With the Democrats' literature table on the right side of the room and Republican literature on the left, candidates for the House of Delegates in five Springfield-area races sat down for lunch and discussions with small business owners during a forum sponsored by the Springfield Chamber of Commerce Tuesday morning, Oct. 11 at Greenspring.
Most of the discussion centered on what each candidate would do to help promote and encourage small businesses in Northern Virginia, with transportation and taxes the obvious hindrances to that end.
Del. Vivian Watts (D-39) said the days of "blue smoke and mirror" budgeting needed to stay in the past. "No more game playing," she said. "We need to keep Virginia's finances on track."
Investigating the expansion of Metro to serve Fort Belvoir, especially with the potential addition of 18,000 jobs as a result of the Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) decision, could lead to a decrease in traffic on local roads, Watts said.
"I have worked closely and will continue to work closely with (Supervisor) Dana Kauffman (D-Lee) and Del. (Mark) Sickles (D-43) to make sure we have adequate transportation to Fort Belvoir and to the Engineer Proving Ground no matter what happens there," Watts said. "This area has the potential to get even stronger."
Her opponent, Republican newcomer Michael Meunier, spoke as the owner of three small businesses, sympathetic to the hardships faced by those who choose to follow their own endeavors.
"There is a struggle to pay health care premiums," said Meunier.
"I will propose an idea that would give business with fewer than 50 employees a tax cut of $800 per employee to help cover the cost of providing health care insurance," he said, as a way to help business owners cover the cost of insuring their employees. "If the coverage is extended to dependents, that would be an additional $100 tax cut."
Additionally, Meunier would look into legislation that would allow several small businesses to band together to receive a group rate for health insurance coverage, allowing small businesses to receive the same rates as their larger counterparts.
In order to have a good workforce, students in Virginia schools need a good education, Meunier said. "We need to make it easier for our kids to go to good schools and get a good education. We need to attract and keep good teachers for our students," he said.
RUNNING UNOPPOSED, Del. Tim Hugo (R-40) joked about a "friendly competition" he has with Del. Dave Albo (R-42) over "who is more business friendly."
The job of a delegate is one of "constituent service," Hugo said, and as such, he plans to address the problem of transportation in Northern Virginia from several angles when he returns to Richmond.
"I believe in teleworking as a way to improve transportation," he said. "There is a supply issue, but there's also a demand that needs to be addressed." Hugo added that he plans to make sure more of the $2 billion budget surplus is dedicated for transportation spending.
Promising to use "creative, innovative ideas to solve the transportation problem," Michael Golden, the Republican delegate hopeful from the 41st District said that, "for the first time ever, we have the opportunity to be as safe and efficient working from home as in our offices."
An increase in telecommuting would not only make workers more efficient by eliminating time spent in traffic, but would also ease congestion on major roadways, he said. At the same time, exploring public-private partnerships could allow for additional income to the state to fund road improvement or expansion projects.
"We're talking about a potential for billions of dollars in transportation incentives that we could use here," said Golden.
Echoing some of his fellow Republicans, Golden advocated for putting "more money in the classroom" to improve education in addition to the retention of "better teachers."
THE UNDERLYING theme of Golden's opponent Dave Marsden (D) was foresight, something he credits the Virginia government of two years ago with having an abundance of in order to restore the financial stability of the state.
"Their foresight led to funds coming in now that have allowed us to invest in transportation and education," said Marsden. "Our job as delegates is to protect you and your interests."
The 41st District is the only one in Virginia with two Virginia Railway Express stations, he said, something that should be applauded but also encouraged as a solution to the transportation problem.
"I'm in favor of HOT (High Occupancy Toll) lanes on the Beltway," said Marsden. "Teleworking is critically important to make the business environment better and also to ease congestion."
Marsden also highlighted the importance of reducing the state's reliance on out-of-state students in universities and colleges, taking up room that could be used for Virginia students, he said.
Referring to his friendly competition with Hugo, Albo said he's glad the session in Richmond only lasts two months, allowing each elected representative to spend most of the year in their communities.
When he started his law firm, Albo said he was living off $13,000 a year. "I remember hoping clients would call us so we'd be able to pay our mortgage," he said, and feeling like "the government didn't like me very much" because of the high taxes he was paying.
"I've had a gentleman ask me, before going to Richmond, to leave him and his business alone so they can make money and create jobs," said Albo.
Albo's challenger Greg Werkheiser (D) outlined his top three issues for the Springfield area: gangs, traffic and realistic government.
"In the past, we've been told we can have our cake and eat it, too," Werkheiser said. "We've been told we can have public safety but not be taxed for it. You can have great schools but don't need to support higher education. That's just not right," he said.
The saving force for the future will be "center-driven" politicians from both parities, working together to fix problems responsibly, he said. "You have choices in this election, whether you buy the line without having to bear any of the costs or to have a more honest dialogue about the future," Werkheiser said.
PAST BUDGET compromises "didn't solve all our problems," said Del. Mark Sickles (D-43). "We have given $50 million toward the cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay, we have restored the Rainy Day fund, we have retained our bond rating. Now we have to be able to finish the car tax phase-out and maintain the base adequacy of our higher educational system," he said.
Sickles' opponent Ron Grignol (R) said he will personally be affected by the BRAC shift from Crystal City to Fort Belvoir, as the defense engineering company he works for is being transferred.
"We have a $3 billion surplus," said Grignol. "My opponent proposed a 7 percent tax on gasoline and we didn't need it." The money would have been better diverted to traffic, with Northern Virginia currently poised to become "the next San Francisco, where the only people who live here are two-income families without children," he said.
The property tax is "forcing many seniors out of their homes they've owned for 30 years and away from their families," he said.
Grignol said he also supports telecommuting as a way for businesses to save money and to ease congestion. The money dedicated to transportation should not be used for the Rail to Dulles project, but instead given to "smaller, more efficient projects" that would provide a greater impact on local roadways, he said.
ONCE ALL the candidates had the chance to speak, local business owners asked questions regarding the disparity between property taxes paid on a car purchased for a business ($800) and for personal use ($400), and whether it would be fair for principals and not fellow teachers to determine pay rates, among other concerns.
As the owner of a print and imaging company in Springfield, Anna Kaviani said attending the forum was important to understand how the upcoming election will impact her business.
"I don't live here, I live in Great Falls, but they all talked about things important to me and my customers," said Kaviani. Listening to the candidates helped her determine "who was prepared and could give real answers to questions."
The candidates up for election would have no impact on her home life, she said, because "it's too pricey to live here. But everything they touch will affect Fairfax County," she said.
A benefits consultant for the Morrow Group and co-owner of Meray Entertainment, Mera Diaz said listening to the candidates "confirmed my party affiliation. Listening to the incumbents, I found that there's a real difference between them and the challengers."
Diaz said she was "impressed" by Werkheiser and his "new and fresh" energy. "He has an advantage because he doesn't have a track record. He's got a lot of energy and it looks like he'd make a real difference. I'm not saying Albo has rested on his laurels, he's just rested."
Evelyn Endler, a sales director for the Gunston Center Comfort Inn, agreed. "I was the most impressed by Werkheiser because what he said was straight to the point, he didn't dance around anything. He told you what he was going to do," she said.
"Some candidates come across like more of an advocate," said Diaz. "Hugo really sounded like someone you could call and he'd call you back. Part of the problem is that we as constituents don't always feel like we can talk directly to the man in the office."