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The Challengers

A psychotherapist, an ex-Marine and a young Democrat set their sights on Richmond-area Congressional seats.

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Sears and two other challengers — one an Independent Green Party candidate, the other a Democrat — are taking on the established incumbents in the three congressional districts that include Richmond and its surroundings.

They're an unusual group. Brad Blanton, who's running against two-term incumbent Rep. Eric Cantor in the 7th District, is a 64-year-old author, psychotherapist and father of four. He promises to bring "radical honesty" to government, to share information with constituents about policy matters and to speak his mind. He says he wouldn't mind getting arrested a few times to prove his point. The 7th District extends from western Richmond, Hanover County and part of Chesterfield County north to Page and Rappahannock counties.

Jonathan Menefee, a 26-year-old Democrat and a human resources director for his family's Chesapeake trucking company, is challenging the incumbent Rep. J. Randy Forbes, R-Chesapeake, in the 4th Congressional district. Government has been "run too long by the rich," Menefee says. "I'm for the working middle class." The 4th District stretches all the way from Chesapeake and Suffolk northwest to Chesterfield, Powhatan and Amelia counties.

And Sears, a former Marine, a 40-year-old mother of three, hopes to win the seat Scott has held for six terms. "He's been in office since I was 15 years old," she says — counting the years Scott served as a state senator and delegate. "A long time. So what the voters would be asking is, 'What have you done?'" The 3rd District includes parts of Norfolk and Portsmouth as well as sections of Henrico County and the eastern part of Richmond.

Few would call any of the three races close, at least in terms of fund-raising. As of last week, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, Scott had raised about $194,000 to Sears' $47,000; Forbes $622,000 to Menefee's $9,000; and Cantor more than $1.9 million to Blanton's, well, zero.

Blanton's not bothered a bit. "I don't really expect to win," he says cheerfully. "I don't have a chance in hell of winning." He's not campaigning just for a lark, however — Blanton, who lives in Stanley, says he's introducing himself to voters now and getting out his message of honesty, fair health care and cooperative discussion because he fully intends to win the seat in 2006. "If anyone in this district who's worth less than $10 million votes Republican, then they're an idiot," he says.

Rep. Cantor says jobs and the economy are foremost in the minds of 7th District, and he intends to foster the growth of both by encouraging investment and supporting education, through President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind Act. Despite Blanton's acknowledgment that he stands a slim chance of winning, Cantor says, "When you're in elected office, you never ever assume that any race is anything but challenging."

Sears, the only one of the challengers with experience as an elected official, sounds sure of her success. "I'm not afraid to challenge Mr. Scott," she asserts.

When Sears ran for delegate in Norfolk in 2001, against Democrat William P. Robinson, "I was worse than the underdog," she said. "I was dead, as far as they could tell. I had two-and-a-half months to run against a 20-year incumbent, whose father had held the seat before him for 11 years." And she won, becoming the first black Republican woman to serve in the House of Delegates.

Sears says she chose to align herself with the Republicans mainly because of moral issues, such as gay marriage and abortion. Yet, she says, with deliberate slowness, "I'm not about party. I'm about is-sues." She carries a thick white binder inscribed with just that - "Issues" — and says she'll focus on obtaining urban renewal funds for the district, reducing taxes and government demands on small businesses, and offering tax breaks for businesses that provide employee health care.

Rep. Scott believes the budget deficit is the most pressing issue facing the citizens of the 3rd District and the country as a whole, he wrote in an e-mail. "If we're to meet the critical needs of the future, then we must return to fiscal responsibility," Scott says.

As to whether the race will be close, he says only, "That is for the citizens of the 3rd to decide."

Menefee says he can win in the 4th because Forbes is "off touch" with voters, while "I have a message that's straight to the core of the working middle class." Menefee supports federal loans for established small businesses, he says, as well as measures that would slow the conversion of farmland to houses and other developments, an issue of particular concern to residents of Hampton Roads and also Amelia and Powhatan counties.

Forbes' campaign contributions largely come from Republican PACs, Menefee says, so "he has to toe the party line." Moreover, he says, the 4th District is not overwhelmingly Republican, but was split down the middle in the 2000 presidential election.

However, Menefee says he hasn't exactly had a chance to take his opponent head-on. Despite several invitations by groups including the NAACP and the League of Women Voters, he says, "I can't even get the other fellow to debate me right now."

Forbes was unreachable by press time. S



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