When Democrats across Virginia go to the polls on June 14 to vote in the 2005 primary election, they will have two choices for lieutenant governor from Fairfax County.
Leslie Byrne, a former state senator and U.S. representative, will appear alongside Del. Chap Petersen on the ballot to select the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, an office that presides over the Virginia Senate and is just a step away from the governor's mansion.
Two other candidates are also seeking the party's nomination in the state-wide race — Del. Viola Baskerville, of Richmond, and state Sen. Phillip Puckett, of Southwest Virginia.
In interviews with Connection Newspapers reporters and editors last week, Byrne and Petersen explained why they want to run alongside the presumed Democratic gubernatorial nominee, Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine, and presumed Attorney General nominee, Sen. Creigh Deeds, of Bath County.
Byrne said her more than 14 years of experience in public office — in the Virginia General Assembly and U.S. Congress — have prepared her with in-depth knowledge about local, state and federal issues that would aid her in making Virginia a better place to live.
"I see politics as a way to build better communities," she said. "I see this as an opportunity to do things differently in Virginia by building ourselves as a commonwealth, where we have an obligation and a responsibility for one another."
Petersen, who has served two terms in the House of Delegates, said he wants to pump new life into the Democratic Party of Virginia and start to swing the Republican-led General Assembly back to the Democrats.
"I'm not an ordinary person," Petersen said. "The energy I bring to the table is just a little more than ordinary. The Democrats in Virginia need someone who's a little out of the ordinary."
AMONG THE ISSUES Byrne said she is concerned about, education tops the list. She said the state government underfunded education this year by more than $867 million — a shortfall that puts pressure on local governments to increase property taxes.
"Virginia has to be a better partner," she said.
By not funding its educational responsibilities, Virginia is crippling a struggling public school systems throughout the state, in which one in five students fail to graduate high school, Byrne said.
"The better educated the citizenry, the better off the commonwealth will be economically, socially and morally," she said.
Byrne says she can use the lieutenant governor seat to lower the cost of prescription drugs, which have skyrocketed in recent years and made it difficult for seniors to afford.
Her plan would consolidate the state's drug purchases, allowing Virginia's government to negotiate a lower price with pharmaceutical manufacturers.
If elected, she said she would also tackle the soaring cost of health insurance for individuals and businesses. She wants to permit small businesses to provide insurance to their employees by buying into the existing health insurance program for state employees. This would give individuals and business more choices and lower costs, she said.
EDUCATION is also among Petersen's top priorities to address, should he be elected. He wants to expand full-day kindergarten to schools throughout the state. Full-day K has been proven to boost test scores among low-income students.
Petersen said Virginia's transportation problems are another major issue he would address as lieutenant governor. A key component of his transit plan, he said, would be to link together the state's railways. This would help remove trucks from the highways and increase mass transit opportunities for commuters.
"Rail is the alternative paradigm for transportation in the 21st Century," he said.
Tax relief is another major concern for Virginia citizens, Petersen said. To underscore his commitment, he pointed to his co-sponsorship of a bill approved this year during the General Assembly that phases out the state grocery tax.
IF ELECTED, Petersen's primary goal would be to lead the Democrats back into control of the Virginia Senate, he said.
He believes that with his state-wide leadership as lieutenant governor, he could help unseat in 2007 three Republicans in swing districts — Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis (Fairfax), Nick Rerras (Norfolk) and Frederick M. Quayle (Chesapeake).
If the Democrats picked up those seats, the Senate would be split 20-20. Petersen said he would be the tie-breaker as lieutenant governor.
"I see a void in the state Democratic Party, other than the Mark Warners and Tim Kaines of the party," he said. "I'd like to use this office to rebuild the Democratic Party."
To help meet that goal, Petersen believes the Democratic Party needs a fresh perspective and must become more inclusive to moderates, such as himself.
Petersen supported a Constitutional Amendment banning same-sex marriage and does not always vote in favor of abortion rights. He said he believes in a woman's right to choose, but supports regulating abortion clinics.
Byrne disagrees. And she thinks that it would be a mistake for the Democratic Party to move its ideological positions closer to the Republicans.
Democrats, Byrne said, need to remain the political party that supports abortion rights and equal rights for all citizens, regardless of their sexuality.
"There is a discussion within our party about whether or not we stay the same on our core issues or do we move to the right of center," she said. "I see us strengthening those core Democratic issues."
GINNY PETERS, chair of the Fairfax County Democratic Committee, said those core issues are on the minds of most Northern Virginia Democrats.
While it remains to be seen what issues will motivate primary voters to cast a ballot in June, issues like abortion rights and marriage rights for gay Virginians enjoy support among the party faithful.
"To a lot of people in Northern Virginia, those are the issues that really matter," Peters said.
Of course, those same issues might not enjoy nearly as much support among Democrats elsewhere in the state.
At this point, the race between the two Fairfax County lieutenant governor candidates could go either way, said Mark Rozell, director of George Mason University's School of Public Policy.
Petersen, as a centrist, might garner more votes during a general election. Byrne, who is more liberal, might play better during the primary, Rozell said.
"It's a real toss up," he said. "Of course, there's always the possibility the Northern Virginia candidates cancel each other out and throw the advantage down state."