(Courtesy of The Virginia Mercury via Jenkins and Brewer campaigns)

(Courtesy of The Virginia Mercury via Jenkins and Brewer campaigns)

Old family court records have become an unexpectedly prominent issue in one of the most competitive races in this year’s battle for control of the Virginia Senate.

Virginia Del. Clint Jenkins, D-Suffolk, says it was his family that wanted him to respond forcefully to campaign ads from his Republican opponent spotlighting turbulent periods in his home life that left him facing misdemeanor charges. In his telling, the attack ads are an example of the GOP’s “bullying” tactics.

This story was reported and written by The Virginia Mercury

“A lot of people don’t want to get into the mudslinging,” Jenkins said in a recent interview, stressing that his campaign has tried to focus on policy, particularly on K-12 education, and how it affects the people of the new Senate District 17, which runs from the edge of Hampton Roads to parts of Southside Virginia and the rural outskirts of Petersburg.

Del. Emily Brewer, R-Suffolk, says the domestic assault accusations lodged against Jenkins roughly two decades ago are relevant at a time when crime and safety is a major issue for many voters. That history, she said, shows an alarming pattern of behavior, even though the misdemeanor charges arising from the three incidents were ultimately dismissed.

“It’s something that people talked about in this community for a long time,” Brewer said. “It’s not like it’s a secret historic fact here.”

Though Jenkins has made several runs for public office before, his past legal troubles are coming under new scrutiny in a politically split district that will help determine which party controls the Senate next year.

Portraying her Democratic opponent as soft on crime, Brewer has run TV ads with imagery evoking an allegation that Jenkins grabbed his daughter by the throat after a Thanksgiving dinner in 2003, a detail included in police records from the time. In 2004, the Suffolk News-Herald reported Jenkins was “cleared” of an assault charge without detailing exactly why the matter was dismissed. 

Brewer said Jenkins has been a reliable vote for Democratic efforts to make the criminal justice system less punitive, changes Republicans say have come at the expense of public safety.

“He has a past where he’s directly dealt with the criminal justice system in a way that is not positive,” Brewer said.

In a response ad that features members of his family sticking up for his character, the Jenkins campaign accused Brewer of spreading “bold faced lies.”

“My daughter lives with me. My daughter is my business partner. My daughter is a big part of my team. And we worship together,” Jenkins said in the interview. “That’s what my family wanted to demonstrate. And for people to see who we are.”

Brewer, the owner of a wine and beer shop in downtown Suffolk who has served in the House of Delegates since 2018, was endorsed by Gov. Glenn Youngkin in a competitive GOP primary earlier this year for the open Senate seat.

Jenkins, who helps run a family real estate company, was first elected to the House in 2019, when he defeated a top Republican lawmaker in a district redrawn by federal judges to address race-based gerrymandering.

This year, Republicans will have to outperform expectations to achieve their goal of overturning the 22-18 Democratic majority in the Virginia Senate. But the 17th District, which Youngkin won by about 5 percentage points in 2021, isn’t seen as the toughest on the map. As of Sept. 30, Brewer had raised nearly $1.5 million, well ahead of the nearly $650,000 raised by Jenkins, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.

Like Democratic candidates in other competitive races, the Jenkins campaign is hitting Brewer for her anti-abortion views, including her past comments calling late-term abortion “barbaric” and labeling Planned Parenthood a “terrorist organization.”

Brewer supports Youngkin’s proposal to ban elective abortions after 15 weeks with exceptions for cases of rape and incest and when the mother’s life is at risk. Jenkins said Virginia’s abortion laws — which provide mostly unrestricted access in the first and second trimesters of pregnancy but only allow third-trimester abortions when three doctors agree there’s a serious health risk to the mother — should remain as they are.

“Let’s be real, we don’t tell men what to do with their bodies. It’s all about freedom,” Jenkins said. “The other side talks about freedom, but yet this action that they’re talking about is taking away freedom.”

Brewer said that based on her conversations with potential voters, she’s not convinced abortion is a top issue for the district. And she disputed the notion that a 15-week limit with exceptions is overly harsh, saying it’s “about in line” with the abortion laws many European countries have adopted.

“I wouldn’t say they’re the bastion of conservatism,” she said.

On the economy, Brewer is emphasizing workforce development and opening up more pathways for young people to go into skilled trades. For those growing up in places like Suffolk, she said, learning a trade can open up more opportunities to work closer to home instead of tying career aspirations only to a four-year college degree.

“It’s great to, you know, get a full ride to go somewhere and get a degree in theater or English. And that’s awesome,” Brewer said. “But if you stay in this community, what do you do with that?”

Asked if she believes abortion could be a decisive issue this year, Brewer said she thinks the day-to-day struggles of people trying to afford groceries, gas and other necessities are a more pressing concern. Brewer’s campaign has touted her support for cutting taxes, spotlighting Republicans’ partially successful push to reduce taxes on groceries.

Jenkins said it was Democrats who pushed for bigger direct tax rebate checks in the most recent state budget that passed on a bipartisan basis. He’s pitching education as a top issue, touting his support for higher teacher pay and a more urgent approach to fixing up or replacing Virginia’s aging school buildings. His own experience growing up in Suffolk, he said, taught him that education can give people a “fighting chance” and prepares them to “make a quality contribution to society.”

Democrats have been using their Senate majority, he said, to fight for more education funding and ensure public money isn’t diverted to private schools.

“If we lose the Senate, we lose that progress,” he said.