Michael Meunier's story could be looked at as the story of the new face of the American immigrant.
Currently running as the Republican party candidate for the 39th district in the House of Delegates, Meunier was born in Egypt and came to the United States in the early 1990s to escape the persecution he faced for being a Christian in a Muslim country.
"I wanted to work hard and succeed like all other immigrants do," said Meunier. "I want to use my opportunities wisely. I know it's a privilege to be here."
His first introduction to the political process came with the founding of a nonprofit organization, the U.S. Copts Association, established to help fund the plight of that sect of Christianity in Egypt.
"It was an uphill battle to educate Congress and other officials about the struggles faced by Christians in Egypt and to get them to write legislation to make changes," said Meunier, who also helped draft legislation for the Freedom of Religion Act in 1998 which led to the State Department's Office of Religious Freedom. His experience on those two initiatives led to the development of his second nonprofit organization, the Center for Freedom in the Middle East.
"Egypt is entrenched in Islamic terrorism, and yet we let the government take $2.4 billion and use it to propagate hatred against us," he said.
Through his work educating legislators, Meunier said he "knows how to draft and bring about legislation and garnish bipartisan support."
He made the decision to run for delegate in the 39th district after being active in the Republican Party for several years. "I wanted to make a difference locally," he said. "I have the zeal to serve the public and do good. I have creative ideas and the energy to get them implemented."
DURING THE course of this campaign, Meunier has enjoyed meeting with his possible constituents by going door-to-door to discuss his platform and meeting his neighbors.
"There is no substitution to this experience," he said. "You might think the top issue to everyone is transportation until you meet someone with disabilities and hear that that's their top concern."
His admittedly "straightforward" approach to politics is something many people may not expect, he said.
"I've seen politicians not give straightforward answers, because they're concerned about the ramifications," Meunier said. "You're either for or against something, you can't dance around a question. I'll let you know what I think and let you make up your own mind."
While out talking with residents of the 39th District, Meunier has listened to their concerns about the repeated increase in property taxes and housing assessments, along with the headaches caused by the traffic problems that plague Northern Virginia.
"I would like to introduce legislation with several components to help with property taxes," Meunier said, including increasing the tax break for senior citizens that would reduce their tax bill by 20 percent of their current bill but featuring a clause that would allow for "an increase of more than five percent if needed," he said.
To help alleviate the transportation problems, Meunier feels that it would be best to look at "smaller projects that make the maximum impact," he said. "I would support widening left- or right-hand turn lanes if it would impact local traffic and help it move more smoothly."
Meunier said he would also support the use of High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes and designating certain area roadways, such as Route 50, for use by local traffic without having to stop for red lights, in an effort to decrease commute times.
IF ELECTED, Meunier would like to see a change in the education system, increasing funding to bring in better teachers to improve the quality of education for students like his own 6-year-old son, Luka Meunier.
"It's great that 47 percent of the budget goes toward education, but how can we get more money without raising taxes or taking any away from other areas?," said Meunier. "Virginia spends 61 percent of the education budget on in-class instruction. If that figure were raised to 65 percent, it would provide $296 million in additional money to use directly in classes to add more teachers and reduce class sizes ... without changing anything else in the budget," he said.
When it comes to illegal immigrants, Meunier said he understands the draw and desire to come to the United States, but it must be done legally.
"The federal government is not doing its job," Meunier said. "We can do our job to send the message that Virginia is not welcoming to those who violate laws. I understand that it is to our great benefit to welcome immigrants and that they can contribute to our society as a whole, but we should not welcome those who break the law to get here."
Meunier acknowledges the challenge he faces in running for delegate in an area where the incumbent, Vivian Watts (D) is well-known and well-liked, but he is no stranger to facing adversity head-on.
"Just because something is hard doesn't mean it's not worth doing," he said. "I failed my first ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) test so badly, the grade said I wasn't even a good candidate to try to learn English. Four years later, I had not only learned English, but I had earned an engineering degree from a top school in Virginia," said Meunier, a Virginia Tech graduate who also attended Northern Virginia Community College.
"This campaign is all about ideas and the issues, it's not about who's more likable," Meunier said.
Working as Meunier's campaign manager, Mike Spellings said he's "never met anyone who works as hard" as Meunier. "It drives me to work just as hard as he does. It's not a common aspect most people have in their lives."
As one of Meunier's campaign consultants, Carlyle Gregory said he's "very impressed" with Meunier's energy and drive. "You look at his life and his career and how he worked his way up and you know he has to be very high-energy to do that," he said. "I think he'd be very focused as a delegate, probably better at getting legislation passed than making speeches."
The government in Virginia "isn't functioning well, so we stand around without doing anything about it," said Gregory. "We need to try new things. That's what we're hoping the electorate is ready for and that they'll support Mike with his campaign."
Watts said she "appreciates the 'I want to give back to the community'" mentality behind Meunier's campaign. "There are so many ways to do that," she said. "It may be a bit premature for him to represent our area without community involvement."
Independent Green party candidate Richard Herron said he doesn't "need to meet" Meunier. "If he's anything like (the Republican gubernatorial candidate Jerry) Kilgore, forget it," said Herron. "It's not the individual, it's the policies that party has stood for for the past four to eight years that are destroying our economy."