Both candidates in the race for the 41st District of the House of Delegates agree that Democrat Dave Marsden has the most experience.
Marsden, a former aide to outgoing Del. Jim Dillard (R-41), spent nearly 30 years working on juvenile justice issues on the federal, state and local levels, including a 17-year stint as the first superintendent of Fairfax County's Juvenile Detention Center.
"People are hungry for someone who has the experience to lead," said Marsden, a 57-year-old juvenile justice consultant from Burke. "They're hungry for someone who would be in Richmond to do what's right. They're not hungry for someone to play politics."
But the Republican in the race, Michael Golden, a 31-year-old appellate attorney from Springfield, believes experience is far from the most important factor voters should consider when casting their vote on Nov. 8.
"There's no doubt that if you've been alive almost 30 years longer than someone else, they'll have more experience," Golden said. "But that doesn't necessarily mean that they'll be more effective."
As a member of the majority party in the General Assembly, Golden said, he would be able to better represent the 71,560 citizens of the 41st District, which encompasses Lake Braddock and Burke.
"He may have more experience, but I'd be more effective," said Golden, who has practiced law for the past six years following a judicial clerkship with a U.S. Court of Appeals judge. Prior to that, his work experience was mostly limited to operating a house painting franchise and a tenure as president of the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity at the University of Virginia.
Since then, Golden has spent more time working in public service. He serves on the Board of Directors for Bethany Christian Services, a non-profit adoption agency, and in 2004 was appointed to the Fairfax County school system's High School Course Review Committee.
Two years ago, Golden challenged Dillard, a retired school teacher who served in the General Assembly since 1980. Running as an independent, Golden was easily defeated in the three-way race, garnering only 26.9 percent of the vote, compared with Dillard's 63.5 percent.
Marsden disputes Golden's assertion that simply because his opponent is a Republican that he would be more effective in the General Assembly. A self-described moderate, Marsden said he would seek to work with lawmakers from both parties, putting the good of the 41st District and the state ahead of political ideology.
"We need bipartisanship in Virginia," Marsden said. "I'd represent every constituent — regardless of their political party."
A self-described conservative, Golden disagreed. "It's more important to be effective than bipartisan," he said.
WHEN VOTERS HEAD to the polls on Nov. 8, the race for the 41st District seat of the House of Delegates will undoubtedly grow close.
The district is among the few true swing districts in Virginia, routinely electing both Democrats and Republicans.
In last fall's presidential election, the district just barely voted for President George W. Bush with a slim majority of 50 percent over Democrat John Kerry's 49 percent. However, four years ago Gov. Mark Warner (D) carried the district, defeating Republican Mark Earley, by a similarly thin margin.
In 2001, the district's voters chose Democrat Tim Kaine as lieutenant governor by a margin of 50 percent. At the same time, 56 percent of its voters selected Republican Jerry Kilgore as attorney general. Kaine and Kilgore are currently facing each other in a three-way race for the governor's mansion.
As one of the four open House of Delegates seats in Northern Virginia this year, the race is garnering attention throughout the state — with both parties seeing the race as highly competitive. More than $374,000 has poured into the candidates' campaign coffers and the candidates have already spent more than $160,000 in their election bids.
With the race going either way, one key factor may be the support of Dillard, a moderate Republican who is popular among his constituents. On Monday, Oct. 3, Dillard formally endorsed Marsden, saying the Democrat is a moderate who would be effective by working in a bipartisan fashion.
"[Marsden] has experience and knowledge, and the reasonableness of being a moderate Democrat and a moderate Republican," Dillard said. "No way can I in good conscience not get Dave Marsden elected and leave my constituents in the hands of an extremist."
Dillard said Golden is too conservative, having signed a pledge to never raise taxes and that he wants to slash state spending.
"Every Democrat and every thinking Republican who cares about the party's swing to the right have got to turn out and support Dave Marsden," Dillard said.
Golden said he would have welcomed the support of the outgoing Republican incumbent, but is not worried about its potential impact on his campaign.
WITH ITS LONG-TIME incumbent retiring, the 41st District seat opens the way for voters to choose between a Democrat who used to be a Republican, or a Republican who used to be an Independent.
Of the myriad issues in the race, one fundamental difference between the candidates that has emerged concerns their views on taxes — specifically last year's $1.34 billion sales tax increase that enhanced state spending on education, public safety and human services.
Golden said he believes the 2004 tax package was wrong because it did not fund transportation and did not return enough education money to Fairfax County. In all, the budget action increased state spending in Fairfax County by $18 million. However, it increased the typical family's sales tax payments in Northern Virginia by $300.
"The General Assembly just passed a $1.5 billion tax increase, but now we have a $2 billion surplus," Golden said. "It wasn't needed."
Marsden, on the other hand, said the tax package was an investment in the community's future. If anything, Virginia should invest more in its core services such as K-12 education, higher education, public safety and transportation, he said.
"I don't like taxes. Nobody does. But we have to fulfill our obligations," said Marsden, who supports granting localities more revenue options to decrease pressure on rising property taxes — which have skyrocketed by as much as 90 percent since 2000 in the 41st District.
According to Golden, too-high property taxes are the No. 1 concern he hears campaigning door-to-door. With real estate values soaring, he said, property taxes are growing at such an alarmingly disproportionate pace to mortgage rates that it is hard for younger families and seniors to live in the area.
"The goal is to reasonably establish what the needs of the government are going to be," Golden said. It isn't something he could do right away, he said, but once in office he would "get deep into the money," looking at budget statistics and work to develop a new structure.
If elected, Golden said, he will start working to change the property tax structure, which is currently based on a property's market value. Market value, he said, is a poor way to calculate property tax increases because it has nothing to do with the value of a home nor has nothing to do with the Fairfax County government needing more money.
THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE facing the 41st District is the worsening transportation crisis throughout Northern Virginia, Marsden said.
The state must secure a dedicated revenue stream to complete projects that reduce gridlock — including Metrorail, fixing chokepoints on congested roads and adding cars to VRE, he said.
Marsden said he would look at "every option" to find money for transportation, with the exception of increasing the gas tax.
Golden, who also opposed the gas tax, said he would work to ensure Northern Virginia gets more transportation dollars from the state and would protect the transportation trust fund, which is frequently raided by the General Assembly for spending on issues other than transportation.
Another main issue for Golden is illegal immigration, which he links to gang activity. It is important to separate criminals from hardworking people when talking about undocumented citizens, he said.
"We have to do things to incentivize people who do things illegally, to do things legally," said Golden. "There are a lot of people who would do things the right way if they could."
Golden advocates the ability of law enforcement officers to check the legal status of people charged with crimes. The fear of deportment would go a long way to discouraging criminal activity, he said. Immigrants should also be able to receive I.D. cards that say they are seeking legal status, Golden said.
In the end, Golden said, the federal government has the most control over immigration issues. His relationship with U.S. Rep Tom Davis (R-11) and Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) would give him some clout, he said.
Addressing the problem of youth gangs is an issue that Marsden has dealt with for three decades.
Marsden has an eight-point plan for solving the growing gang problems, including helping law enforcement agencies better share intelligence on gangs, as well as deporting gang members' undocumented families if the gang member is convicted of a crime.
Additionally, Marsden wants to expand state funding of after-school programs and create more incentives to dissuade young people from joining gangs.
BOTH CANDIDATES AGREE that education is also among the voters' top concerns.
If elected, Marsden said he would help keep the state on the course set by his predecessor, Dillard, who chaired the House Education Committee.
Specifically, Marsden said he would seek to increase state spending on higher education institutions.
As the state has continued to underfund its public colleges and universities, he said, the schools have raised tuition and increasingly relied on out-of-state students, who close the shortfall by paying higher tuition rates. However, that means young people from Northern Virginia are finding it tougher to be accepted at schools like the University of Virginia, the College of William & Mary, Virginia Tech and George Mason University.
With regards to education, Golden said he would work to tinker with the education funding formula so that Fairfax County Public Schools would get more money back from the state. English as a Second Language and special needs programs are expensive, he said, and aren't accurately accounted for in the current formula.
"There are suburban areas in Richmond that get twice what we get back," said Golden.
Golden also advocates merit pay and competency testing for public school teachers, as well as credit and benefit opportunities for those who take extracurricular classes and training.
"The number one indicator of educational success in my opinion, and this is anecdotal, is the teacher," said Golden. It is important to hire and retain quality teachers, he said.