Twenty-one months into his first term in the Virginia House of Delegates, Del. Mark Sickles (D-43) is hoping for the chance to do more.
"I'm very interested in current affairs and public policy," said the delegate, finishing his first term in office while campaigning for re-election. "A lot needs to be done in our state. Northern Virginia needs a strong voice in Richmond. The state has not kept up with the needs of this area due to our extraordinary growth."
When Sickles come to the area via a contracting job with the Army Corps of Engineers at Fort Belvoir, he started to volunteer in local campaigns and soon became the co-chairman of the Lee District Democratic Committee, a position he occupied for three years. When the opportunity came to run for the county-wide chair in 1998, he ran and won that election. That year, Dana Kauffman also won the supervisor seat in the Lee District, Sickles said.
"One thing just led to another," he said. "When I first started, I was out two or three nights a week at different community meetings. It wasn't all-encompassing by any means."
These days, it's a different story, Sickles said. While in Richmond, most of his work was focused on bringing together the often disjointed or miscommunicating arms of government. "I want to be part of an effort to make state and local government work together," he said. "I want the county to be able to take care of what it needs to take care of. We need to work as a team." He sees the inability to work together leading to further delays on funding many of the projects needed in Northern Virginia.
"We are spending more time in our automobiles than ever," said, Sickles, of the traffic problems that drivers in Northern Virginia face daily. "We've got to put any surplus money in the future into transportation. There's going to be a $10 billion shortfall facing us over the next 20 years and we need to start hacking away at it."
A $848 MILLLION donation from this year's budget surplus was put into the transportation fund as a "one-time donation," said Sickles, but the issue needs to be looked at not as a political one, but as a business matter.
Turning to education, "we need to make sure the state pays its share of the costs," said Sickles. "The state has standards of quality it has not fully funded until this year. The state has mandated schools to give the SOLs and it's been a burden."
Once students graduate from Virginia schools, it's urgent that the higher education opportunities available to them remain competitive as well.
"In the next 10 years, we expect 60,000 students will want to attend public colleges and universities," said Sickles. "We do not have a plan in place to accommodate that growth. We're putting $263 million into higher education this year but we need to continue to work on funding it."
If re-elected, Sickles hopes for the chance to re-introduce a bill that would use existing income tax revenue to help abate the continuing rise in property tax assessments. "I'd like to share the existing tax revenues with the localities, which is not a new idea," he said. "My bill would return 5 percent of the income tax revenue received by the state back to the area where the revenue is generated."
Once the budget stabilization, or "rainy day," fund has been filled, Sickles supports taking a percentage of the surplus and dedicating it annually to the transportation budget.
"One area of concern in this part of the county is the expected growth of Fort Belvoir, which will greatly affect the 43rd District," said Sickles. "Right now, Telegraph Road is a two-lane road from Beulah Street to Franconia Road and there's no way it can accommodate an increase in traffic if it's not widened," he said. Expanding the Fairfax County Parkway would also ease traffic concerns in the region, once plans to construct it are approved or modified around the former EPG area of Fort Belvoir.
DESPITE EXPERIENCING some difficulty getting his fund-raising efforts off the ground, Sickles said his campaign has been going smoothly.
"It's a little harder to get volunteers because people expect me to win, which is dangerous to any campaign," he said.
Not allowing himself or his volunteers to count on a false sense of security, Sickles said he hopes to return to Richmond to continue to work on bipartisan efforts to "move the state forward and make sure tax payers get their money's worth."
Working side by side with Sickles for the past two years, Kevin Hyde has seen Sickles' presence in the community grow.
"Since he was first elected, he has spent every night in the community, keeping in touch with people to let them know he's working for them in Richmond," said Hyde. "When the House is in session, he gets up early to work out before going into session for the day and he stays in his office late researching bills or going to different groups to talk with them about issues."
Those who live in the 43rd District have begun to look at Sickles as "their advocate," Hyde said, which has helped encourage both of them to work hard on the campaign.
"People said we wouldn't be challenged much in this race, but Mark is still out there working, knocking on doors every night," he said.
As chair of the Democratic Caucus for Virginia, Del. Brian Moran (D-46) calls Sickles "one of my favorite delegates. My first impression of him was his ability and persistence to work across the aisle, and he's really been able to gain a lot of bipartisan support in the past two years," he said.
Sickles' work on local boards has given him the "ability to understand legislation and the impact it may have on his district," said Moran. That background should help prepare Sickles for "a long career... as a delegate," said Moran.
Sickles' opponent, Ron Grignol, believes otherwise.
"Personally, I like him, but I do think he's out of touch with voters," said Grignol. "I believe he thinks throwing money at problems is the right solution. He voted for the largest tax increase in Virginia history but none of the money went into transportation," he said.
Sickles has not demonstrated the intention of "trying to do things differently" if re-elected, said Grignol. If things stay the same, residents will be forced to leave the area, leaving no one to represent, he said.