BLACKSBURG, Va. — In the life he had dreamed of, the one he got to live for awhile, Chris Hurst would spend this time preparing to deliver the evening newscast.
Instead, on a damp Tuesday after Labor Day he’s standing in a Virginia Tech classroom, delivering a campaign speech tinged by loss to a couple dozen student activists and campaign volunteers. With boyish features and reddish blond hair, Hurst wears jeans, gray Adidas sneakers and a turquoise rubber wristband with the words “Alison Forever” and a date, 8/26/2015.
That’s the day Alison Parker, the woman he planned to marry, was shot and killed on live television in a murder that shocked the country with a graphic glimpse of gun violence. Parker was a morning reporter and Hurst an evening anchor at the Roanoke, Va. station, WDBJ.
Now, Hurst, who grew up on the Main Line, is on the other side of the news, a Democrat running an underdog campaign for state delegate in a southwest Virginia district that reflects some of the divides so sharply exposed in 2016.
Hurst insists that new gun laws are not his driving priority — but they cast a long shadow here. A decade ago Virginia Tech reeled from one of the worst mass shootings in American history, when a student killed 32 people on campus before taking his own life. The campus is in the heart of the district, Virginia’s 12th.
Yet Hurst begins his speech tonight by pointing to President Trump, and his decision hours earlier to end a program that gave protections to young people who were illegally brought to the U.S. as children.
Those young adults, he says, now face a deeply uncertain future.
“In my own way,” he says, “I’ve been on a difficult road, too.”
At just 30, Hurst’s road already includes a seemingly charmed career and deep love — and then sudden, wrenching, loss. It now overlaps with the country’s charged political moment and its raw cultural chasms.
Other things are bigger — until it happens to you
He’s running in a district nestled amid the Blue Ridge mountains, home to both Blacksburg, a bustling, liberal college town, and rural Giles County, Trump country that rubs up against West Virginia. Three out of four voters in Giles supported Trump last year, while Blacksburg’s Montgomery County backed Hillary Clinton, giving her a narrow edge in the district and fueling Democratic hopes for an upset this fall.
Given Hurst’s story, the local contest in a district of about 80,000 has drawn unusual attention. Hurst is followed today by a Los Angeles-based filmmaker, Tim Johnson, who grew up nearby and is mulling a documentary.
“It feels like there’s a lot of things converging here that might be a microcosm,” Johnson says.
He films as Hurst speaks to his young supporters, delivering his speech with the casual authority of a former anchor.
He talks about keeping guns away from domestic abusers and the mentally ill, but adds, “this campaign has never been solely about gun violence.” So he also stresses climate change, equal pay for women, abortion rights and racial injustice — and insists that a new wave of millenial energy will change Virginia.
Andy Parker, Alison’s father, watches in the audience. He says quietly, “he was born to do this.”
After the speech, Hurst mingles with the students, chatting about issues, pizza and Facebook, though eventually the talk again turns to guns.
“We are going to see action on this issue,” Hurst says — but only once a critical mass of people have seen or felt the effects of shootings first-hand. Getting to that point, he laments, means more will be hurt first. “It’s frustrating,” he says.
Parker’s parents — like former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and the families of the children and teachers slain in Newtown, Conn. — have become vocal advocates for tougher gun laws after the shooting that scarred their lives, though they say they understand why Hurst focuses on other issues, like education or health care, which are more tangible day-to-day concerns, for most people.
“Other things are bigger priorities — until it happens to you,” Barbara Parker says. “When you lose somebody to gun violence, all of a sudden it becomes in the forefront, it becomes the issue, and that’s what happened to us.”
That was the last I saw her
It happened early one August morning in 2015.
Hurst, who grew up in Chester County and spent countless hours in the Conestoga High School TV studio, had arrived in Roanoke at 21, and became an evening news anchor at WDBJ, the local CBS affiliate, by 22.
He and Parker connected at a holiday party in 2014, and by July 2015 moved in together, sharing a split life.
He would work evenings, anchoring the 6 and 11 p.m. news and returning around midnight, and she would wake soon after to get ready for the morning broadcast. In those dark early hours between one and three, they had time alone as most of the world slept. Hurst would make Parker breakfast and pack her lunch.
The morning she died was the same. It was less than two months after they began living together. Hurst gave Parker a kiss and wished her a great day. She said she’d have one. “And that was the last I saw her,” Hurst says.
While Parker interviewed the head of a local chamber of commerce that morning, a disgruntled former WDBJ reporter, Vester L. Flanagan II, approached off camera and opened fire. It aired live.
Parker was 24, shot in the head and chest. Also killed was her cameraman, Adam Ward. Vicki Gardner, the head of chamber of commerce, was injured. Flanagan fled, then shot and killed himself.
Hurst quickly returned to his work as an anchor, but over time covering tragedies wore on him.
In October he went to the scene of a workplace shooting, using the same live truck Alison had the day she died.
“The first person I wanted to call and tell how good of a job I’d done was Alison,” he says, “and I couldn’t do it.”
He needed a change. Among those who encouraged him to run for office were Parker’s parents.
“Chris is like a son to us — he was going to be our son and he’s one of the sharpest, finest young men that I’ve ever known,” says Andy Parker.
He and Barbara wear the same turquoise bracelet as Hurst as they walk through neighborhoods just a few blocks from downtown Blacksburg, a place brimming with coffee shops, restaurants, college professors, students and decorative statues of Virginia Tech’s chesty turkey mascot.
But that’s only part of this district.
From here. For Us.
Drive over Brush Mountain, past pastures filled with cows and distant green mountains cloaked in mist, and you leave Montgomery County and enter Giles.
At the county line a red campaign sign alongside the highway reads: “Yost for delegate. From here. For us.”
It’s followed soon after by a tractor trailer with a giant drawing of the Ten Commandments and the phrase “One Nation Under God.” The district is full of natural beauty, but, says Karen Hult, a political science professor at Virginia Tech, its manufacturing jobs have diminished.
This is where the Republican incumbent, Joseph Yost, was born and raised. One of the last children delivered at the local hospital before it stopped offering maternity services, he has never lived outside the district.
“For me, it’s about my home,” Yost, 31, says in his office in Pearisburg. “It’s kind of personal.”
He calls Hurst’s decision to leave Roanoke and move to Blacksburg to run in a more competitive district, “very opportunistic.”
Yost’s office sits in a two-block downtown, where many of the storefronts are vacant and there’s hardly anyone on the streets. In an empty barbershop a sign proclaims: “The Silent Majority Stands with Trump.” There’s also a flag: “Don’t Tread on My Gun Rights.”
Yost was watching WDBJ when Parker was shot. But he says Hurst’s back story doesn’t come up much, and that he’s campaigning the same as always — promoting his work on education and mental health issues.
He has an “A” rating from the NRA.
“There’s more to guns than just owning a weapon,” he says. “A lot of it deals with traditions around here such as hunting and other sports, and that’s something that people are very passionate about.”
A Painful Spotlight
About 30 miles away, back on the other side of Brush Mountain, Hurst sips an energy drink from a blue can as he sits over an Apple laptop covered in stickers, including one from Chester County’s Victory Brewing. His phone’s wallpaper features a photo of himself and Parker in tuxedo and a gown.
Hurst says he never dreamed about running for office — but wanted to give back to a community that supported him during a dark time. As with reporting, he says, it’s important to be trusted, to listen to people who have been ignored, and to tell their stories.
“I was given a spotlight that I really wish I had a receipt for,” he says. “So what can I do that shines a light on the people that I really think need to be seen?”
Hurst says he left Roanoke because it was too painful to stay — and that he’s been part of this community for years as well, beaming into people’s homes.
Asked about his priorities, he doesn’t mention guns until asked. Instead he focuses on expanding Medicaid, supporting the Affordable Care Act, increasing aid for rural schools and hospitals and improving infrastructure — in Giles County, he points out, some people still rely on dial-up internet. He downplays the legislative viability of universal background checks for gun purchases. He talks up more narrow ideas aimed at removing firearms, temporarily, from domestic abusers and people who have been adjudicated as mentally ill.
“I’m never going to boil it down to just, kind of, touchstone phrases that we’ve heard for so many years on things that just continue to not really get achieved,” he says. “I want to look at legislation that’s going to save lives.”
Accused in the wilds of the internet of being part of a hoax to impose gun control, he stresses that he owns a shotgun and doesn’t want to harm the hunting traditions in this area. “It’s not really a major part of the campaign,” he says, of gun laws.
Outside his office, however, on a poster where supporters write down “Why I Support Chris,” gun control is the most common topic.
“Because we will neVer forgeT,” one response reads in part. “#livefor32.”
“This town is still very much wounded from what happened,” Hurst explains, speaking as someone who knows.