At an Oct. 27 debate between two of the candidates for the 37th District House of Delegates seat, moderator Mark Rozell managed to inject some life into a race that has proved to be fairly tame. Democrat David Bulova and Republican John Mason faced off at Green Acres in downtown Fairfax.
"The tone was remarkably civil," said Rozell, professor of public policy at George Mason University. "The candidates, for the most part, addressed the subjects of the questions and not each other's character."
"This was a debate we need more of," said Dan Drummond, chairman of the Fairfax City Democratic Committee. "I think residents appreciated the opportunity for candid conversation."
Both candidates signed a "goodwill pledge" early in the campaign and have avoided nasty attacks, negative campaigning, and road signs in the VDOT right-of-way. But the proximity of Election Day managed to bring out some feelings.
Thursday’s audience pressed Bulova and Mason on two sensitive issues: abortion, and where, specifically, their platforms differ. Mason and Bulova, admittedly, share many of the same ideas.
"This is an unusual race, certainly, compared to what you see on TV," said Mason. "The only thing I can see on the downside is that the blogs say we're boring." But he urged the Fairfax electorate to choose him over Bulova, based on his years of experience in politics: 12 years as mayor of the City of Fairfax and four on the City Council before that, and service on several regional transportation boards.
"David and I are not miles apart philosophically," said Mason. "But I would argue, as my tagline says, that experience is what makes the difference."
But twice during the debate, Bulova said that Mason's defeat by Rob Lederer in the 2002 mayoral election happened for a reason.
"When given a choice, the voters of Fairfax City chose somebody else to lead as mayor," said Bulova. "This isn't a race about past experience, this is a race about leadership for the future."
To Mason, Bulova’s words veered slightly "to the edge" of the civility pledge.
To Rozell, this did not constitute a character potshot, as it didn’t call into question Mason's character.
THE AUDIENCE of about 100 was concerned with differences between the candidates, said Rozell.
"The most frequent question I got on those three-by-five cards was, 'Give us a stake in this election, why shouldn't I vote for the other guy?'" he said. "That one kept coming up over and over again."
To a question asking the candidates about their differences, Mason again touted his leadership experience, while Bulova pointed to his environmental record. When a second question demanded the specific issues on which the candidates differed, Mason said that to him, transportation and land use issues should be dealt with together, while Bulova said he would vote to give local governments more public facilities ordinances on the books.
On the subject of abortion, a first question asked what — if any — anti-abortion legislation the candidates would support in Virginia if the Roe vs. Wade decision were to be overturned. Neither Bulova nor Mason would change anything from the way it is today, they said.
"I see no reason to pursue politicians to overturn Roe vs. Wade," said Mason. "It is very dependent on the specifics of that legislation."
"I'm still not sure if John answered the question," said Bulova, adding that he would maintain Roe vs. Wade in Virginia as it is written.
A second question pressed the candidates to define whether they supported a woman's right to choose or not. Bulova said he did support a woman’s right to choose, as well as laws requiring parental consent for minors.
Mason said he believed strongly in parental consent.
"That was maybe the most telling moment in the debate, in a sense," said Rozell. "It's a difficult question and in some ways a no-win situation for a Republican candidate: if he says yes, he supports a woman's right to choose, he loses supporters from his base. If he says no, he alienates the middle."
An issue on which the candidates did diverge was whether they would support legislation allowing Virginia's governor to run for a second term. Mason said he would definitely support it, but Bulova said he had not yet decided.
"[The single-term system] is good and bad," said Bulova. "You don't spend four years posturing for your second four years." But quick turnover is not ideal in terms of public process, he said, since it takes each new governor some time to get used to the job.
POLITICIANS HAVE promised for years to change the funding formula so that Northern Virginia gets a larger share of tax revenue. Another question directed to Mason and Bulova asked if and how they would actually make it happen this time around.
"I'm not so naïve as to think either John or I are going to go down there and change the funding formula overnight," said Bulova. But he will "continue to make the case," he said, and would follow in current 37th District delegate Chap Petersen's (D) footsteps of making sure a quarter cent of the sales tax did not go through the funding formula.
"The key to getting more money to Northern Virginia is to go outside the funding formula," said Mason. "We don't have the votes to change the funding formula for a very long time." He would make sure the money goes through the process more quickly, he said.
For a question about the first specific legislation they would enact, the candidates turned to their backgrounds. Bulova said he would develop legislation on tree conservation, while Mason said his first priority would be transportation, and his first legislation would focus on ethics, tightening up the requirements for reporting by political candidates.
One audience question asked the candidates if they would support an increase in the gas tax, if the money were guaranteed to stay in Northern Virginia. Bulova said that a good tax plan included funding from several different sources, but that nothing could happen without "locking up the transportation trust fund."
Mason said he would not support a gas tax increase, for pragmatic reasons he had looked at while developing the 2020 transportation plan. "For fuel-efficient cars, the revenue stream is flat," he said.
Both candidates agreed that Virginia should eliminate the car tax and that, although they said local tax dollars should not go to formalized day labor sites, immigration was the federal government's responsibility.
Habib Khan, chair of the City of Fairfax Republican Committee, said he wished the candidates had been a little tougher on each other.
"I thought the debate went well, but I was looking for some sparks," said Khan. "They were too nice to each other. That's OK, it reflects the Fairfax values … It's very hard for people to decide, because the two candidates are so similar."