Political news stories often claim the GOP is investing in outreach to minority voters and attempting to appeal to African-American voters. There wasn't much evidence of that last night, however, as both Republican candidates for Lieutenant Governor were no-shows at a candidates forum in Alexandria hosted by an alliance of fraternal and civic organizations for people of color.
Approximately 100 people attended the forum, organized by the Northern Virginia Legislative Coalition, non profit group of minority fraternal and civic organizations that aims to encourage increased citizen involvement in legislative issues. Member organizations include the Northern Virginia Urban League, Alexandria/Arlington Latino Democrats, Asian-American Pacific Network, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, and other organizations. In 2003 and 2004, the Coalition sponsored monthly voter empowerment events and other activities to educate the community on the importance of voting. The Coalition plans to sponsor a future debate for candidates for Governor as well. All six candidates for Lieutenant Governor were invited to last night's event, and I was eager to see them all on one stage together.
After passing the beautiful and abundant refreshments tables organized by Coalition member groups, I walked into the auditorium at Minnie Howard School and saw immediately that something was amiss. There were four women and two men at the speakers' table, but there are only two women running. I recognized Sen. Leslie Byrne, Del. Viola Baskerville, and Del. Chap Petersen right away, but who were the two other women and one man?
Turns out that both Republican candidates, Sen. Bill Bolling and Sen. Sean Connaughton, didn't participate. Democratic Senator Phil Puckett was also unable to attend. They all sent surrogates in their stead to make opening and closing statements, though the surrogates did not participate in the audience Q&A. (Which was a bummer, since I was really hoping someone would confront Connaughton about his obnoxiously hideously obscenely huge campaign eyesore just off 395 in Springfield, declaring it a risk to public safety as drivers crane their necks while navigating the "Mixing Bowl" to read around the corner of the building.)
I have to confess I was most disappointed that I missed a chance to see the Republicans spar with one another since that particular fight has gotten quite negative and ugly lately. In contrast, though the four Democrats are running spirited campaigns, they candidates are staying away from really negative attacks.
Alas, no deliciously wicked Republican "race for the most regressive" cat-fights were to be seen. And aside from one dig at a fellow Democrat, the Dems were quite cordial. Extremely longwinded event overview after the jump.
The moderator began by recognizing Del. Brian Moran and Democratic candidates Dick Hobson and Elsie Mosqueda, who are two of the six Democrats running in the June primary for the 45th House district. (Outside the event, Laura Mandala, another candidate for the Democratic nomination in the 45th, and Chap! clearly won the sign wars.) Each candidate or surrogate then gave an opening statement.
Viola Baskerville began by saying that in her race for Lt. Gov, she is focusing on three things - being an advocate for small and minority-owned businesses, serving the needs of military families, and working for health care reform.
Leslie Byrne emphasized her 20 years of experience in the House of Delegates, U.S. House of Representatives, White House, and Virginia Senate, and said she believes that "Democratic values are the values of Virginians". These values include treating all people with fairness, dignity, and respect, ensuring access to quality education for all, honoring work and workers, caring for the elderly, and leaving the earth better than we found it. You bet those are Virginia values!
Dorothea Peters, a Democratic precinct captain from Alexandria, spoke as a surrogate for Phil Puckett. She said she believes that Sen. Puckett is not only the best qualified candidate but is also the best Democrat to help Tim Kaine win the Governor's race. She said Puckett believes in fiscal responsibility and responsible investment in state infrastructure - rather than being "penny wise, pound foolish."
Chap Petersen began by thanking the fraternal and civic organizations who joined to host the event. He had one of the great sound bytes of the night, saying his vision of his role as Lt. Gov. is to be "a lobbyist for Virginians who can't afford a lobbyist." He shared an anecdote about his first day at the General Assembly, when he carried his own boxes up to his office and was mistaken for a staffer rather than a Delegate by other young staffers.
Strangely, Chap's rather ordinary statement was greeted with both loud cheers and loud boos from one corner of the auditorium, while all of the other candidates received polite applause. From the opposite corner where I was seated, it just sounded bizarre that there were a few passionate Chap supporters and loudly scornful Chap opponents bunched in one area.
Someone named Bob FitzSimmons (sp?) was the surrogate for Bill Bolling. (I've Googled the name and all I come up with is Boxing's First Triple World Champion, which I rather doubt is the same fellow. Any other enterprising Googlers know who he is?) Bolling's surrogate stressed that he is conservative, opposes higher taxes, and leading the fight to "uphold traditional marriage". (As I've written before, Virginia's history of "traditional marriage" ain't all that proud.)
Unsuccessful Republican candidate for U.S. Congress in VA-8, Lisa Marie Cheney, was the surrogate for Sean Connaughton. I was distracted by a fellow audience member while she was talking, but she mentioned that Connaughton has successfully lowered taxes in Prince William while improving services to the community, a claim that the Bolling literature at the event directly contradicted.
Following the opening statements, the moderator asked questions of each of the three candidates present. Audience members were invited to submit written questions on index cards, and event organizers did a great job with not only managing the question process, but also providing a "scorecard" form for audience members.
Questions were about issues including improving Virginia's IT infrastructure, support for small and minority-owned businesses, access to contraception, increasing home ownership, assisting schools in low-income areas with SOL achievement, the role of the Lieutenant Governor, and a few softballs like, "Why do you want to be Lieutenant Governor?"
I submitted four questions and two were asked, which was a pleasant shock. One of my questions asked something like, "In the past two years, members of the General Assembly have tried to limit access to contraceptives, particularly emergency contraception. What is your position on access to contraception, specifically hormonal contraception and emergency contraception (aka the "morning after" pill)?"
Del. Baskerville supports access to EC and mentioned that she had been the chief patron of a bill that would develop physician-pharmacist collaborative agreements for dispensing emergency contraception. Leslie Byrne expressed concern at pharmacists refusing to dispense EC to women with valid prescriptions and said she believes pharmacies should advertise truthfully about whether they will dispense EC. Chap Petersen mentioned that he was a co-sponsor of Baskerville's 2002 bill. I was disappointed that none of the three candidates discussed the Birth Control Protection Act, which failed in both the House and Senate this year. But when I wrote the question, I was thinking that the Republican surrogates would be participating, so I had hoped to see real differentiation on the issue. It was good to know that all three Democrats, at least, expressed strong support for access to EC.
Finding quotable, interesting comments that really differentiate the three Democratic candidates from one another was difficult. On the issue of home ownership (specifically, the skyrocketing prices of homes and how to make home ownership more affordable), Chap and Leslie had quite different answers. Chap said he would encourage re-development in inner suburbs, providing tax credits for development of "blighted" or underutilized properties in the DC Metro area. Leslie focused on what she called the "other end of the problem of affordable housing" - that is, a living wage for workers. She mentioned that several bills in the Assembly have taken away the right of Alexandria, Arlington, and other communities to mandate a "living wage" for employees.
There wasn't much of surprise in answers to questions on education. Leslie mentioned the challenge of having more Virginia high school students graduate from college and providing career training for kids who aren't college bound. Chap stressed the need for increased parental involvement. Viola said an over-emphasis on standardized testing leads some schools to lose focus on teaching critical thinking skills, and said that schools need to assess how students learn. Leslie mentioned that there are two proven methods of improving educational outcomes: smaller class sizes, and well-trained, well-compensated teachers.
The second question that I asked which was selected, one which I considered a real softball, came closest to eliciting the only mildly surprising answers of the night. I said that most people considered the role of the Lt. Gov. to be quite limited (in "presiding over the Senate") and asked what each candidate would do to make the role more significant or meaningful.
Viola mentioned that the Lt. Gov. is the chair of the Disabilities Committee, which I didn't know. She said she hopes to expand the role of Lt. Gov. and said she's like the Lt. Gov. to be chair of the Small Business Committee as well.
Leslie explained that people (like me!) shouldn't dismiss the importance of the role of "presiding over the Senate". She explained that the person who presides over the Senate has an impact on the rules, the tempo for consideration of bills, and making rulings which can help promote the Governor's initiatives or help to stop really bad things from happening. She also mentioned the "bully pulpit" available to the Lt. Gov.
Chap's answer was most surprising. He said his wife thinks he's crazy to have devastated his legal career pushing for a job that only pays $31,000 per year. He said he has a vision for the Lieutenant Governor as the "people's Governor", for ordinary Virginians who also don't live in the Governor's mansion, and mentioned again being a "lobbyist for folks who can't afford a lobbyist." But here was the interesting part (for me, at least): he mentioned he'd like to use his role as Lt. Gov. to help rebuild the state Democratic Party. He said he recognized this wasn't a partisan audience or event, but said he believed that trying to regrow and re-energize the party where it's been dormant would be important to him because it's good for democracy and the Commonwealth. This is the first time I've seen Chap express a passion for party-building, as the other times I've listened to him, he's stressed the importance of moderation and bipartisanship. Neither of those are antithetical to party building, of course, but I'd never before heard Chap express strong partisan sentiments.
A few more quotables came from the participants' closing statements.
Leslie delivered this beautifully (paraphrased closely):, "There are those that would like to divide us by race, or gender, or religion, or region - I am not one of them." Her defense of Democratic values was powerful, but ended on a bit of a dud, with the quote: "Tim, Leslie, Creigh - TLC for Virginia."
Viola said, "If you've been blessed to receive, you give back to the community." She emphasized her authentic voice and her ability to bring diverse people together across lines of ideology.
And Chap said, "Leadership is the ability to inspire loyalty in others so they will do extraordinary things." He shared another anecdote, this time about one of his elderly constituents from when he was on the Fairfax City Council, who voted for him by absentee ballot and died before Election Day.
Chap followed up this inspiring quote with a pointed, though veiled dig at Leslie Byrne, saying one of his competitors is someone who has failed to be re-elected more than once and how we need a winner for this race. It was a strangely out of place negative comment - not that I think all negative differentiations are inappropriate; it just seemed awkwardly inserted into his final remarks, somewhat out of context. And like his opening statement, this closing elicited isolated cheers and a couple of loud boos - reactions which seemed oddly out of place, like there was a "Chap Petersen Extreme Reaction Seating Section" to which the rest of us weren't invited and where audience members were wearing the audio version of 3-D glasses which made them hear things the rest of us couldn't.
The Northern Virginia Legislative Coalition did an impressive job in organizing this important event. It was unfortunate that only Democratic candidates considered it important to participate in person.