A crowd of more than 10 gathered in Royalty Eats on Thursday evening for a meet and greet with Elliott Harding, an independent candidate challenging the longtime Democratic incumbent, Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, for the state’s 25th Senate District. 

“I figure a lot of people may not know me that well,” Harding said. “People might only know me from an article and not know me that well. My big thing was like, ‘You can ask me whatever you want.’”

Harding originally met Royalty Eats owner Nakesha White at a backpack drive. Having been to the restaurant a few times, Harding was a fan of her food and chose her establishment, which  opened earlier this summer, for the event. 

“They’re [Royalty Eats] also relatively new,” Harding said. “So, I’m trying to promote them and give them some good attention.”

During his one-on-one conversations with attendees, Harding said criminal justice, schools, business development in underserved areas and housing were among the topics discussed. 

Upon Harding and White’s first meeting, she said she read his flyer and then began asking him questions. 

Of policies Harding proposes, she said she likes his idea to bring vocational skills back into schools and his plans for criminal justice reform. 

“Not everyone needs or wants to go to college,” White said. “It’s important to have options.”

Though White hosted Harding’s campaign event, she said she’s still an undecided voter. 

“It’s important to take your time to learn about every candidate,” she said. 

Harding mingled with guests as they noshed on fried chicken, macaroni and cheese and collard greens from a buffet. 

“Food brings people together, and people bring conversation,” White said of participating in a campaign event. 

Meanwhile on Twitter, a controversy brewed. 

Unite the Right organizer Jason Kessler released screenshots of text message exchanges he had with Harding from a 2016 petition effort to recall Charlottesville City Councilor Wes Bellamy, a Democrat, after the discovery of some insensitive tweets. At the time, Kessler had consulted Harding to review the petition as lawyer. 

Harding says he was hesitant to be involved.

“I was pretty politically engaged. I was the head of the local [Republican] Party and there was political pressure,” he said.

Harding has since shifted away from any party affiliation and said that his independent candidacy means he will veer both a little more left and a little more right than his opponent.

In the 24-plus hours since the tweets surfaced, Harding said he’s reached out to Bellamy.

“The first person I called when I saw that was Wes,” Harding said.  “I’ve talked to Wes about this, and we’re good — or at least we seem good. He told me not to give Kessler a platform and to keep pushing forward with good things.”

Harding admits he reviewed the petition before it was filed, but that was as far as he let his involvement be. 

“I didn’t want to be listed as an attorney of record,” Harding said. “I said, ‘I’m not legally writing this. Don’t put me down as the attorney on the case.’”

Harding said it wasn’t long after this when he realized Kessler was a “bad actor” and severed their association. He also said he doesn’t want to give Kessler any more attention.

“I told him all along he was going to need a different attorney and he did,” Harding said. “That’s really all the airtime I want to give it. I don’t want to bring Kessler into local stuff right now.”