With less than a week to go before one of the most expensive State Senate races in Virginia history wraps up, the candidates took their messages to an important Northern Virginia constituency. In one of their last joint appearances, after a summer and fall full of joint appearances, three-term incumbent state Sen. Janet Howell, a Democrat from Reston, and her Republican opponent, a political newcomer who has largely funded his own campaign, Dave Hunt, of Great Falls.
On Monday afternoon, the dueling candidates converged on the Amphora Deluxe Diner in Herndon for a candidate forum hosted by the Dulles chapter of NARFE, the National Association of Retired Federal Employees.
Howell, whose parents are both retired from the Federal Government, made sure to let the crowd know she was one of them. "It's great to have the NARFE endorsement. It means a lot that you are backing me," she said. "Both my parents viewed themselves as civil servants."
Seeking her fourth term in the Virginia State Senate, Howell said she enjoys "making government work for people," and, as she has done at nearly every campaign stop, Howell highlighted her leadership, her committee posts and vowed to continue "working full time for you."
First-time candidate Hunt also went through a laundry list of issues close to the hearts of retired seniors. But Hunt, who has focused his campaign on traffic and taxes, also mentioned a few issues aimed specifically at seniors, like his plan to cap the assessed value of homes for seniors. "Plus, the age deduction is something that shouldn't be touched."
HUNT INSISTED that Howell didn't have the leadership qualities to get things done in Richmond. "The solution can't always be let's go get taxed more," Hunt said. "We need to spend more wisely. We need someone with a big mouth and a strong spine that will go down to Richmond and get things done."
But the forum didn't pick up speed until one of the NARFE members, Ron Weber of Reston, asked Howell why she had changed her position on raising the tolls along the Dulles Toll Road to help pay for Rail-to-Dulles. "Whether it's a fee or tax, it is taking money out of my pocket," Weber said. "Would you support a referendum to put the question of raising tolls to the voters?"
"Over a year ago, when the toll increase was first proposed to fund rail-to-Dulles, I said, 'we don't need more toll increases.' It's not fair, it should be broader based. I still believe that," Howell said. "The problem that we have right now is that without a guaranteed source, we will not get the 50 percent from the Federal government. They will not give it to us."
While not a fan of toll increases, Howell insisted it was a necessary evil. "No elected official in this corridor at this time is coming out against the plan," Howell said. "Because to come out against the plan is to jeopardize the federal funding. In the future if we can find another way to do, let's go for it."
HOWELL CRITICIZED Hunt's no-toll-hike plan as "unwinnable." "He doesn't have the votes in the rest of the state to do what he says he wants to do," Howell said.
Hunt, who like Howell supports rail-to-Dulles, said there was a simple reason why no other elected official in Northern Virginia, Democrat or Republican, had come out against the plan. "The reason why no other public official has gone public about it is that they are getting contributions from the folks who would build the rail," Hunt charged. "That's how politics works ..."
"Callahan, Vince Callahan," Howell interrupted, referring to the Republican chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, and Hunt's former boss.
Hunt continued, arguing that if Howell's opposition against tolls was good last year, it should remain in effect this year.
When pressed by Weber if Howell would support a referendum about toll increases, Howell said it is "not a referendum item."
And then she returned to her opponent's claim that politics was to blame for the lack of any Northern Virginia politicians' opposition to the current financing plan.
"I really want to stand up for my colleagues along the corridor, Del. Vince Callahan (R-34), Del. Tom Rust (R-86) and Del. Jeannemarie Devolites (R-35) — all Republicans, all standing with me saying this is the plan we need to back," Howell said. "And my opponent is standing here saying they are doing it because of contributions and I think that is a little over the top."