The Young Professionals Network of the Northern Virginia Urban League invited all the statewide candidates to its Oct. 13 forum at the Lyceum, but only one showed up. Leslie Byrne, the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, spoke to more than 150 people Thursday night.
"Regardless of who is elected lieutenant governor, there will still be guns in Virginia, gays in Virginia and God in Virginia," Sen. Byrne said. "So don't let yourself focus on God, guns and gays."
Instead of concentrating on divisive social issues, she encouraged voters to spend time thinking about health care, the environment and labor rights. Byrne said that she hopes that health care can be made for affordable by allowing employers to create larger burying pools. She said this would consolidate purchases, and prices could be lowered by negotiating with drug companies.
"Other states are already doing this," Byrne said. "There's no reason why Virginia can't do the same."
Byrne also stressed environmental issues, saying that many health concerns can be traced to pollution.
"Right now, our environment is in very fragile shape," she said, adding that she is concerned by reports of infant leukemia and asthma. "Shenandoah is a polluted park."
Byrne said that Virginians deserve to have a "living wage," adding that she opposed a measure in the General Assembly that prevented local governments to set their own minimum wages.
"They wanted to send a message that they didn't want localities to pay their employees a living wage," she said, adding that she met a woman on the campaign trail who had three jobs to make ends meet for her family. "It's another case of 'we can do better than this.'"
When asked by a member of the Urban League about the low percentage of minority contractors hired by the commonwealth, Byrne explained that one of the reasons is the recent trend in bundling jobs — creating massive work orders that require large and complex companies to administer.
"My position is that we shouldn't bundle the jobs," she said.
She also spoke about the recent controversy in Herndon about publicly-funded meeting places for day laborers, some of whom may be illegal immigrants.
"It's not Herndon's fault that we've had a flood of immigration," she said, adding that controlling immigration is the job of the federal government. "It's illegal to hire someone who is here illegally, so go after the ones who are hiring them."
A NATIVE OF UTAH, Byrne moved to Northern Virginia in 1971. Her career in politics started when she became a member of a parent-teacher association in Fairfax County. She eventually became president of the Fairfax Area League of Women Voters and then chairwoman of the Fairfax County Commission on Fair Campaign Practices.
In 1986, she was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates. She was the first non-lawyer to ever serve on the Courts of Justice Committee, leaving the House of Delegates to run for Congress. In 1992, she became the first woman to represent Virginia in the United States House of Representatives. She took a leadership position in the 103rd Congress as caucus whip.
During the Clinton administration, Byrne served for two years as the director of Consumer Affairs. Then she returned to the General Assembly, representing Fairfax County from 1999 to 2003 in the Virginia Senate.
STATE SEN. Ken Cuccinelli (R-37), a surrogate for Byrne's Republican opponent, Sen. Bill Bolling (R-4), also spoke. He apologized for the candidate's absence, saying that Bolling had an engagement in central Virginia.
"As we all know, this is really the on-deck circle to run for governor," Cuccinelli said.
He told Urban League members that Bolling was a "pro-business" candidate, opposing powerful labor unions that require employees to be members and pay dues.
"Bill has been a guardian of business his whole life," Cuccinelli said, adding that Bolling wants to protect Virginia's right-to-work law. "Collective bargaining is a bad idea and allowing teachers to strike is a bad idea."
When a member of the audience asked Cuccinelli if Bolling had ever struggled, he answered by explaining how the candidate had worked his way through college.
"He had to carry the load," Cuccinelli said. "He had to start on his own."
A native of Sistersville, Bolling's career in politics started when he was elected to the Hanover County Board of Supervisors in 1991. He was elected to the Virginia Senate in 1995, representing the counties of Hanover, Caroline, Essex, King and Queen, King William, Middlesex and parts of Spotsylvania.
AFTER THE DEBATE, audience members made introductions and exchanged business cards. Several people said that they were impressed by Byrne's personal appearance — especially since none of the other candidates came to the event.
"I wasn't very impressed with the surrogates, but I was very impressed with Leslie Byrne," said Bernell Sherrod, who traveled from Virginia Beach to attend the event at the Lyceum. He said he was especially interested in hearing her position on minority contracting. "I work for a small business, so I'm very concerned about making sure that minority-owned businesses get contracts."