Incumbent Republican Nick Rush and his opponent, Democrat Rhonda Seltz, are both hoping to represent Virginia’s seventh district in the state House of Delegates next year. The 7th District covers all of Floyd County, as well as portions of Montgomery and Pulaski. The 7th District seat is one of 100 seats in the House, all of which are up for reelection this November.
Del. Nick Rush said his principal goal as a legislator is to make the New River Valley “the best place to live, work, raise a family and retire.” Since he was first elected to the House of Delegates in 2011, Rush said progress has been made, and the region is “well on its way” to being a leader in quality of life.
A Christiansburg native, Rush first ran for office at the age of 23, defeating the incumbent chairperson to become the youngest-ever elected member of the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors. He served on that board for 12 years. After his election to his fourth term in the House of Delegates in 2017, Rush was also appointed Majority Whip, a position that tasks him with keeping track of his caucus during votes.
He said his position as whip has changed his influence in the House “for the betterment of the 7th district and my constituents.” He continued, “My whole sense was, to make sure Southwest Virginia has a voice in leadership meetings. That was really the reason to (run for whip)—to make sure rural Virginians are in the room.”
Rush is currently the Chair of the Appropriations- Higher Education Subcommittee, and looking back on his past several years in the House, he cited this year’s statewide tuition freeze as a major accomplishment. “Throughout the state, no public college or university raised tuition this year,” Rush said. Rush also pointed to his “10-10-10 Plan,” which provided additional funding to small school districts. The formula provided additional state aid to school divisions with less than 10,000 students that lost enrollment by 10% or more during the last 10 years.
Also in higher education, Rush and his colleagues saw a success with the merger of Jefferson College of Health Sciences and Radford University earlier this year. According to Rush, the merger is going to lead to “more opportunities to become (healthcare professionals) at a lower cost…They think they can put out several hundred more degrees than under the old system.”
Looking forward to his next potential term, Rush said he plans to reintroduce legislation to allow banks to take tax credits off their state tax bill, if they refinance existing student loans at a lower rate. “We felt that so many of these student loan programs deal with having the government do something,” Rush explained. “But then you’re not spending money on student debt, you’re spending money on personnel, a building, and heating and air,” he said. Rush said his tax credit plan would “strengthen community banks while also lowering student debt payments.”
One of his opponent’s primary campaign issues has been expanding access to health insurance and medical care in the Commonwealth. Discussing his own plan for ensuring Southwest Virginians have access to health care, Rush said he wrote the budget amendment that reimbursed Medicaid rates at 100% for critical access hospitals. He also passed a bill (which was subsequently vetoed by Governor Northam) that would allow “skinny plans” to be sold in Virginia. These health insurance plans reflect a relaxing of certain Affordable Care Act mandates. According to Rush, “It’s the opinion of the House Caucus that I helped lead, that (these plans) would actually bring more people into the system—people who have been pushed out by mandates and costs.”
Rush explained how supporting critical access hospitals is essential to ensuring economic development. “I can’t lure somebody to Giles County if they Google it and the first thing they read is that the hospital is closing, or is in trouble.” Rush said economic development is one of his “favorite things” and cited bringing venture capital to the area, along with promoting strong healthcare and law enforcement, as methods by which the New River Valley could grow.
Rush said he “grew up” doing politics—“I started when I was 23, and honestly, over that 28 years, 99% of people have been nice to me…I love the New River Valley and people have been good to me.” He said his primary job is “constituent services”—to make sure his constituents are taken care of.
Rhonda Seltz is the Democrat running against Rush. Seltz is a community organizer with decades of experience. “Making an impact in my community is as much a part of me as breathing,” she said. “It’s why I get up in the morning, and it’s something I have to do.”
Seltz grew up in Fairlawn and graduated from Pulaski County High School. She spent eleven years in Yakima, Washington, gaining experience in health and human services, before moving back home to the New River Valley in 1999. Currently, Seltz works for the Department of Medical Assistance Services (DMAS), and as an adjunct professor in the School of Social Work at Radford University.
But Seltz said her work in the healthcare field goes far beyond the specific duties of these jobs. “DMAS is in Richmond, but I work from home and cover all of Southwest Virginia,” Seltz explained. “I am out there doing grassroots outreach; I am boots on the ground. I’ve been to almost every single church in Southwest Virginia. I talk with the school nurses; I attend health fairs, food pantries, and workforce development meetings.”
Seltz said her primary goal is providing orientations and information-referrals to people, so they know what’s available to them in terms of healthcare. Seltz has established partnerships with entities such as New River Community Action, local health departments, the Rural Health Association, and the Partnership for Access to Healthcare, she said. She said her abilities to “get all the right people at the table, put those pieces together and facilitate and mediate the process” will make her an asset to her constituents if elected to the House of Delegates. She said acquiring the “delegate hat” will open even more doors to her.
One of Seltz’s proposed initiatives involves hiring several grant writers to help the region get more funding. “I see millions of dollars being left on the table, simply because we don’t have enough writers,” Seltz said. “I think that being able to bring in those grant dollars is going to allow us to address a lot of challenges that we currently have…Again, I look at all the challenges we face as great opportunities.” One challenge Seltz mentioned was a “caregiver shortage” for early childhood education and those with disabilities. She envisioned a grant that could support a pilot program—like a Peace Corps for caregivers—to help address this crisis. “We are hearing that whether a child receives early childhood education is a big determinant of whether they become at-risk of incarceration, drug abuse or dropping out of school,” Seltz said, highlighting the importance of addressing the problem.
Like Rush, Seltz shared concerns about rural hospital closures, saying a hospital closure has a “multi-billion dollar impact” on a community. “You’re not just losing jobs for doctors and anesthesiologists. You’re losing school funding, the grocery stores are shutting down…not to mention the loss of lives,” she said.
Seltz is also an advocate for establishing a state-based marketplace exchange for health insurance in Virginia. She said her conviction that everyone deserves healthcare is rooted in her experience. “I talk to thousands of people, I hear their stories and I internalize their pain. And that just motivates me to work harder,” Seltz said.
Seltz shared that her own sister struggled with alcoholism and mental health issues, and that the health insurance system failed her, ultimately leading to her death. “It wasn’t the fact that she had mental health issues,” Seltz said. “She had the worst condition of all, which is she was uninsured.” Seltz said a lot of harm could have been prevented if the state government had been more proactive. “I can’t help but wonder, had Medicaid expansion happened from the very beginning, could (my sister) have been saved?” Seltz asked. “The people that died from overdoses, could they have gotten treatment? I can’t help but wonder for those people that delayed healthcare, when maybe the flu turned into pneumonia…I see people dying from being uninsured every day, and a lot of it is because they delay treatment and they are worried about being able to pay the bill,” Seltz explained.
Seltz said one thing that sets her apart from many Democrats, however, is that she is in favor of a work requirement to accompany Medicaid coverage. “That’s healthy. People need to work and it’s not fair for those people who have worked all their lives and can’t even use the coverage,” because of high deductibles and premiums, she said.
Of the New River Valley, Seltz said, “This community is a wealth of…resourcefulness, pride, hard-working people that are very creative.” She said regardless of the outcome on Nov. 5, “I am going to have your back, whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat.”