By SHANNON WATKINS
Larry Nicholas “Nick” Rush, Christiansburg native, former paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division, also a former FedEx driver whose route was Pulaski—“I’ve been in every building or on every road that Pulaski County has,” he joked—youngest member to ever serve on the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors when he was 23 and now the Seventh District Delegate for the Virginia House of Representatives, stopped in at our offices to answer a few questions about his record with public education, business and how well the political parties work together in the state capitol.
SWT: What are some of the challenges you’re facing on behalf of the community?
Rush: The number one thing is the job market. We’ve got to—you know, the New River Valley actually does pretty well on job creation. We’ve got to make sure we have jobs for all segments of our society. So we have to worry about job skills, jobs training, out public education system, make sure our kids who aren’t going to college have skills that can translate to a workforce, so we’re working on those issues. We’ve made headway. You know, the New River Valley was actually fifth in job creation two years ago in the whole country. When I was on the New River Valley Economic Development Board, we were able to lure companies in here and in Radford, Phoenix Packaging—I actually toured Phoenix Packaging a couple of months ago with Senator Warner, we were able to meet with a bunch of the workers there. I knew a lot of them from my FedEx route. It’s funny how you can see the same people still in workforce, still working. So that’s our number one challenge.
What have you done to help public education?
I’ll give you two examples. How it works is the governor introduces the budget and the house of delegates passes the budget, you know, with members’ input. And my input was, we have to protect rural communities. So we were able to secure additional funding for Pulaski, Montgomery and Floyd from the governor’s budget both years. Another thing was, when the budget originally came out, only Standard of Quality teachers were going to receive a pay raise. And those positions—every community goes above the standards of quality. But that would have left some teachers out and some localities in a bind. But our input was, all teachers, all personnel, need to get the pay raise, and not segment into different groups. And we were successful there. So you know, that’s important. I look at education as a whole. We have a lot of homeschoolers in the seventh district, we have some private schools, and then public education. I look at it as each child, each family has different needs and abilities to learn. I want to make sure we’ve got a wide spectrum for them.
What specific things have you done to contribute to bringing business in?
I’ve been on the New River Valley Economic Development Alliance Board. Virginia has the second lowest unemployment east of the Mississippi, the lowest in the Southeast. That’s because we have a good regulatory environment and fair taxes. And so you know, we’ve continued to do those policies. We’ve lowered the governor’s budget. In my first year, we consolidated boards to make them a little more efficient; those are things that businesses look at, to bring jobs in.
We’ve renewed the tax credit for coal, which was, you know, wasn’t unanimous, but that’s very important for Southwest Virginia. I think CAT’s still up on Bob White. So those are the things we’re working on and continue to work on. I had a meeting up at New River Valley Economic Development Alliance folks, I’m in constant contact with the economic development folks of all my counties, and you know, they say, “What can I do? How can I help? Can I send a letter?” We had correspondence with Union First Market Bank and we sent a letter to their CEO, and had correspondence since with him, letting him know we wanted to welcome him to the New River Valley, make sure we try to maintain as many jobs here as we can. We want to make sure those jobs stay here, things like that. Not all of it’s legislative, some of it’s hands-on, personal touch. I feel like I have a good work ethic, so I put the time in. My dad thinks I’m lazy.
How is the climate in Richmond? How much reaching across the aisles is going on, as opposed to the split in the U.S. Congress?
One of the big problems about being a Virginia state delegate is, when I’m out, people want to talk about federal issues, and they complain constantly about to me about the stalemates in Washington. And luckily in Virginia, that’s not the case. We do have our partisan fights; they’re rare. Most of the things are bipartisan. The legislation that I’ve passed this year, I don’t think we had a negative note. We passed a bill that required the state board of elections to compare our voter registration roll to that of neighboring states, to make sure there’s no duplication. As Virginia becomes more purple, there’s more incentive to do those things. So that was a bipartisan bill, which I’m very proud of.
We passed a bill for veterans that I sponsored, and defended on the floor and in committee, that increased the stipend for dependents of killed in action. But the bad news is, that part of the budget has increased since 9/11, because Virginia’s has more killed in action. Those soldiers, when you send them in harm’s way, they have to know that if something tragic were to happen to them, their families would be taken care of.
We had another bill, where we had the derecho, which knocked out power, and the crazy thing about that was the DMV was closed because they didn’t have power. I had constituents with trees on their house, or without power, or trees in their road. Well, that happened on the thirtieth. If you were planning on paying your DMV registration on Saturday, you were getting late fees. People were calling the office like, “Hey, man, this ain’t fair!” We agreed with them. We were able to go to Richmond to draft legislation with the help of the DMV. The law said they had to charge a late fee. And we’ve got it now so they have some discretion to say, ‘Well, this was a serious event. Let’s let people have another week or two.’
Are there any other major issues you anticipate?
The big thing last session, and there was disagreement within my own caucus, the Republican caucus, was the transportation bill. Depending on who gets elected governor, I could see there being tinkering with that. I voted against the transportation bill, not because I thought Virginia had its transportation needs covered. I supported a simpler plan. But this bill, I believe it had about a billion dollar tax increase annually, and it came on the heels of—the GDP numbers put out by the Commerce Department showed a slight negative growth for the economy. The payroll tax had just gone into effect. The gas was at $3-something in February, the highest it had ever been in February, and I just didn’t feel like my constituents could afford to do that.
In Pulaski County there’s a lot of commuters, and then in Floyd County, which I also represent, over 60 percent of their residents commute outside the county for work, and I just didn’t feel like we could afford that increase. I actually had a constituent from Floyd call me after the payroll tax went into effect, that’s a federal level, and she said, “Nick, my paycheck’s down 22 bucks. That’s my gas money. I drive to work in Radford every day. I don’t know what I’m gonna do.” And there’s very little I can do except offer sympathy. But that’s the kind of thing I was thinking about when I voted against that.. But I can see some tinkering with that coming up.
We try to help people navigate the sometimes maze of state government. We’ve helped people with taxes. In Virginia your legislative duties are 60 days in even years and 45 days in odd years while you’re in session. But the rest of your time, you’re constantly working for the community. I’m in Pulaski all the time, one, because I’ve got family up here, and two, because I like it. I’ve probably eaten more meals at the Steer House when I was a FedEx driver than probably most people in Pulaski County. I actually spend as much time as possible here in district. I leave on Mondays around four in the morning to drive to Richmond.
Any last words for the citizens of Pulaski County?
I’m honored and humbled to serve Pulaski County, and Montgomery and Floyd, in the Virginia General Assembly. It’s a humbling experience to go to Richmond to serve in the longest-serving, continuously-serving legislature in North America. Where you look around and you think, “My gosh, Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry and these guys are part of this.”
I like to think I’m still that 23-year-old FedEx driver who kinda had a little miracle wind 20-some years ago, and I think of him, married, young, with a kid trying to bust his butt to work, and I think about him when I’m making these votes, and I think about hard working people, and I know how hard it is to make a dollar.