“I’m a Democrat,” said Stratford Landing resident Paige Denit at a neighborhood association meeting last Thursday. And that is exactly Andy Hurst’s problem.
Hurst, a Democrat, is running to unseat Republican Tom Davis from the 11th District Congressional seat Davis has held for the last 12 years. Judging by past presidential elections, the door should be ajar for Hurst. In 2000, voters in the district favored Democrat Al Gore by slightly more than two percentage points, in 2004, George Bush edged John Kerry in the 11th district by less than one percent, each candidate earning more than 49 percent of the vote.
But in the same two years, Davis beat his Democratic rivals by comfortable 28 and 22 percent margins.
Denit said she is one of the thousands of voters in the congressional district, which encompasses much of Mount Vernon south of Collingwood Road as well as other parts of Fairfax and Prince William counties, who votes staunchly Democratic, except when it comes to her representative. “I vote for Tom because Tom has done so much for us,” she said, citing the economic development of the Route 1 corridor as an example.
Faced with a firmly entrenched candidate and only days left in the race, Hurst’s battle-plan was on full display at Stratford Landing’s candidates debate. He avoided a frontal assault in favor of an attack on Davis’s vulnerable flank — the Republican Party.
“[Davis] has done a lot for this community,” Hurst said in his opening statement, “No doubt about it.” But he moved on to broader issues such as campaign finance and Congressional ethics reform. “I don’t think Congress has the liver,” Hurst said, then accused Congress of failure in Iraq, energy policy, health care and the nation’s growing budget deficit. “[Davis] hasn’t stood up to [the administration] on issues I care about,” Hurst said, as Davis sat at a table with his chin in his hand, flipping through a thick stack of documents.
When it was Davis’ turn to speak (Independent candidate Ferdinado Greco, registered for the debate but did not appear), Davis brought the discussion back to friendlier ground. “Debate me on my record and not the record of the Congress,” Davis demanded.
“Let’s hold me accountable with what I’ve done, what I can do in a tough environment,” he added, citing numerous Democratic filibusters in the last year.
He then listed projects he had brought to the area, including the transfer of D.C.’s 2,800-acre Lorton prison to Fairfax County by an act of Congress and federal money for the Woodlawn Road extension and the Woodrow Wilson Bridge project.
He said he disagreed with the Bush administration over stem cell research, assault weapons, drilling in the ANWR wildlife refuge in Alaska, and demanding better gas efficiency in cars.
“It’s easy to say, ‘Davis does these local things but he’s a bad guy. He’s a member of Congress we ought to throw him out.’ Anybody can say that,” Davis said. “What’s hard in politics is getting [local projects] through.”
AFTER THE OPENING STATEMENTS, Stratford Landing residents asked the candidates a series of wide-ranging questions.
Asked how they would vote in the referendum on an amendment to write a ban on gay marriage into the state’s constitution, Davis said he would vote yes, because it was better for the people and legislature to decide the issue than for a judge to do so, as had happened in New Jersey only days before. “I don’t believe in discrimination however,” he added, citing a bill he’d helped pass that would ban discrimination against gay federal employees.
Hurst said he would vote against it. “This isn’t about same-sex marriage. This is about people playing games with our constitution.”
On Iraq, Hurst said he would question the administration’s policies. “The first role of Congress, I think, is to stand up to the executive branch.”
“We have to withdraw from Iraq, not question about it,” he added. But a more detailed policy should only be drawn up with the input of military commanders. “I don’t know the answers to those [questions] and I won’t pretend I do, but I know who does,” he said.
“We’re in a mess in Iraq,” Davis said, adding that he’d been there three times. He said mistakes had been made in the prosecution of the war, and despite the high voter turn-out, Iraqis had been unprepared for Democratic elections. “With no history of democracy, the Iraqi democracy is more like a census.” He said contingency plans must be made and said that the formation of a bipartisan commission headed by former Secretary of State James Baker was an example of the most valuable contributions he and his colleagues in congress could make.
Hurst used a question about voting rights for D.C., an issue Davis has fought for unsuccessfully, to bring the conversation back to the moderate Davis’s isolation within his own party. “I think Tom’s got some good ideas,” Hurst said. “But his friends won’t vote for it.”
“You know how Republicans stop controlling Congress? When you vote Tom Davis out, it’s that simple.”
The debate ended with a contentious exchange on issues surrounding immigration. Davis said the nation needed a fence along its border to control the influx of immigrants before it could find a way to assimilate the immigrants who had already arrived. “I think we gotta deal with the 11 million people that are in our country. I don’t think we round them up and send them home.” Such an action, he said, would destroy many countries’ economies because of their heavy reliance on remittances from America. He said he strongly supported trade agreements with these countries as one way of staunching emigration to America.
Hurst ridiculed Davis’ support for the fence. “Does anyone think a 700 mile fence on a 2100 mile border makes sense?”
“It was a political sham. A ploy to make us feel safer.” He said more border patrol officers and more technology should be used to secure the border and there should be a crackdown on employers of illegal workers. He also said the people here now must be assimilated, though without “amnesty.”
When Gwendoline Niebergall asked Hurst about making English the official language of the country, he replied, “I don’t think that’s a great idea,” explaining that such a law would divide people. But by the end of the most persistent grilling of the evening, during which Niebergall, enlisted the help of friends, cited a recent trip to South Florida during which she found her English to be useless and condemned the “millions of dollars” spent on bilingual publications, Hurst backed down. “I’ll do a little research on that,” he finally said.
Davis’s response was more pleasing to Niebergall. “I voted to make English the official language,” he said. “I think it’s important that Americans learn more than one language, but you don’t want to end up like Quebec.”
AT THE END OF THE EVENING, Davis focused on his strength. “If you want to ask what a person’s going to do for you. Look at what they’ve done.” He also headed off Hurst’s attack on his party flanks. “Whoever controls Congress, we need a few good people who are not just party shills.”
With his time, Hurst thanked Davis for appearing with him for 12 community forums. He said many well-financed incumbents would have hidden behind a screen of advertising. But he asked voters to ignore Davis’s personal appeal and focus on the performance of his party. “These guys are running things. If you like what’s going on, vote for him.”
But after listening to the debate, Denit said she was still an 11th District Democrat who wants it both ways. “My hope is having a Democratic Congress right now,” she said. “By the same token I like this guy. I like Tom Davis.”