VIRGINIA BEACH — Karen Havekost was in Virginia Beach’s Municipal Building 2 when a shooter opened fire in May.
“I walked out of the bathroom and saw the gunman on the other end of the hallway,” she says in a political ad released at the end of September. “I saw a coworker in the middle, and he looked at me and he yelled, ‘Go.’ So I was lucky, but not everyone was.”
Missy Cotter Smasal, Democratic candidate for the 8th State Senate District, sponsored and released the ad. She’s one of the first candidates in Virginia Beach to explicitly mention in campaign materials the mass shooting that left 13 people dead, including the gunman, and injured four more.
Cotter Smasal is challenging Sen. Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach, who has served in the General Assembly since 2014. Both are former naval officers.
It’s unclear what kind of impact the Virginia Beach shooting, and Cotter’s choice to invoke it in her campaign, will have on the race or other elections on Nov. 5 when every seat in the General Assembly is up.
Joshua Zingher, a political scientist at Old Dominion University, said other states that have experienced mass shootings haven’t had huge political upheaval afterward.
“The effects of mass shootings can be very short-lived. I don’t anticipate some anomaly in Virginia Beach either as a function of guns or gun reform or lack of gun reform or the mass shooting specifically,” he said.
Quentin Kidd, a political scientist at Christopher Newport University, said he thinks the shooting and gun policy will motivate a key voting bloc — white suburban women, who are “driving politics in Virginia Beach” and areas outside of Richmond. Those are also the areas where the Democratic Party is hanging its hopes to win a majority in the statehouse.
DeSteph, who was an intelligence officer in the Navy before becoming a developer, said he thinks Cotter Smasal’s ad struck the wrong tone in the still-grieving city.
Jason Nixon, the husband of shooting victim Kate Nixon, told WAVY that Cotter’s ad kept him awake at night and caused nightmares.
“I woke up in the morning and threw up in the toilet, that’s how upset I was,” he told WAVY.
DeSteph’s campaign said it’s received more unsolicited online donations (70% of them have been less than $200) in the days following the ad’s debut than any single month of the campaign so far. Campaign staff attributes that to people being “disturbed by the ad.”
‘The special session … has really angered a lot of people’
Gun policy is a top issue for Virginia voters across the political spectrum, according to a recent Washington Post-Schar School poll.
A majority of those polled support proposals from Democrats, like bans on assault weapons (57%) and high capacity magazines (56%), and reinstating Virginia’s one-handgun-a-month law (58%).
Even more voters favor expanded background checks (88%) and red flag laws (82%). The National Rifle Association has said it could support red flag laws if the proposals protect due process rights.
Democrats filed bills that would have implemented each of those policies during the special legislative session Gov. Ralph Northam called in July after the Virginia Beach shooting. Republicans used their majorities in both chambers to refer all legislation for study, adjourn and come back Nov. 18. Democrats around the state threatened to flip Republicans’ seats in the Nov. 5 elections preceding the second meeting.
“I think the special session and the failure to do anything … has really angered a lot of people, and people across the political spectrum,” Cotter Smasal said in an interview in Virginia Beach. “The special session really provided some extra motivation to work hard because (the lawmakers) had this amazing opportunity sitting in front of them. They could’ve saved lives.”
Cotter Smasal calls DeSteph a gun “extremist” because he’s permitted to sell guns out of his home. DeSteph, when applying for the local permit in 2009, said at the time he had about 20 guns he planned to sell to dealers, military, law enforcement and other elected officials.
He keeps the guns — antiques and collectibles — in a reinforced steel vault in his home, he said in an interview. There are several security systems protecting the vault.
DeSteph said he would support legislation requiring gun owners to secure the weapons, though not to the extent he does — he said he’s spent thousands of dollars to store his firearms.
During the special session, DeSteph sponsored a number of mandatory minimum sentencing bills, including one for people who violate protective orders with guns and one for people who use stolen guns while committing other crimes. He also carried finance bills to assist Virginia Beach with renovating the site of the shooting, and to create a VBSTRONG license plate and memorial resolutions for each of the victims.
In Cotter Smasal’s ad, Havekost says she asked DeSteph to “do something,” but he didn’t meet with her and then blocked gun legislation from getting a vote during the special session.
“He has a chance to make a difference and he did not do it,” Havekost says.
According to emails provided by DeSteph’s office, Havekost emailed the senator before the special session asking him to consider legislation to ban silencers (one was used in the Virginia Beach shooting) and allow localities to decide if government buildings should be gun-free zones.
DeSteph’s chief of staff responded, saying the senator was reviewing existing gun laws. The chief of staff invited Havekost to make an appointment with the senator to discuss it further. Havekost didn’t follow up, DeSteph said.
“Karen had an important story to tell as a survivor and we wanted to give her space to do that,” Cotter Smasal said. “She’s saying she’s done with the complacency and that’s what I’m saying. … It’s time we take action to reduce gun violence. Lawmakers need to step up.”
Gun violence was a campaign focus for Cotter Smasal from the beginning, she said. She started a successful petition two years ago calling for a new requirement that every Virginia Beach school keep its doors locked and use buzzer systems to let people in the building.
At the time, the school system had buzzer security systems at three schools and was testing it at three others.
At her Rita’s Italian Ice franchise (she’s since sold the business), she employed high schoolers who told her they were scared of going to school after shootings in other places.
“They were terrified,” she said. “You could see what our failure to protect them has done to their psyche.”
While other Democrats running to represent parts of Virginia Beach mention gun reform on their websites, most haven’t circulated ads focused on the shooting.
Other issues have moved to the forefront in other Virginia Beach districts: In the House of Delegates race between Republican Del. Glenn Davis and teacher Karen Mallard, the two have gone toe-to-toe on public education funding; Former Virginia Beach school board member Nancy Guy has talked about gun policy in her campaign against Republican Del. Chris Stolle, but hasn’t mentioned the shooting in campaign materials.
Del. Cheryl Turpin, a Democrat from Virginia Beach running for the Senate seat vacated by former Republican Sen. Frank Wagner, released a handful of online ads about gun reform in her race against Republican candidate Jen Kiggans, though none so far have included survivors or explicit mentions of the mass shooting.
In a video ad, Turpin recounted the day she watched Columbine students “slide out of the window.”
“And you know what we did?” the high school teacher asks the camera. “We chose to teach our students how to protect themselves in the building by doing lockdown drills, and that’s a shame because really what we need is common-sense gun reform.”