Just 26 votes separated Centreville's Jim Mitchell from Springfield's Cathy Belter in Saturday's Democratic primary for the 37th District Senate seat, but that was enough for victory. With just 802 total votes cast, she won, 414 to 388.
Belter, 56, Springfield District representative on the School Board, will now face off against another Centreville resident, Republican Ken Cuccinelli in the Aug. 6 special election for Sen. Warren Barry's vacated seat.
"We started working on the campaign yesterday," she said on Monday. "And I hope to have a campaign office up and running, in a couple days, in the Fair Lakes area."
Mary Gormley, Belter's campaign manager for the primary, said Belter's supporters were thrilled with her win. "We know the most competent and capable person won," she said. "Cathy represents a moderate voice and will represent that district in an excellent way."
Besides being on Fairfax County's School Board, Belter was state PTA president. And during her 10-year stint on the national PTA Board, she was education chairman and legislative vice-president — instrumental in creating the national PTA's legislative program.
She also lobbied, met with Congress and discussed funding priorities with members of the state Department of Education. And she's currently chairman of the county School Board's legislative committee, promoting its legislative program in Richmond.
Gormley attributes Belter's primary victory to her strong ties in the educational community and "all the years she's devoted to advocacy for children in this area, as well as statewide and nationally." She says the biggest challenge in the upcoming race will be "to get the vote out" because it's a special election and because of people's busy lifestyles.
Belter wasn't surprised that Saturday's race was so close. However, she said, "I tried to touch base with as many people as possible. And [Sully District School Board representative] Kathy Smith was with me at the Stone Middle School polling site for a couple hours — and, with her School Board connections, that helped me."
She also noted that lots of people worked the phones, making sure that people got out and voted. And Supervisor Sharon Bulova (D-Braddock) and Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-35th) sent out a letter on her behalf. Afterward, said Belter, she received a pledge of support in her race against Cuccinelli from the chairman of Sully's Democratic Committee.
She said the big issues in the special election will be education and transportation. Citing a General Assembly study concluding that Virginia has been underfunding education for the last few years, Belter says the state's funding formula should be examined and retooled because "it doesn't match the expanding population and the number of teachers we need in our classrooms." She also contends that the increased needs of ESOL children should be addressed.
On the whole, she believes she's better qualified to deal with public-education issues than her opponent. "He's a dad with young children and a wife who home-schools them," she said. "I have no problem with that, but their relationship with the public-school system is not there. And some of the delegates feel that the General Assembly plans to make education a big issue this year." (Belter and her husband Leonard have two grown children, Laura and Douglas).
Gormley, too, believes Belter is the best one for the Senate seat because "we need that moderate voice to connect with the General Assembly to make sure we get the funding we need in this area for our schools. And Cathy knows how to get the job done and work well with others [in the legislature]."
As for transportation, Belter believes the voters want a referendum on the possible sales-tax increase because "Richmond doesn't have the money" that Northern Virginia needs to ease its traffic woes.
"No one wants an increase in the sales tax," she said. "But people have the right to vote either yes or no. They're making the decision and have the opportunity to choose. My hope is that people will look around and say, 'I can't get out of this area because we need better roads and more public transportation.' The money wouldn't go to VDOT, but to the new Regional Transportation Authority to decide how it would be spent and to prioritize the projects."
Rosemary Lynch, past president of Fairfax County's Council of PTAs, said Belter would be a wonderful senator because "she's very common-sense, not extreme. She's a good leader and gets a lot of respect from people because she's a fair-minded person. I know she'll work very hard on behalf of people in her district because that's just the way Cathy is."
She said Belter's always been "ahead of the curve" in knowing the important issues in education. "She has a quiet way about her, but is very strong," said Lynch. "I've always admired the way she gets things done and, if there were anyone I wished I were like, it would be Cathy Belter."