Less than two months before delegate elections, six candidates gathered before a backdrop of world flags at Fairhill Elementary School to explain their positions on community issues. The Sept. 20 forum, sponsored by the Providence District Council and moderated by the League of Women Voters, allowed the community to address questions to House of Delegates candidates in the 35th and 37th districts.
Democrat David Bulova, Republican John Mason, Independent Green Daniel Haugh, and Libertarian Scott McPherson are in the running for the 37th District seat, left open by Del. Chap Petersen (D), while incumbent Del. Steve Shannon (D-35) is running against Republican Jim Hyland.
An audience of over 100 gathered to listen to the candidates, submitting questions that ranged from the MetroWest development near the Vienna/Fairfax Metro Station to the candidates’ stances on illegal immigration.
"It’s an educational evening for people who are undecided, to hear the candidates and learn what they have to say," said Becky Cate, chair of the Providence District Council. "The sense I get in this is that there is a huge undecided vote out there."
Fairfax residents Joan and Jane Quill, who attended the forum, said their concerns ranged from density to illegal immigrants and gang violence to gridlock.
"[Politicians] should not only ask for community input, but should listen to it," said Jane Quill.
The format of the forum has changed from recent years, said Cate, in response to citizen complaints about the old method of asking one question per candidate. At Tuesday’s forum, the candidates answered each question one by one.
Some of the issues the candidates in the 37th District race addressed were:
* The proposed MetroWest development
Infrastructure strain and potential traffic problems surrounding the potential MetroWest development are caused by the government, said McPherson, and responsibility for these issues should be turned over to private developers and companies.
Haugh, whose main concern is solving the region’s traffic problem with more public-transit use, recommended an extended Orange line to Centreville.
Bulova said he supported transit-oriented development, but said that community dialogue is very important in the process.
Local government would have to do a better job of reaching out to citizens, said Mason. "The project has to be downsized and have some degree of satisfaction from adjacent neighborhoods," he said.
* If the Roe vs. Wade decision were reversed
Haugh said: "I want less abortions, but I fear the day when we have policemen walking around asking people what they have done with their own body." He said that he, as a Catholic, personally opposed abortion and would support funding for programs that teach contraception and alternatives.
Bulova said that he would focus his efforts on age-appropriate education and abortion alternatives. The current Virginia laws regarding abortion "balance off" pretty well, said Bulova, and he would enact no new ones.
Mason said he was "uncomfortable with abortion being used as a means of birth control," but that he did not see much need for additional regulations if Roe vs. Wade were overturned.
McPherson, wary of the public school system, said that "the last thing [he] wants" is government institutions teaching children about sex and pregnancy prevention.
* What to do with Virginia's budget surplus
Bulova said: "It’s extremely important to put money away for rainy day purposes." He said that he would use the money for capital projects. People must take a long-term view of budget cycles, he said, and that the money would not be there forever.
Mason said that his spending would depend on the actual size of the surplus. He would put some of it into transportation projects, he said, but if it were a large surplus, he would give some back to the taxpayer.
"The idea that we should take this money and spend it on transportation is absolutely absurd," said McPherson. He did not advocate using the surplus for government projects, because the area population would grow faster than the government could build roads.
Haugh said he would use some of the surplus to cap property tax for long-time residents, and use some for rail projects.
* Illegal immigration
Most candidates agreed that illegal immigration was partly the federal government’s responsibility.
The federal government has "failed" at preventing illegal immigration, said Mason, but on the state level, legislators should not give illegal immigrants privileges such as in-state tuition.
The U.S. was founded on people coming in and looking for a better way of life, said McPherson, advocating an open-door policy.
"We should be glad immigrants are coming here," said McPherson. "If we feel that we are using too many government services, then maybe we should get rid of those government services."
Haugh, who is against illegal immigration, said that dealing with employers who hire undocumented citizens, rather than the citizens themselves, would have a more lasting affect.
Bulova said the state should fund special units of police to deal with illegal immigration issues.
* What specific programs education spending should fund
McPherson, who home-schools his own children, said he supports tax credits for people who teach their children at home or send them to private school.
Haugh supports public schools but said that if a school is failing, the state should concentrate efforts and funds into that school rather than spreading money around.
Bulova, a graduate of Robinson Secondary School, said he would like to see more money back from Richmond, and would spend it on getting quality teachers, maintaining infrastructure, and all-day kindergarten programs statewide.
Mason said he would focus on preschool programs and getting children prepared for the school system.
* How to get funding for road projects
McPherson called road projects a "billion-dollar boondoggle" and advocated privatizing road building.
Haugh said he would try to "get people out of cars and give people other options," with an expanded public transit system.
For Bulova, transportation funding means "reestablishing public trust." He said he would explore public-private partnerships, mass transit and telecommuting options.
Mason brought out a seven-point transportation plan, which included a "lock-box" of transportation funds, public-private partnerships and high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes, state funding for Metrorail, and increased fines for traffic-related offenses.
* A ban on gay marriage
The Virginia General Assembly is voting on a proposal for a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman (SJ337/HJ586). This sort of amendment has ramifications other than prohibiting same-sex unions, said Bulova.
"It takes away the right to contract," said Bulova. That right is one to protect, and he would vote against such an amendment, he said.
"I am comfortable with the notion that marriage is between a single female and a single male," said Mason. He said he would support a state amendment that defined marriage as between a man and a woman.
McPherson said the government can mediate contracts but cannot define the terms of contracts, which is what a constitutional amendment would do.
"This is not a question of religion, this is a question of fairness," said McPherson.
Haugh said that he did not believe a ban on gay marriage should be put into law. It is not the place of government to go after social issues like this one, he said.
* Northern Virginia residents over 65
McPherson said he would not support tax increases and that he sympathized with those living on fixed income, but that he was "uncomfortable" spending tax dollars and would rather turn to charities to help out older residents.
Haugh also said he would not support tax increases, and that he would cap the property tax for residents over 65.
Bulova would also fix the property tax, he said. "Our tax system is stuck in the 18th century," he said.
Diversification of the tax base is key, said Mason, as was tax scaling and need-adjusting for seniors.
* Campaign finance reform
Haugh said that candidates should only receive funds from those who also vote for them.
While the county has fairly good disclosure laws, said Bulova, "campaigns go too long and too expensive," which makes it harder for ordinary citizens to run for delegate.
Mason agreed with Bulova.
McPherson said that the disclosure laws make it harder for third parties to run.
Bulova, a believer in bipartisanship, said he and Mason signed a "code of ethics" agreement so that their campaigns would stick to issues rather than employing mudslinging tactics.
Mason supported bipartisanship as well, saying that as mayor of the City of Fairfax, he spent his political life working across party lines.
"I find what is really key, David, is having a beer after a meeting," he said.
"You might not like me, you may not like everything I have to say, but you can trust me," said McPherson. "I'm quite frankly sick of politicians who we can like."
Politicians should not just reach across party lines, said Haugh, but county lines as well, so that a regional rail system could become a reality.