In the increasingly heated battle for the state’s 32nd senate seat, Democrat state Sen. Janet Howell and her Republican challenger Dave Hunt both pointed towards the incumbent’s record during a contentious debate in Reston on Monday.
After 12 years in office, Howell said she had successfully passed more than 200 pieces of legislation that she said were important and beneficial to Northern Virginia. Throughout the course of the hour-long debate, sponsored by Reston Impact, Howell talked about her extensive experience, her senatorial seniority and her leadership in Richmond. "I love making government work for people," said Howell, who lives in Reston. "I have been working very hard to be a voice of reason in difficult times and the investment you have shown in me is finally paying off."
Hunt, a political newcomer and resident of Great Falls, said Howell had been given a chance to show leadership during her three terms in office. In addition, Hunt said Howell had continually dropped the ball on three vital issues to residents of the 32nd district: congested roads, crowded schools and rising tax assessments.
"Senator Howell does have a record on many issues, but in these three areas that is where she has failed," Hunt said in his opening remarks.
Throughout the wide-ranging and free spirited debate, Hunt tried to make the Nov. 4 general election a referendum on Howell’s 12 years in Richmond. From the opening bell to the closing salvo, Hunt maintained that Howell had had her opportunity to lead and she had failed. "You haven’t provided leadership, Janet," Hunt told Howell. "It time for someone new."
One of only seven women in the State Senate, Howell is the second highest-ranking female in Richmond and the only woman on the Senate Finance Committee.
"I am happy that Senator Howell is a woman, that’s a nice thing but unfortunately that doesn’t make you a good senator," Hunt said. "We’re suffering from a terrible traffic problem, it doesn’t matter if you are a man or a woman, and it matters whether you get results."
Several times, the senator said her district would suffer with a junior member representing its interests in Richmond rather than a seasoned veteran of the Richmond wars. Because she is on the Finance Committee, Howell said she was able to secure $75 million towards Rail to Dulles project.
Hunt quickly dismissed his opponent’s contention. "She didn’t do that. That came from a House conference committee," Hunt said. "That had nothing to do with her efforts."
Later in the debate, Howell defended her statement. "I don’t know where he gets his facts, but it was my efforts that got that money into the senate version," she said.
THERE IS MORE to leadership than committee assignments and years of service, Hunt argued, adding that Howell had never served as a committee chairman.
The challenger dismissed the ideas that a Howell-loss would result in a power vacuum from her many committee assignments. "There is no vacuum because she hasn’t used her position to bring more to Northern Virginia. Sitting on Senate Finance is not the same as getting results," Hunt said. "We need a voice in the majority party at the policy-making caucus on Tuesday morning."
In his closing remarks, Hunt returned to his theme that the 32nd district needed a change. "I don’t take issue with what Senator Howell has done, I take issue with what Senator Howell hasn’t done. She has not focused on the major issues that affect her whole district," Hunt said. "You should be on the frontlines providing leadership. It hasn’t happened now, why should we expect it to happen in the future?"
In her closing statement, Howell spelled out the differences saying that her moderate positions were in line with her left-leaning district. Howell pointed to Hunt's support of education tax credits for private and religious schools, gun rights, anti-abortion polices and caps on property taxes to illustrate the difference between the two candidates. "The choice is really clear," she said.
From transportation to taxes to education, both candidates maintained that they were more better qualified to respond to the challenges facing the 32nd district that includes Herndon, Reston, Great Falls, McLean and Tysons Corner. Howell acknowledged the current state of the economy is putting a strain on basic services. "We have been facing a tremendous budget crisis, we had to cut $6 billion from our state budget. Unlike other states, we’ve done it responsibly," she said. "There isn’t much fat left in the budget. Unlike my opponent, I am prepared to make some tough choices and tough decisions to pay for public education."
Last term, Howell introduced legislation that would have raised the state’s lowest-in-the-nation cigarette tax. In her bill, which was defeated, the state would have raised $360 million all of it earmarked for education. Howell blamed the loss, in part, on the influence of big Virginia tobacco companies. "It’s a tough lobby to come up against," Howell said. "I never accepted a dime from them, and I never will."
In his rebuttal, Hunt said he "had no problem" with raising the tobacco tax, though he objected to Howell’s bill. "It should not be a 30 fold increase just because you feel you can pick on tobacco or people that smoke," he said. "It’s going to hurt small business."
Howell later pointed out that Hunt favors requiring "supermajorities" for all future tax increases, a requirement that would "hamstring" state and local governments, Howell said.
A SELF-PROCLAIMED fiscal conservative, Hunt maintained that increased spending was not the solution to fixing public education. "The problem is that it is going to other parts of the state," Hunt said, advocating a change in the way the funding formula is addressed. "We need somebody who is actually in the majority who will sit on the policy table on Tuesday to make sure the new education money actually comes back to Northern Virginia."
Continuing his theme, Hunt said he favored capping real estate tax assessments at five percent a year because the current assessments are driving out homeowners from the region. "We don’t plan well for future," he said. "It doesn’t cut taxes at all. All it does is tell the county to look at spending as much as it looks at taxes. It will create fiscal discipline."
Capping assessments is risky and an arbitrary limit on government that would put an unnecessary "stranglehold on the region," Howell said. "Areas of the country that have tried the five percent tax have destroyed their public school systems. Look at California, what was arguably the best public system and is now arguably the worst in the country. Or look at Prince George’s County, would we trade our public safety system, for their public safety system? I don’t think so."
Saying he wants to be the "transportation senator," Hunt said his number one priority, if elected, would be to work on fixing transportation problems, especially the "unbearable traffic," that plagues Northern Virginia. "We had it 12 years ago, and now we have 250,000 more cars on the road per day on the major roads. It hurts everybody," he said. "We need to preserve the money we have in the transportation trust fund. Janet will say she supports that but she voted against it in 2001."
THE CANDIDATES DID not limit themselves to a debate over tax and transportation dollars, however. Both candidates questioned the sources of cash flowing into their respective campaigns. One of the most expensive campaigns in the state, the Howell-Hunt race has already raised over $700,000 between the two camps and there is no sign that either candidate intends to slow down before November. Hunt said he felt that Howell’s decisions as senator had been compromised by the campaign donations from real estate and developer PACs. To date, Howell has raised more than $70,000 from developers alone. "When you are accepting $71,000 from the construction and real estate development industries, you are going to listen to them," Hunt charged. "That’s the way it is in politics, unfortunately… When you serve for 12 years, you vote in a lot of ways that benefit moneyed interests."
Hunt said he is the only candidate who favors impact fees, fees charged to developers for the added population they bring into the region. Such fees, he said, could be used for things like road building and school construction. "Developers don’t like me because of it."
Howell was ready for the charge. "My opponent does make a big deal about the fact that I get money from Realtors and developers, but I want you to know that he has approached all of those same people," she said. "Out of the $279,00 that he has raised, $203,000 has come from his own family and his family and his business. "
Hunt did not deny that he was bankrolling much of his own campaign. "It is true that I have spent over $200,000," he said, "but there was no way I could compete against the most well funded Democrat in the state."
THE DEBATE HEATED UP when the candidates squared off on two hot-button social issues: gun control and abortion rights. Hunt said he would not have voted for a bill that would have allowed Virginians with a concealed weapons permit to carry a concealed weapon into a restaurant or bar. The bill passed the Republican-led House and narrowly lost in the Senate. Most analysts expect it surface during the next session. "I think if you want to carry a gun into a restaurant, you should carry it openly," Hunt said. "That’s what you can do now."
As senator, Howell has consistently opposed concealed weapons bills. "I have always been a advocate for responsible gun safety," Howell said. "I have been the deciding vote on one instance to keep out of bars and restaurants. The votes are very close on this. Meanwhile, my opponent has written that he supports the concealed weapons bill and he has written that he doesn’t think guns cause crime."
During and after the debate, Hunt accused Howell of using scare tactics about guns and abortion to distract the voters. "The state has limited ability to address the abortion issue," said the pro-life Hunt, before criticizing Howell's votes against a partial birth abortion ban. "I believe life begins at conception."
"I am pro-choice," Howell countered. "I would support a partial birth abortion bill if we ever got one that was constitutional. My opponent has said he would allow no exceptions except life of the mother. That means he would have victims of rape or incest carry their unwanted pregnancy to term."