each other.

National news outlets and media have featured the story of two college professors squaring off in a small Virginia college town. With its largest population of 1,394 registered students, the college has received national attention after the upset of Brat over Cantor.

Attending an art history conference in Washington state this summer, Cross said students and professors from across the country were familiar with the election and its implications.

“It was crazy to be on the West Coast and have people know what’s going on at my tiny little school that’s in the middle of nowhere,” Cross said.

Faculty members at the college have taken the opportunity to provide a live lesson in civics and politics for their student community. On Twitter, the hashtag #Brammell has been used by students and faculty to show solidarity with the community’s two professors. At the college bookstore, t-shirts featured the candidates’ names for the campaign’s only debate.

The campus has experienced an influx of students who are eager to participate in the political and electoral process, said John Rackey, president of the Randolph-Macon Young Democrats.

“This time we registered 20 people to vote and got 5 absentee ballot requests,” Rackey said. “We got those in one day in a two-hour span. Normally we’d be lucky if we got that many people in a week.”

Rackey said he admits many of those who are voicing interest in the election may not be voting in the 7th district. He added that he will vote in Maryland himself, but has been president of the Young Democrats for two years and worked in Trammell’s camp throughout his campaign.

Republican and junior Emily Meyer said while some members are not voting in the 7th district, her organization has had a spike in membership this year regardless. Much like Rackey, Meyer said that she has worked for Brat’s campaign to gain experience in politics.

“We’ve had the biggest membership in the College Republicans that we’ve ever had,” Meyer said. “It’s super exciting. I think it’s been impacted by the campaign with people wanting to be involved and have a direct tap into it.”

Meyer said volunteering with fellow Young Republican members connected students with Ashland residents. Between phone banking and door-to-door visits, both Meyer, Rackey and members of both political student organizations have learned about local values and political-leanings in their college town.

But Randolph-Macon political science professor Richard Meagher said several issues and legitimate concerns are being ignored by the candidates and campaign supporters. According to Meagher, Brat is focused on broad national issues like the Affordable Care Act while Trammell is portraying himself vaguely as a bipartisan politician.

“I don’t know if either of the major candidates are focused on the needs of the 7th district,” Meagher said. “Virginia is a state which draws in a lot of federal money. Cuts to federal programs hurt us more than it does in other states. You don’t hear either candidate saying we need more money from Washington. Cantor would [lobby for federal funding], but he did it more quietly.”

Before Tuesday’s debate started, Meagher called Brat “an outlier” among the community of little more than 100 professors at Randolph-Macon College. According to Meagher, most professors have stated their support for Trammell.

Despite no invitation to the debate, Libertarian candidate James Carr was on campus for Tuesday’s event. A petition to include Carr in the debate was passed around weeks before the event and collected hundreds of signatures, but to no success.

“They’re fortifying the idea that money controls politics by setting a $50,000 threshold,” Carr said about Randolph-Macon College’s decision to exclude him. “It’s hard to change the face of politics, if you’re going to keep doing the same thing over and over again.”

While unaffiliated with Randolph-Macon College, Carr believes pressure from Brat and the marketing opportunity for the college to embrace its reputation as fostering philosophical and political minds have kept him out of the debate.

“Most people understand we are basically a two-party system and that’s how things go,” Rackey said.

But politics aside, Meagher said he hopes the election and the excitement on campus fosters long-term political interest in students.

“I think (students) are starting to sense it’s a big deal,” Meagher said. “Hopefully that’s enough to get them there in my town hall or classes. Afterwards, I can help them understand why it’s important.”

By Chris Suarez, Victoria Zawitkowski and Eric Arthur (Special to WTVR.com)

This story was reported by the “iPadJournos” mobile and social media journalism project, a cooperation between WTVR.com and VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture.