At a fund-raiser for Arlington’s Democratic Committee earlier this month, most of the county’s top Democratic politicians and strategists were hobnobbing in a private reception with Sen. John Kerry.
But Del. Al Eisenberg (D-47), who is running for re-election unopposed, eschewed the majority of the big-ticket, wine-and-cheese coterie in favor of chatting with ordinary constituents who donated money to the party.
“I like it better in here,” said Eisenberg, before introducing himself to a another potential voter in the general greeting room of the Arlington Arts Center.
To those who have known and supported Eisenberg throughout his political career, from his 15 years on the Arlington County Board to his one term in the House of Delegates, the scene was emblematic of his dedication to the voters he represents.
“After elections some candidates disappear,” said Tom Hasman, Eisenberg’s campaign manager. “But Al continues to go out and meet people because he wants see how they feel on the issues. To him that is where the action is, not in some back room.”
During Eisenberg’s term in the General Assembly he developed a reputation as a champion for the disadvantaged. He introduced and carried bills through the legislature that helped individuals collect money from fraudulent contractors, stopped insurance companies from canceling home-ownership policies and allowed school employees to donate leave time to sick co-workers.
“His commitment is to the underdog, to people with disabilities and those who don’t have economic advantages,” said James Turpin, who is chairman of the Arlington County Democratic Committee and runs a consultant group with Eisenberg. “He is an advocate for those who may not have advocates and that doesn’t always make him popular.”
Eisenberg’s top priority for the upcoming legislative session is increasing the state’s minimum wage, which has remained unchanged at $5.15 an hour since 1997. He will introduce a bill that would raise the minimum wage by a dollar this year and 75 cents in each of the subsequent three years.
“Minimum wage is not a livable wage,” said Eisenberg, 58, who sat on the county board for 15 years, beginning in 1984. “The value of that wage has eroded thanks to inflation and our poorest workers are not getting the full benefit. How many CEOs have been without a raise in eight years?”
Increasing the minimum wage will not force businesses to fire employees to keep costs down as some critics have postulated, said Eisenberg, citing recent studies by professors at MIT and Princeton. This measure will also help offset the rapidly escalating costs of housing in Arlington, which has driven most low-income workers out of the county, he added.
EISENBERG IS A meticulous collector, a man who compiles both historical artifacts and arcane policy procedures. Original brochures from the Lusitania and the Titanic are prominently displayed in the hallway of his central Arlington home. His office is lined with Civil War memorabilia, including letters home from dying soldiers and almost a dozen authentic muskets.
He rattles off tax and transportation figures just as deftly as he names the Confederate and Union generals who peer down from above his desk. Eisenberg was the deputy assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Transportation and a member of the Metropolitan Washington Transportation Planning Board, and repeatedly emphasizes that weaning American off its oil dependency is the greatest challenge facing this country in the coming decade.
Finding ways to reduce Arlington’s transportation woes, and securing permanent sources of funding to ameliorate the problems, will dominate much of Eisenberg’s time this session, which begins in mid-January. Since raising the gas tax is not a feasible option at this point, Eisenberg supports increasing roadway tolls and using insurance premium taxes to back bond issues for transportation needs.
He is considering introducing legislation that would require the state to phase in a fleet of hybrid vehicles for government use.
“We have got to conserve our oil,” he added. “It is scary how close we are to facing a severe and disruptive decline in our supplies.”
No major road should be expanded in Northern Virginia unless it can be determined that it will alleviate gridlock, Eisenberg said. He is adamantly opposed to widening I-66 and will fight to block any legislation that seeks to do so.
“It will have almost zero impact on relieving congestion,” said Eisenberg. “But it will drain funds that could be deployed elsewhere.”
Eisenberg said he will urge the state to implement a telework program so government employees can work from home one day a week, easing the stress on local roads.
Immigration figures to be a contentious issue in the House of Delegates this year, as conservative members may seek to restrict benefits for illegal aliens. Denying immigrants access to health care and other state services will place a heavy burden on localities, Eisenberg said.
“It is pure, unadulterated xenophobia,” he said. “There is a group of politicians who want to play on people’s fears. America was built on immigration and they are trying to turn that quality into something divisive.”
Rather than punishing the individuals, who are working long hours for little pay to make a better life for their families, the onus should be on the business owners who hire them, Eisenberg added.
He is additionally looking to craft a bill that would grant colleges the authority to determine whether they want guns on their campuses, though he is not optimistic it will pass.
Almost all of Eisenberg’s bills passed unanimously in his first term, and he said he will again concentrate on drafting legislation that will make a difference to people who are treated unfairly.
“There are politicians out there who are just in Richmond to kill bills, so you have to craft them in such a way that they say, ‘oh, that makes sense,” Eisenberg said. “My bills were so clear that it was hard for anyone to turn them down.”