BRISTOL, Va. — Republican challenger Michael Osborne dislikes Del. Israel O’Quinn’s role in carrying legislation for the proposed Bristol Resort and Casino and wants to replace the four-term incumbent as the 5th District’s representative in Richmond.
O’Quinn, 39, of Bristol is seeking his fifth term in the General Assembly in Tuesday’s GOP primary. He is challenged by Osborne, 61, a business owner who resides in Washington County. The district includes the cities of Bristol and Galax along with portions of Washington, Smyth and Grayson counties. Polls open at 6 a.m. and close at 7 p.m.
In addition to the 5th District race, there will be a Republican primary for the 4th District seat Tuesday, pitting Abingdon attorney Will Wampler against David “Peanut” Eaton, a business owner and member of the Russell County Board of Supervisors. District 4 includes all of Dickenson County and portions of Russell, Washington and Wise counties. Incumbent Todd Pillion is running for the state Senate in November.
“The difference in this election you clearly have one candidate who is opposed to the casino on various fronts and hears the concerns of constituents in Southwest Virginia who feel they aren’t being heard. On the other hand, you have a candidate who has introduced legislation to bring a casino to Bristol,” Osborne said in a phone interview.
O’Quinn carried legislation last session to establish the state framework for casino gambling oversight, allow casinos in specific, economically challenged areas, including Bristol, but leave the ultimate decision to voters through a citywide referendum. An amended form of that bill was approved by the General Assembly last session but further action will depend on the outcome of a study by the Virginia Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission and the legislation must then be ratified by the next General Assembly.
Osborne called the casino a “major concern” and wants a “complete examination” of all costs and benefits the proposed resort and casino might bring.
“I don’t think it’s good for Bristol. I’m opposed to it and want to make sure all sides have been considered before it was pursued,” Osborne said, adding he also has concerns about the referendum. “I do not think it will be a fair fight. The casino folks have already spent $1 million to get it to this point and I don’t think they’ll hesitate to spend as much as they need to, to convince the majority of people it’s a good thing for Bristol.”
The challenger said there has been little effort to assess potential social and economic costs, including the need for more police, any increase in crime, the impact on more cases in a busy court system or prisoners for overcrowded jails, plus potential impacts on families.
“I hear no elected official even warning of the potential hidden social costs. They’re all full speed ahead talking about benefits,” Osborne said. “I’d like to be a voice of caution to say let’s slow down and take a look at this.”
O’Quinn said feedback he’s gotten from constituents centers on the local voting aspect, especially given ongoing efforts by other groups — including the Colonial Downs Group and the Pamunkey Indian Tribe — both looking to establish gaming businesses in other parts of Virginia.
“The vast majority of people I’ve talked to appreciate that we’re working to ensure that local people have a say in a local issue like a proposed casino,” O’Quinn said. “Everyone, even those who initially disagreed with that proposal — once they realize what’s going on with the multitude of casinos in the rest of Virginia — and this is a way for Bristol to have a say so it doesn’t get this pushed off on them by the General Assembly.”
O’Quinn said he expects the Indian group will establish two casinos — that Virginia cannot stop — and the Chicago-based Colonial Downs group recently announced plans to invest $300 million to open a series of gaming facilities where patrons can gamble on historic horse races on devices that closely resemble slot machines. The first opened at Colonial Downs in New Kent in April and the second is opening today in Vinton, just east of Roanoke.
Similar gaming facilities are slated to open this month in Richmond and Hampton in October. Those devices were approved by the General Assembly in 2018.
“That was a bill Sen. Carrico and I both voted against, that we opposed from the get-go because that is not how that issue should be decided. Essentially the General Assembly gave them carte blanche to do whatever they want to do,” O’Quinn said. “That bill passed the house 79-21 and passed the Senate 31-9. We voted against it and it still passed with a veto-proof majority.”
O’Quinn predicted last year there would be this proliferation of gaming sites across Virginia but said nothing can happen with the Bristol project until the study is complete in November.
“The bill was put into a study. Everything with these three proposed projects — Bristol, Danville and Portsmouth — is essentially on hold,” O’Quinn said. “It’s going to very much depend on the JLARC study. JLARC is a very independent minded group and they bring back what they think is right not what they think you want to hear.”
Both men also cited the importance of economic growth and jobs for Southwest Virginia.
“The economy, job creation and making sure we have a good business climate in Virginia are always first and foremost at the top of the list for all of our delegation,” O’Quinn said. “Last year we passed the grid security and modernization act, which will have public utilities in Virginia upgrade their infrastructure.”
Providers including Appalachian Power and Dominion will connect its substations with high-speed fiber-optic cable to improve reporting and access of outages or problems — important for security, O’Quinn said. In addition, communities can seek pilot projects with internet service providers to access that high capacity fiber to help provide service to previously unserved or underserved areas. The first project will be in Grayson County.
“The utility picked Grayson County because it is the least connected county in the state,” O’Quinn said. “The least connected county in Virginia will have nearly 100 percent coverage in two years and they will have the fastest Internet in all of Virginia.”
Quality internet is essential for business, economic development, telemedicine, public safety, online banking, education and other applications, he said.
Osborne said he supports the CBD processing center approved to operate out of a site at the Bristol Mall and wants to see other businesses locate in that space off Gate City Highway.
“Bristol Compressors closed, but a company from Greeneville, Tennessee, is dividing it up for manufacturing and storage — to try to replicate what they have in Greeneville,” Osborne said. “If they can do it there why can’t we do it here? Why can’t we do it in the Bristol Mall? We’ve got good people. They’re reliable, hard working, diligent and this is a great place to live. I believe that and I think I can sell people on this.”
Osborne said voters look to elected leaders for direction and he doesn’t believe his opponent has provided that.
The challenger also doesn’t like the 2018 merger of Mountain States Health Alliance and Wellmont Health System — which was approved by state officials in both Virginia and Tennessee.
“I do not think it’s good for Southwest Virginia to not have a choice in medical care,” Osborne said. “I would push for a hospital authority composed of residents from the localities that are served by Ballad Health with oversight and some regulatory authority — maybe combined with legislators. I want citizens on a board or committee who are affected by the decisions that Ballad is making and decide whether or not it’s in the best interest of the people they serve.”
O’Quinn serves as director of strategic initiatives at K-VA-T Foods, parent company of Food City grocery stores.
Osborne owns and operates Our Father’s House in Glade Spring, Gospel Book Store on Euclid Avenue in Bristol and Appalachian First-Aid, a CPR training company.