House District 58 race: Republican Shaia vs. incumbent Democrat Willett

By: - October 5, 2023 12:04 am

Republican challenger Riley Shaia and Democratic incumbent Rodney Willett. (Courtesy of Shaia and Willett campaigns)

With all 140 seats in the Virginia House of Delegates and Senate up for election this November and an unusual amount of turnover due to redistricting and retirements, the Mercury is profiling some of the season’s most closely contested races. Are you interested in a particular race? Let us know at [email protected]

As Election Day approaches in Virginia, Democratic incumbent Rodney Willett and Republican challenger Riley Shaia are facing off in Henrico’s 58th House District.

The district has narrowly voted for Democratic candidates in recent state and federal elections, except in 2017, when it favored Republicans John Adams and state Sen. Jill Vogel, R-Fauquier, for attorney general and lieutenant governor, respectively. 

Both candidates have attracted major spending, although Willett has outstripped Shaia to date: An analysis of the latest campaign finance reports by the nonprofit Virginia Public Access Project shows Willett had raised $859,816 and Riley $354,648 as of Aug. 31. 

Unusually for most of Virginia’s contested races this year, Willett and Shaia are both emphasizing their bipartisanship and share common ground on a number of key issues, including increased funding for public schools, greater access to substance abuse disorder and mental health resources — and, critically, abortion.

Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, Virginia has been in the national spotlight as the last remaining Southern state with permissive abortion laws. Currently, Virginia allows the procedure in the first and second trimesters with few restrictions and permits it in the third if three doctors determine continuing the pregnancy would pose a severe risk to the mother, a law Willett has said should remain in place.

But while many state Republicans have massed behind a proposal to ban the procedure after 15 weeks of pregnancy except for cases of rape, incest and a threat to the life of the mother, Shaia, a former physical therapist and small business owner, has said she too supports upholding Virginia’s current law.

“While I respect everyone in my party’s opinion, I believe that we should allow abortion through the second trimester and then through the third trimester for the life and health, mental health and physical health of the mother,” Shaia said during a Virginia Public Media forum last month.  

Willett, a lawyer turned technology consultant and small business entrepreneur, said despite Shaia’s alignment with the Democratic stance that abortion should remain more easily accessible, there’s “no way a Republican caucus is going to allow a vote on a bill that supports” that position. 

Virginia House District 58. (Supreme Court of Virginia)

On education, Shaia said she supports Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s “ALL IN VA” plan to address learning loss and absenteeism among students spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic. Willett is focused on expanding universal pre-K to all Virginia children, as the state only currently provides grant funds to programs for certain at-risk 4-year-olds

Another key issue for Willett is affordable health care and establishing a state prescription drug cost review board to make sure Virginians can afford their medications.

Shaia’s website states she will fight to keep taxes low and make sure that “regulations are to ensure a safe and level playing field for everyone.” 

But Shaia and Willett don’t concur on everything. The candidates disagree when it comes to their other priorities like clean energy and the environment, as well as crime reduction.

Crime reduction

On crime, Shaia said her main priorities are supporting law enforcement, harsher sentencing for criminals and greater investments for violence prevention programs. She criticized Willett’s vote against a 2023 bill that would have charged drug dealers with murder for distributing fentanyl linked to a fatal overdose, as well as his support for earned sentence credit legislation in 2020 that allowed offenders to earn more “good behavior” credits to have their sentences shortened than was previously allowed. 

Under that law, inmates could only apply their enhanced credits to reduce their sentences for nonviolent crimes. Inmates with “mixed sentences” — those for both violent and nonviolent crimes — could not apply the enhanced credits toward sentences attached to their violent offenses. 

“We’re allowing murders and rapists to come back into our community early, and I just have a real problem with votes like that,” Shaia said. 

Willett said his main focus is gun safety policies, like universal background checks and requiring safe storage for firearms. 

“Extreme Republicans, like my opponent, oppose common sense gun safety policies like universal background checks and want to make it easier for domestic abusers and violent criminals to get guns, even over the objections of law enforcement,” he said.

He also described himself as an “ardent supporter of law enforcement,” pointing to his vote for a 2022 bipartisan budget that included pay raises for the Virginia State Police and local sheriffs offices. He also said he supports adequately funding law enforcement efforts to help address the fentanyl crisis. 

Clean energy and the environment

Both candidates also have different stances on energy and the environment — most notably their views of Virginia’s participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. 

RGGI aims to incentivize electricity producers to generate fewer carbon emissions by requiring them to purchase allowances for every ton of carbon dioxide they release into the atmosphere. In Virginia, proceeds of those sales have been earmarked for flood protection and energy efficiency programs. 

Gov. Glenn Youngkin has been seeking to withdraw Virginia from the organization. 

Willett said he supports remaining in RGGI, as well as upholding Democrats’ Virginia Clean Economy Act, a 2020 law that requires the state’s electric utilities to decarbonize by midcentury. 

“We’re protecting the state’s environment, but also creating jobs at the same time,” Willett said. “It’s just a win-win situation and I’d love to see us do more there and not taking steps backwards.”

Shaia said she opposes Virginia’s participation in RGGI because it doesn’t allow Virginians to make their own decisions. 

“I don’t have a problem with us moving towards a cleaner energy system, but when it’s attached to other states, that’s where I start to have the issue,” Shaia said. 

Additionally, the Republican said she supports Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s “all-of-the-above” energy strategy, which focuses on using a combination of fuels like natural gas, solar, wind, coal and small modular nuclear reactors to power the commonwealth. 


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Meghan McIntyre

Meghan McIntyre is a recent graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in print and online journalism. She received a faculty award for her stories covering Virginia government and politics, which were published in various outlets across the state through the Capital News Service course in the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture at VCU. She was also a previous news intern at VPM and briefly freelanced for The Farmville Herald and The Suffolk News-Herald.