By Anya Sczerzenie
Democratic congresswoman Abigail Spanberger declared victory Wednesday over Republican Del. Nick Freitas in the tight 7th District U.S. House of Representatives race, though some absentee ballots remain uncounted.
The reporting of absentee ballots from Henrico and Spotsylvania counties late afternoon Wednesday pushed Spanberger into a slim lead. Spanberger had won 50.5% of votes, while Freitas secured 49.4% of votes, according to The Virginia Public Access Project. Spanberger was leading Freitas Wednesday evening by 5,134 votes and as many as 5,269 additional absentee ballots still could factor into the race.
Spanberger, who just hours earlier has released a video on social media calling for patience through the process, declared victory after the boost in votes. She said she looked forward to continuing her work in Congress.
“Tonight, the Seventh District affirmed its commitment to leadership in Congress that puts Central Virginia first, works for everyone, and focuses on expanding opportunity for the next generation of Virginians,” Spanberger said in the press release.
Freitas said his campaign will make an official statement Friday when all votes are tallied, out of respect for the race.
Spanberger addressed her district in a Facebook Live speech shortly after declaring victory, in which she underlined her commitment to several issues. She promised to work on lowering the cost of prescription drugs, extending broadband internet coverage to rural areas, and protecting Americans from foreign hacking.
“I said I would find common ground, and I said I would hold my ground if necessary,” Spanberger said, “and I believe I have done just that.”
This victory would clinch a second term in a district that only recently turned blue in 2018 when Spanberger, a former CIA agent, beat David Brat.
Freitas is an Army veteran and member of the Virginia House of Delegates representing Orange, Culpeper and Madison counties. He is seeking his first term in Congress. Freitas first won a House seat in 2015. He kept his seat in a write-in campaign in 2019 and then weeks later he announced his bid for the 7th District. Freitas’ campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“The first issue Abigail Spanberger will work on is COVID-19,” said Connor Joseph, a spokesperson for Spanberger’s campaign. “Every issue is through the lens of COVID-19.”
Joseph said Spanberger plans to increase broadband internet access to rural communities, and emphasized the need for it during a pandemic where school and work often take place online.
The race was closely watched and predicted. Politico rated the race a “toss up” just before the election. The University of Virginia Center for Politics thought Spanberger might perform better than Biden in her district and said her two-years of experience might help.
Spanberger, who grew up in the same district she currently represents, is rated a moderate Democrat. She often touts a focus on bipartisanship. In October, Spanberger voted against the second HEROES Act—a coronavirus relief package endorsed by Democrats—and wrote in a press release that she found the bill too partisan. She is a member of the “March to Common Ground” caucus, which is working to draft a bipartisan COVID-19 relief plan.
Freitas is a conservative Republican who supports gun rights. He has been described as having a “conservative voting record and a libertarian streak” by the Associated Press. Freitas sponsored a resolution during the pandemic that would have allowed the legislature to vote on any state of emergency declarations made by the governor that last longer than seven days, but the measure didn’t advance. Gov. Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency in March, and it remains in place.
The 7th District now leans more Democrat with the 2016 removal of Hanover County, home to primarily Republican voters. It encompasses both suburban and more rural precincts, including Henrico and Chesterfield counties and also Spotsylvania and Louisa counties. The voter profile is 72% white and 19% Black, according to VPAP.
The race injected more cash into broadcast and cable TV advertising than the presidential race, a significant amount of money for a two-year seat. Around $15 million was spent on TV attack ads, according to VPAP. Spanberger spent more than the Freitas campaign. Spanberger ads mostly focused on Freitas voting records, while Freitas ads delved into Spanberger’s CIA past and attempted to make a negative association with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.
The final count of remaining absentee ballots will be announced Friday at the earliest. Pundits often note that absentee ballots are often cast by Democrats, while Election Day returns lean more Republican.
Virginia lawmakers dodge questions on whether budget might include new policy on skill games
“Let’s keep ’em guessing,” House Appropriations Chairman Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, said Tuesday when asked for a response to the claim the budget could include a revised policy on skill games, either to tighten the existing ban or to lift it.
By Graham Moomaw
Budget leaders in the Virginia General Assembly won’t say if they’re considering changing the state’s contested ban on slots-like skill machines through the budget, despite that possibility already convincing a judge to order a lengthy delay in a lawsuit seeking to overturn the ban.
Last month, lawyers challenging the ban as unconstitutional pointed to the legislature’s ongoing special session and unfinished budget to argue the case should be delayed until all sides know what the state’s official policy on skill games will be. But the General Assembly’s budget negotiators won’t even say whether skill-games are part of their discussions.
“Let’s keep ’em guessing,” House Appropriations Chairman Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, said Tuesday when asked for a response to the claim the budget could include a revised policy on skill games, either to tighten the existing ban or to lift it.
Knight insisted the budget will get done and said “fine-tuning” is underway.
“In negotiations, I don’t comment on anything,” Knight said. “That’s how I work a negotiation.”
Asked about potential skill games changes Tuesday after a meeting in Richmond, Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, one of the 14 legislators working on the state budget, deferred to Senate Finance Chairwoman Janet Howell, D-Fairfax. Howell did not attend Tuesday morning’s Senate Finance Committee meeting, and she did not respond to an emailed request for comment Monday. In an email, a Senate budget staffer said “budget negotiations are ongoing.”
As Virginia recently relaxed laws to allow more types of state-sanctioned gambling, skill games have become a perennial point of contention. Usually found in convenience stores, sports bars and truck stops, they function similarly to chance-based slot machines but involve a small element of skill that allows backers to argue they’re more akin to traditional arcade games. Most machines involve slots-like reels and spins, but players have to slightly adjust the squares up or down in order to create a winning row of symbols.
Proponents insist the games are legal and give small Virginia business owners a piece of an industry dominated by big casino interests. In 2019, the chief prosecutor in Charlottesville concluded that they amount to illegal gambling devices, and critics have accused the industry of exploiting loopholes to set up a lucrative gaming enterprise that rapidly grew with minimal regulatory oversight.
After a one-year period of regulation and taxation to raise money for a COVID-19 pandemic relief fund, the critics won out in the General Assembly, with a ban on the machines taking effect in July 2021. But a Southside business owner who filed a lawsuit with the assistance of Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, successfully won a court injunction late last year barring enforcement of that law until his legal challenge is resolved. After Stanley wrote a letter pointing to the special session and unfinished budget talks as a reason to delay a hearing scheduled for May 18, the judge overseeing the case postponed the hearing until Nov. 2. The order also prohibited the state from enforcing the ban against thousands of previously regulated skill machines until November. The order doesn’t apply to machines that weren’t fully legal before the ban took effect, a distinction sowing confusion for local officials trying to sort out what’s allowed and what’s not.
In recent social media posts, the plaintiff challenging the ban, truck stop owner and former NASCAR driver Hermie Sadler, said the delay was requested because “legislators are threatening to now try to ban or legislate skill games through the budget.”
“So we need to know what we are fighting against,” Sadler said in a message posted to Twitter last week in response to a Virginia Mercury article about the delay.
Skill-game supporters have claimed the ban was driven by other gambling interests who want to clear out smaller competitors to make more money for themselves. As the gambling turf wars continue in Richmond, some local governments are frustrated by the lack of clarity on whether the state is or isn’t banning the machines.
“It’s created chaos,” said Franklin City Manager Amanda Jarratt.
Jarratt said her city has been dealing with crime and other disturbances associated with the machines, but has gotten little help because there’s no regulatory agency in charge of them. Virginia ABC had temporary oversight of the machines starting in 2020, but that ended when the ban took effect last year and ABC no longer had legal responsibility over gaming machines in ABC-licensed businesses.
“It continuing to drag on over months is only making the situation worse and leaving localities in a difficult position,” she said, adding her city simply doesn’t have the staffing power to try to figure out which machines are operating legally and which are illegal. “You want to be fair to the business owners, but you also need to look out for the best interest of the locality as a whole.”
Jarratt said she’d like clearer direction on whether the state is going to allow the machines or not.
If a new skill-game provision is put into the state budget, it would still need to win approval from the full General Assembly. But with the clock ticking to pass a budget before the fiscal year ends June 30, it’s unclear how open party leaders would be to changes to whatever deal budget negotiators present as the final product of months of work.
Knight offered little clarity on whether skill games are even a live issue. He also seemed to caution against putting too much stock into what people say they’re hearing about the budget.
“I heard that we were going to do the budget today. I heard we were going to do it on the 24th. I heard we were going to do it on the 27th. I’ve heard June the first. I’ve heard a lot of things,” Knight said. “But as far as I know, the only people that know are maybe a few budget conferees. And we’re not talking. Because we’re working to get things right.”
Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Robert Zullo for questions: [email protected] Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.
Rita McClenny, Richmond Raceway honored for contributions to region’s tourism and economy
“After two of the most challenging years in our industry, the Richmond Region continues to thrive and remains a top travel destination for visitors across the country,” said Jack Berry, president and CEO of Richmond Region Tourism.
Richmond Region Tourism recently recognized individuals and organizations for their work to support the hospitality community during its Tourism Awards and Annual Meeting.
Rita McClenny, President and CEO of Virginia Tourism Corporation, was honored with the Chairman’s Award, given to a person or organization who has made the greatest contribution during the previous year. Under McClenney’s leadership, tourism has flourished and grown in the state. She also helped secure important federal dollars to help the tourism industry recover during the pandemic.
The Richmond Raceway received the Tourism Impact Award, one of the highest honors given each year. Serving as a mass vaccination hub in the region, the Richmond Raceway collaborated with partners to vaccinate thousands of people in the community. The site helped the region reopen safely to visitors.
Richmond Region Tourism also announced the following awards:
- Customer Service Award: Candice “Candy” Banks, Executive Administrator to the Director and Chief Executive Officer at Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
- Rising Star Award presented by Shamin Hotels: Allison Smith-Mackey, MBA, Owner of Pop of Confetti
- Tourism Leadership Award: Owen Matthew, Corporate Director, Operational Accounting at Cedar Fair Entertainment Company
- Restaurant Partner of the Year presented by Korbel: Lillie Pearl, Chef Michael Lindsey and Kimberly-Love Lindsey, Co-owners
- Attraction Partner of the Year presented by Richmond Raceway: Walking the Ward with Gary Flowers, Gary Flowers, Owner/Operator
- Dedicated Partner of the Year: WTVR, CBS 6, Stephen Hayes, General Manager
- MVP Sports Award: Adam Kennedy, Executive Director of SwimRVA
- Unsung Tourism Hero: James Millner, Program Director of Virginia Pride
- Hotel Partner of the Year presented by The 288 Group: Hampton Inn & Suites Richmond/Virginia Center and Tru by Hilton Nancy Coggins, Director of Sales
- Tourism Event: Down Home Family Reunion, A Celebration of African American Folklife, Janine Yvette Bell President & Artistic Director Elegba Folklore Society
“After two of the most challenging years in our industry, the Richmond Region continues to thrive and remains a top travel destination for visitors across the country,” said Jack Berry, president and CEO of Richmond Region Tourism. “Every day, our tourism community supports our economy and businesses, and improves our quality of life. We’re thankful for this year’s award recipients for their commitment to helping the local hospitality industry recover and comeback stronger.”
Proceeds from the Tourism Awards and Annual Meeting benefit the Richmond Region Tourism Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Richmond Region Tourism aimed at advancing the local hospitality industry by supporting and investing in local education, diversity and inclusion and sports tourism programs.
The Foundation awards four annual $1,000 scholarships to students pursuing a career in the tourism and hospitality industry.
This year’s winners from Virginia State University’s Hospitality Management program included:
- Morgan Best
- Mariah Darden
- Prince Harris
- Kiara Parker
Small cannabis entrepreneurs say they can’t compete against ‘Walmart of weed’
By Josephine Walker
Many small cannabis entrepreneurs say large companies are jockeying to lock them out of the industry and have funding that gives them more access to lawmakers.
“Small businesses are the backbone of the country,” said Sarah Grant, general manager of The Dispensary in Richmond.
The shop opened last year and sells Delta-8-THC flower and vape cartridges.
“It’s hard to compete if you’re going against the Walmart of weed,” Grant said.
Grant said the lack of structure in the recreational cannabis market is stressful for smaller businesses and that her store could never compete with lobbyists from national cannabis corporations.
New lobbying clients, special interest groups and investors have entered the arena the past four years as Virginia lawmakers grappled with medical and recreational cannabis legislation. State lawmakers decriminalized simple possession of cannabis in 2021 with initial plans to legalize recreational cannabis by 2024—though that floundered in this year’s session. Potential sellers were left in limbo and parts of the legislation needed to be reenacted or passed again the next year before becoming law.
The market currently favors the four companies licensed to serve five health districts in Virginia. The Northwest health district does not currently have a licensed company. Only state licensed companies can open medical cannabis dispensaries in their district.
Some of those companies have merged to expand their business and have the cash to inject into Virginia politics.
Stephen Farnsworth is a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington and director of the school’s Center for Leadership and Media Studies.
“The recreational marijuana industry is the wild, wild West right now,” Farnsworth said.
The state’s commercial cannabis market could yield between $30 million to $60 million in tax revenue in the first year, according to a 2020 report by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, the state’s legislative watchdog agency. JLARC estimated that by the fifth year, commercial cannabis sales could generate between $154 million to $308 million in tax revenue.
Virginia’s illicit recreational cannabis market is estimated to be the No. 4 in the nation, according to the 2020 U.S. Cannabis Report. Virginia’s market generated roughly $1.8 billion of America’s estimated $60 billion in total illegal cannabis sales in 2020.
A burgeoning industry always has numerous wealthy interests competing for the best position in the field, Farnsworth said.
“From the point of view of an elected official, that means there are a lot of people who want to influence you,” Farnsworth said.
High stakes to get into the business
Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, sponsored a bill to establish a recreational cannabis market through a handful of medical dispensaries that already operate in the state, and large-scale industrial hemp processors. The measure was an attempt to reenact legislation passed last year and accelerate the creation of the recreational cannabis market.
The currently licensed medical cannabis dispensaries each paid $70,000 total in permit fees for their medical facilities to become operational. The annual renewal fee is $10,000. The dispensaries would have paid $6 million to hold another license to open recreational retail stores and hemp growers would pay half a million dollars each, under Ebbin’s amended bill. Lawmakers were unable to agree on several conditions of the bill, choosing instead to carry it over to the 2023 legislative session.
Jason Amatucci is president of the Virginia Industrial Hemp Coalition, a group that wants to establish robust hemp-centered agricultural and manufacturing industries in the commonwealth. Amatucci pointed to California’s thriving hemp industry. California produced almost 4 million square feet of hemp grown in protected areas in 2021 —about double the production amount of the next largest state, Colorado, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. California has a $4 billion annual market, according to Forbes business magazine, though the majority is medical and recreational cannabis sales.
Amatucci said he didn’t want to see pharmaceutical companies gain a foothold in the recreational market before small businesses could.
“The government wants to protect Big Pharma,” Amatucci said, referring to the retail purchasing power of national medical marijuana companies and the donations made to legislators. “Follow the money on this, because it’s all in plain view for everyone to see.”
Medical cannabis monopolies
The only way to legally purchase cannabis with over .3% THC is by going to a practitioner licensed by the Virginia Board of Pharmacy. The practitioners issue a written certification that the patient suffers from an ailment and would benefit from the use of medical cannabis. Approved patients then apply to the board to get their official card. The General Assembly recently passed a bill that, starting in July, allows patients to bypass the Board of Pharmacy application and take the referral to the dispensary.
Virginia’s licensed medical cannabis companies can grow cannabis at their processing facility and sell it through their dispensaries. There are currently 11 medical cannabis dispensaries open throughout the state, according to cannabis legalization advocacy group Virginia NORML. Each licensee is allowed to operate one dispensary for growing and processing cannabis, and up to five satellite locations for retail.
The four operators licensed to serve Virginia are:
Dalitso, which also goes by Beyond / Hello, for the Northern health district.
Dharma Pharmaceuticals, which also goes by RISE, in the Southwest health district.
Green Leaf Medical in the Central health district.
Columbia Care in the Eastern health district.
Green Leaf Medical, headquartered in Richmond, was acquired by Columbia Care in 2021.
Cresco Labs, a Chicago-based medical cannabis giant, announced plans to acquire Columbia Care in late March for $2 billion, but the deal has not closed yet.
Florida-based Jushi Holdings, which operates in five other states, acquired the Virginia-based Dalitso in 2021 for approximately $22 million.
Dharma Pharmaceuticals was acquired in 2021 by Chicago-based Green Thumb Industries, which operates in 13 other markets, according to the Bristol Herald Courier.
The state’s four licensed pharmaceutical processing firms now fall under the ownership of three out-of-state companies valued at hundreds of millions and traded on the stock market.
The merger of Cresco Labs and Columbia Care could make them the second-largest retailer in the country and the largest retailer outside of Florida if the company hits its forecasted revenue, according to a joint press release. They would have 130 retail shops in eight states, the company stated. The company estimated it could make over $100 million annually.
Cannabis money has made its way into campaign donations. The licensed operators donated between 2021-2022 a combined amount close to $160,000 to Democrats and just over $100,000 to Republicans, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonprofit that tracks campaign finance reports.
Jushi donated the most with $117,000 total. Dalitso, now owned by Jushi, contributed $30,000. The other operators donated total amounts between approximately $21,000 and $50,000. Then there are other donations from testing labs and individuals involved in the industry.
The amounts don’t rival the hundreds of thousands of dollars, or even millions, that other political special interest groups have spent. But the cannabis industry is new and smaller business owners who thought last year they would have a clearer path to the market are worried.
“At a minimum, a campaign donation is going to buy you an opportunity to be heard,” Farnsworth said.
Donations don’t guarantee a lawmaker will support legislation favorable to a lobbying firm, but money can buy access, Farnsworth said.
Del. Dawn Adams, D-Richmond, is the only nurse practitioner in the House of Delegates, according to VPAP. Adams is registered with the state to refer patients for medical cannabis. Adams owns RVA Telecare, where a consultation for a medical cannabis card costs $155.
Adams has sponsored several pieces of legislation on cannabis reform. She provided testimony in favor of the now-dead bill introduced by Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta, which many hemp advocates said would limit their products and instead favor the medical cannabis industry. The bill also aimed to eliminate access to synthetic Delta-8 products.
Adams declined interview requests to discuss the revenue she makes from issuing medical cannabis referrals. Adams did not respond to a follow-up phone call and email to comment if she feels there is any conflict of interest between her two roles as a lawmaker and her medical cannabis referral practice.
State code defines conflict of interest for lawmakers. A legislator with a personal interest should disqualify themselves from voting on measures, according to state code. They can participate in discussions if any potential interest is disclosed. Personal interest can exist when a lawmaker has a personal interest in a business or provides a service related to the proposed measure, according to state code.
Adams listed her Integrated Health Consulting business earlier this year as an economic interest with the state’s Ethics Advisory Council. RVA Telecare is listed twice with the State Corporation Commission, once under Integrated Health, and once as its own entity. The company is not listed as a potential conflict of interest with the council.
The lawmaker voted on a bill that allows a patient to bypass obtaining a medical cannabis card from the Board of Pharmacy after getting a referral from a medical provider, which her office could do. She later was recorded as “present but not voting” on an identical Senate bill. The lawmaker did not excuse herself from voting in support of Hanger’s bill.
The delegate spoke before the final House vote on Hanger’s bill, and said that she has no financial interest in her support of the legislation.
“All I can tell you is that I spend a lot of time reading, studying,” Adams said. “I have no financial stake in anything … this is a public safety issue.”
Adams wanted the market to be safer and more regulated, she said in testimony.
Cannabis advocates said Hanger’s bill would push people toward the medical cannabis industry, which Adams is a part of, while eliminating access to certain hemp produced, low-THC CBD products.
“They can position themselves so that the medical monopoly is the only ones that can sell these products,” Amatucci said. “What we have now, with this medical monopoly system is worst product, worst prices.”
Social equity licenses
Luke Greer is the owner of the Northern Virginia Hemp Co. and has operated in Virginia since industrial hemp farming was legalized.
“I don’t mean to villainize large money interests,” Greer said. “But I don’t feel that they should prioritize that over the small businesses that have been operating in the space prior.”
Colorado’s Department of Revenue issues licenses to recreational cannabis retailers for approximately $7,500 per license and application fees. California’s Department of Cannabis Control issues licenses on a ranked revenue system capped at $96,000 for a retailer making more than $7.5 million. Applicants negatively affected by the criminalization of cannabis can apply in California to have the fee waived.
Virginia lawmakers have also disagreed on how and whether to make the recreational market more accessible to people who have been operating in it prior to decriminalization, or what cannabis reform advocates call the legacy market.
Del. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, introduced the 2021 House bill that legalized simple possession of cannabis and established the initial outline for a recreational market. The bill included social equity provisions intended to keep already existing processors from squeezing out smaller entrepreneurs. It also confronted decades of disproportionate policing for cannabis crimes.
Lawmakers disagreed on the number of licenses allocated to social equity applicants and how much these sellers should pay for licensing.
Legislators killed a bill proposed by Del. Danny Marshall, R-Danville, which required licensed industrial hemp sellers wanting to have an additional license, for example, to sell recreational cannabis, to pay a $1 million fee to the Board of Pharmacy and be a long-time resident or business owner in an economically disadvantaged area.
Grant said these fees are inaccessible to small business owners, especially if they have already been financially impacted by the legal system.
“People have been in this business their whole life, just in the illicit market,” Grant said. “Those folks should definitely have an opportunity to get into this legally.”
Amber Littlejohn is executive director of the Minority Cannabis Business Association, a group that wants Virginia to establish a legal market that is favorable to minorities targeted by the war on drugs.
“When we make the investment in social equity programs, we are going to get that back,” Littlejohn said.
Supernova Women is an advocacy group run by women of color who want to lower barriers of entry and build sustainability in the cannabis industry. A Supernova Women study this year found for every dollar invested in a social cannabis equity program, there is a $1.20 return.
“Even if people are not compelled by the moral imperative, there is actually economic and broader social reasons to do it,” Littlejohn said.
She was hopeful that her groups’ demands for inclusion in the industry would be met but said that it would be an uphill battle.
Michael Carter Jr. is an 11th-generation farmer whose family owns Carter Farms in Orange County. Carter said social equity programs won’t solve the damage done to communities of color but recognizing the past by opening access to licensing could be a start.
“We had the opportunity to make up the deficit when it comes to opportunities like this,” Carter said. “But many farmers and many African Americans realize that we’re not gonna get that opportunity.”