After graduating from the University of Michigan, Del. Vivian Watts (D-39) never intended to run for public office. Now, at the end of her 10th year in the House of Delegates, she is running for re-election, for the chance to continue serving her community.
"I always participated in the community, from being an educator to being a member of the PTA and School Board, but I never thought I'd run for office," Watts said. "I'm a numbers person at heart, so I was always interested in spending and taxes and the budget."
Watts was first approached to run as a "sacrificial lamb" candidate in a Board of Supervisors race and fared "well enough" that she couldn't "blend back into the woodwork" at the committee meetings she had regularly attended for years.
"I believed I could be a spokesman for Northern Virginia issues because of my background," said Watts, referring to her involvement with the Salvation Army, the Virginia Chamber of Commerce as its transportation chair and her position as co-chair of the countywide School Bond Referendum committee.
Watts was first elected to the House of Delegates in 1982, serving until 1985, when she was appointed Virginia's Secretary of Transportation and Secretary of Public Safety. She is the only person to have headed both positions simultaneously, from 1986-90. She was re-elected to the House of Delegates in 1996.
As a current delegate, Watts said she has a "better idea" of how to face "unintended consequences" of legislation because of the "breadth of issues and context" in which she's worked for almost a decade.
"I understand the concerns of both sides of an issue and I know the restraints and concerns of each, so I am better able to anticipate many disputes ahead of time when writing legislation," she said. That experience can help modify the language of a bill to avoid conflict or can expedite the process of finding common ground to get legislation passed that works best for both sides of a topic, she said.
"The two months the House of Delegates meets is extremely intense and we cover so many subject areas," Watts said. "I enjoy the challenge of shaping legislation. I like having a district where I can really get around and have contact with what's going on."
The two main issues in Watt's campaign are, not surprisingly, education and transportation, she said.
"I'd like to continue the kind of management soundness we've had in the past four years," she said. "We've been doing a lot of hard work to get the budget balanced but we need to continue with tough management. Virginia's conservatism has been fiscal conservatism. It bothers me to see the attention shifting to the days of promises that don't lead to balanced budgets."
Money allocated for specific uses in the budget need to be used for those purposes, whether it's education, transportation or otherwise, Watts said.
"We have a major, major transportation crisis in Northern Virginia and it will take serious work to get the House of Delegates to make serious changes, not just put band-aids on the problem," she said.
With education, Watts wants to continue to work to change the funding formula for Northern Virginia's schools. "In the last session, I was able to make a small change that brought $14 million directly to Fairfax County schools by having the money based on the student population, not the wealth of the area," she said.
Watts has been in favor of looking into any and all plans and alternatives to decrease the traffic problems in Northern Virginia.
Additionally, Watts said she will support legislation to provide a "homestead exemption" to residents, mostly senior citizens, who live in a home they own, which could translate into a 20 percent reduction in their property tax bill in order to allow more residents to stay in their homes.
AS THE PRESENCE of gangs and gang activity has grown in the region, Watts said she has helped to draft the toughest anti-gang legislation in the country. "We need to focus more on cooperation among the federal, state and local government and law enforcement for that legislation to be effective," she said.
The heart of Watt's campaign has been walking door-to-door to talk with residents of her district, allowing her to have a dialogue with the people she represents.
"I get a lot of good information from meeting with the people who live here," Watts said. "It's very helpful in how I approach the issues and the cases I can make for pieces of legislation because I have heard it directly and personally from people in my region."
Each time Watts has run for re-election, she has faced opposition. "I enjoy having a forum where people can hear both sides of the race," Watts said. "Unfortunately, in this area, that doesn't happen often. It's like shadow boxing. You're rarely with your opponents, so you don't know what context they're speaking in regarding your stand on the issues."
Both of her opponents, Independent Green candidate Richard Herron and Republican Michael Meunier, have said they respect Watts for her service to the community.
"I met Vivian a few years ago," said Herron. "I know I probably won't get elected, so she's an all right person to vote for."
Meunier, on the other hand, feels residents of the 39th district need a change.
"I applaud Mrs. Watts' record for serving Virginia for so long, but she has not put forth any ideas in all her years that make her stand out from other legislators she works with," he said. "If I were her, I'd have some of the top ideas for increasing transit, not just raising the gas tax. This race is about the old versus the new. This is the new innovative ideas versus the same old politics that hasn't gotten us anywhere."
AS THE MANAGER of Watts' re-election campaign, Hope Winship believes Watts' experience and leadership skills prove to be valuable assets which help her while working on the campaign. "She has a great grasp of the knowledge she has from things she's done in the past that she applies to what's being done now," said Winship.
With Watts' campaign office located in her family's home, Winship said the campaign has a "family-type atmosphere" to it. "She is readily available to do whatever needs to be done and to answer whatever questions we have," said Winship. "We've had a tremendous response from the community, from people giving money to more grassroots things like putting up signs in front of their homes and volunteering to help out. People know she'll do a good job representing them and will work and fight hard for them."
For the past nine years, Deb Sherman has worked with Watts as her legislative aide in Richmond.
"Vivian is one of the most intelligent persons I've ever met," said Sherman. "I'm one of her constituents, and I know there's no one else in the Virginia legislature who will get to work on an issue and try to bring people in with other points of view like she does."
Sherman also knows firsthand Watt's "commitment" to building agreements between parties. "She doesn't give up. She works until she can bring people together. With her, it's not just slogans. She knows the hard work starts when you get elected," said Sherman.