State Senate District 19 encompasses parts of seven different counties—Roanoke, Franklin, Montgomery, Wythe, Carroll, Bedford, and Floyd—along with Salem City. Incumbent Sen. David Suetterlein is currently running to retain his seat against Democratic challenger Flourette “Flo” Ketner. State senators serve four-year terms.
Flo Ketner is the Democrat running to represent Floyd in the state Senate. Born and raised in the area and a graduate of Floyd County High School, Ketner said she and her husband Mark initially moved away but that he always “promised we’d come back.” While expecting her third child in 2014, Ketner recounted, she said to Mark, “I want to go home.”
Ketner ran against Del. Nick Rush in 2017 for a seat in the House of Delegates, but was unsuccessful, before deciding to run for state senate this time around. She described returning to Floyd County and noticing a “decline” in her hometown that motivated her to run for office. “We had all these opportunities presented to us (when I was young). You know a job, school or family farm you’re going to. And that seems to be slipping away,” Ketner said. Ketner said as an individual, she tried to help by donating items to charity or connecting people in need with resources, but at that level a person “can only do so much.”
Ketner said a priority of hers, if elected, will be to support the helpers, by providing them with necessary resources and making sure they are fairly compensated. “There’s things we can do to strengthen and bolster the local community and economy…to help support those who are trying,” Ketner said. She described meeting caregivers at the annual Appalachian Regional Commission forum, who in some cases support people with disabilities.
“We have these members of our community, they’re born, they need, and we raise them with love, and you have these people who work for them for peanuts,” Ketner said, expressing frustration that “nobody’s fixing it.” The homepage of her campaign website features a comic that encourages Southwest Virginians to “vote themselves a raise”—Ketner is proposing an increase to $10/hour from the current $7.25.
In Ketner’s view, a raise to $10 will alleviate some economic stress on individuals without “putting a hard hit on small businesses,” which is important because this region “thrives” on small business. “Amazon has no designs on coming to rural Virginia, but the people who do (come here) want to be here,” Ketner said. Ketner also outlined how increasing wages could have far-reaching economic impacts in the area, because people tend to spend the “little extra” that they have locally. “People can finally afford more produce and higher-quality meats. Now our farmers have more customers too,” Ketner described.
Ketner, who lost her mother to an overdose, is also supportive of legalizing marijuana, and said a new marijuana industry could bolster the agriculture in her district. Ketner explained that while marijuana is labeled a “gateway drug,” the real gateway is the dealers, who will often expose drug users to new and more dangerous drugs in an attempt to make more money. If you allow people to obtain marijuana legally, Ketner said, “you’re not exposed to that criminal element,” and there’s a paper trail tracking who is buying what. She said farmers could benefit. “We’re creating professionals in the agricultural industry…they have the skillset, now they need a product that can be purchased,” Ketner said.
Ketner is an opponent of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, and said while a lot of the permits and permissions are the purview of the federal government, there are things local legislators can do to push back on the construction. She cited art and eco-tourism as the two industries essential to Floyd’s success, and said failing to protect the environment is “going to hit our bottom line.”
Locally, Ketner said she can “sit down and talk to people, speak out on behalf of my community,” and lobby to protect endangered species that live in the pathway of the pipeline. “I want to make sure we’re protecting everything along its path—protecting the environment, because in this area, eco-tourism is everything,” Ketner explained. She pointed out that the pipeline offers no long-term benefit to the area. “It’s not a new highway. We’re putting in a pipeline for a product that has finite potential.”
Ketner is determined to protect the interests of Southwest Virginia, she said, because “When you let the rural areas fall, the state will go with it. We can’t bring in much more money in the overpopulated areas (i.e. Northern and Central Virginia).”
“I want to make sure we’re providing these opportunities…bringing more that fits here, here, so that when kids go to college, they come back,” Ketner said.
David Suetterlein is a baseball fan—in fact, he said his three children have been to every opening day for the Salem Red Sox since they were born. Suetterlein currently works as a Realtor in Roanoke County where he lives with his wife Ashley. He just completed his first term as a state senator, and prior to that, he worked as legislative director for state Sen. Ralph Smith for eight years.
Recently, Suetterlein has been in the news for his criticism of the Clean Virginia PAC. The PAC seeks to mitigate the influence of electric company money (such as from Dominion) on Virginia elections. According to its website, the group provides “no-strings-attached contributions to legislators and candidates who have demonstrated a public commitment to not accepting money from the utilities they have a duty to regulate.” However, as Suetterlein pointed out, he is the only current member of the state Senate that has never taken a donation from an electric monopoly, and he has not received Clean Virginia support.
Suetterlein’s conviction not to take Dominion money stems from his opposition to electric rate-freezing, a key point of disagreement he had with his predecessor Sen. Smith. Suetterlein remains determined to legislate against rate-freezing, which he said keeps electric rates “artificially high, and folks end up paying higher electric bills than they should.” According to Suetterlein, “I don’t want families or businesses to be overcharged for something that’s a necessity…I’m a free-enterprise person, but electricity is not a free market.”
Suetterlien has taken principled stances against funding from other groups as well—including the companies associated with the Mountain Valley Pipeline and payday lenders. “I represent a lot of different communities, and I’ve seen payday lenders take advantage of a lot of folks,” Suetterlein explained. “I do not want to finance my campaign with their contributions.”
While Suetterlein described himself as a “conservative Republican” and said he tries to legislate in ways aligned with those values, some aspects of his campaign are less conventional. The vast majority of Suetterlein’s campaign contributions are smaller-dollar and come from individuals, and he hypothesized that this reflects his campaign strategy. He spends most of his time, he said, knocking doors and meeting constituents face-to-face. “I try to run a campaign largely focused on reaching folks directly, so I knock a lot of doors. My son and daughter have both gone out with me,” he said. “My most-frequently occurring expenses are campaign literature and gas.”
In the last four years, Suetterlein has put forward 23 bills, he said, that resulted in new bills signed by Democratic governors. He said he is guided by a conservative philosophy, but “I’m largely driven by trying to do things that help our region, so I’m willing to work with folks regardless of their political affiliation.” One bipartisan accomplishment he had in his first term was helping to restore reciprocity agreements with other states for gun owners. Attorney General Mark Herring had ended these agreements, which Suetterlein said was “especially problematic for anyone who goes to North Carolina or West Virginia.” The bill was endorsed by the NRA, but signed into law by then-Governor Terry McAullife, Suetterlein recounted.
Looking back on his first term, Suetterlein cited accomplishments in both the educational and agricultural realms. Suetterlein advocates for an education system that values “skills over test-taking,” he said, and he has worked to improve the “school to work” pipeline throughout school systems in his district. He said Floyd County’s welding program is a success story. He also got legislation passed which “makes it easier to get folks with special skills the ability to teach without having to jump through as many administrative hoops,” he said.
Suetterlein has been endorsed in his bid for reelection by AgPac, and is a member of the Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee in the Senate. Suetterlein said much of his work on that committee revolves around “protecting famers and consumers from well-intentioned legislation that would actually make things more difficult.”
One legislative success Suetterlein cited was a bill he co-patroned that protects farmers from nuisance lawsuits. Nuisance lawsuits were “something that had happened in other places that we worried about happening here (in Floyd County),” Suetterlein said. “Floyd is a county that has people move in who may not be familiar with agriculture,” he explained, and they may see, hear or smell things that they “didn’t appreciate happened at a farm.” Now, farmers can’t be sued for simply conducting their business.
Suetterlein said he is “optimistic” that next term, the Senate will pass a measure to allow entities such as the Farm Bureau to “group their members together and be able to buy health insurance.” Suetterlein says this would be “quality, affordable health insurance that would be compliant under the ACA,” and that he’s been working on this legislation for a few years and watched it gain support.