Del. Mark Sickles (D-43) brought the government to the people at a town hall-style meeting Saturday morning, Jan. 20 that became a celebration of all things Democratic, with speakers representing all tiers of government.
"I probably would have had about half the crowd if not for Sen. [Jim] Webb," said Sickles, after the show was over, adding that the appearance of Virginia's newest U.S. senator also helped him bring out other speakers.
More than 150 residents packed the Snyder Center, just up South Van Dorn Street from Edison High School, to hear from politicians including Webb (D-Va.), U.S. Rep. Jim Moran (D-8), State Sen. Toddy Puller (D-36), Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerry Connolly (D-At-large) and soon-to-retire Supervisor Dana Kauffman (D-Lee).
Webb, a Falls Church resident who has become a Democratic icon since he narrowly upset Republican incumbent Sen. George Allen's re-election bid in November and who last week delivered the party's response to President Bush's State of the Union address, began the meeting with a discussion of national issues, particularly the war in Iraq. He assured the crowd that the president no longer had "a blank check as far as the number of troops that are sent over to Iraq," and he equated the oft-repeated idea that war criticism demoralizes the troops to using soldiers "as political pawns."
Webb said he would try to pass a GI Bill equal to the one that paid for soldiers' college education after World War II, and he also noted that Democrats in Congress had already passed a broad ethics reform bill and were working to raise the minimum wage, improve Medicare Part D and implement the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission.
"I did not seek the responsibility of giving the Democratic response," he concluded, to a standing ovation, "But I was proud to do it."
ASKED ABOUT HIS expectations for a current bill supporting stem cell research, Webb noted that the bill had already passed the House and that the process in the Senate would be slower, but he said, "I'm confident it's going to pass." If Bush vetoes the bill, he said, "We'll pass it in due course."
Asked about quick turnarounds and last-minute extensions to tours in Iraq, he explained that the military traditionally has granted leave time at a 2-to-1 ratio, meaning that a seven-month tour would be followed by 14 months at home. Currently, he said, leave is being granted at a 1-to-1 ratio. Webb said he felt this was exhausting the ground troops and noted that he had discussed the matter at hearings on the proposed non-binding resolution that would oppose the president's plan to deploy 20,000 more troops.
"One of the allegations from the other side, which I strongly reject, is that to vote for a resolution like this is somehow to be letting down the troops," he said. "Combat is the most apolitical environment I've ever been in. As I said the other night, people don't join the military for political reasons; they join the military because they love their country."
A "strong program of alternate, renewable energy" would be one way for the country to untangle itself from conflicts in the Middle East, said Webb, in response to a question about oil dependency. He noted that a bill on the matter had been given high priority for discussion in the Senate, and he expressed hope that such a program would have a twofold impact on the economy — both by reducing the nation's dependence on increasingly expensive foreign oil and by spurring a wave of entrepreneurship.
A question about how troops ought to be deployed in Iraq after a withdrawal set off a lengthy response about the wisdom of entering the country in the first place, as well as troops' role there. Webb said the U.S. should not be an occupying force in Iraq but rather should be maintaining its mobility and focusing on fighting organized terrorist organizations.
"We have to be able to, for instance, take out terrorist base camps in those countries where the countries involved don't have the ability or the willingness to do it," he said, noting that the U.S. has the right to do so under the Charter of the United Nations. He added that he had forwarded the same idea in an article he wrote the day after the 9-11 attacks.
"I don't think we should ever have gone into Iraq at all," he said. "We could have contained that situation, addressed the issues of international terrorism and brought the rest of the world in." He concluded that the only troops in Iraq should be carrying out anti-terrorist operations like those being conducted in Afghanistan.
MORAN TOOK A MOMENT to boast the early accomplishments of a newly Democratic House of Representatives. The House, he noted, had voted to increase the minimum wage, cut interest rates on student loans, make college expenses tax deductible, allow the government to negotiate the price of prescriptions for seniors, promote stem cell research, implement 9/11 Commission recommendations, reform congressional ethics, and use $14 billion in royalties that he said the federal government had not been collecting from oil companies to fund alternate energy programs.
"I have to say, in previous Congresses, the Congress wouldn't have even met by now," Moran said. "And here, in the first 44 hours, we've accomplished more than we have in the last 12 years."
He noted that he had been assigned to close down the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, where, he said, the vast majority of detainees have not been charged with any crime. "To the extent that we undermine the principles we stand for, we give tools to the opposition," said Moran.
On a more local note, he said he would try to extend the 2011 deadline for Fort Belvoir's expansion. "We have no business bringing 20,000 people to Fort Belvoir until we have the infrastructure to support them," he said.
"Hopefully, this year, which is an election year for all of the General Assembly, we will move in the direction that they did at the national level and try to have the Democrats take over the General Assembly once again," Puller said, to a loud applause.
Puller briefly discussed a proposed self-help bill, by which Northern Virginia could levy taxes and fees on its own residents to pay for its own transportation needs, in the absence of adequate funding from the state level. She noted that Prince William and Loudoun counties had already said they would not participate in such a move. "It is absolutely wrong for us at the state level to tell local governments that they need to vote to raise taxes and fees for transportation, when it is our responsibility at the state level to do that," she said.
Puller said she supported a gas tax, as she felt it would be "the fairest tax of all," and because about a third of the tax dollars would be paid by drivers who do not live in Virginia but use the state's roads.
Larry Roberts, counselor to Gov. Tim Kaine (D), kept with the theme of transportation, noting that Kaine had again proposed a statewide transportation plan which he hoped to negotiate. "We're pleased the Republicans have finally put a plan on the table," he said. "It's not a good plan, but it's getting better."
He also said Kaine's office "can't support the BRAC changes as things stand today," and he expressed hope that the deadline for making massive expansions to Fort Belvoir would be pushed back.
CONNOLLY POINTED TO the Board of Supervisors' record of unanimous voting as an example of bipartisan cooperation and touted the board's six-point plan for Fairfax County, which focuses on gang prevention, affordable housing, the environment, education, tax diversification and transportation.
With regard to transportation funding, Connolly said he thought the state and the county ought to be working more as partners. He noted that Fairfax County sends $3 billion per year to Richmond in taxes — more than any other jurisdiction — and gets back about one-fifth of that in funding from the state. "So, we already gave at the office in Fairfax County," he said.
Connolly also took a moment to express his chagrin over Kauffman's impending retirement, saying the Lee District had been "superbly represented" by the outgoing supervisor.
Retirement, noted Kauffman, had afforded him "many opportunities to hear my funeral oration before I'm dead." He took his own jab at the Fort Belvoir deadline, saying, "No one — including my son, who still believes in the tooth fairy — believes that all of that movement can take place by September 2011."
Kauffman vowed to continue to work to have Springfield Mall renovated and to protect older neighborhoods of single-family, detached homes from having their houses carved up into condos.
He also implored the crowd to elect his chief of staff, David McKay, as the next Lee District supervisor, and he praised the man who had convened the day's meeting: "Mark Sickles is in the very highest echelon of all the scores of elected officials who I've had the privilege to work with."
SICKLES KEPT HIS own words very few. He noted that the "building and development community" had been "very opposed" to a bill he is helping to push through the General Assembly that would allow localities to request traffic projections for areas where developments are proposed. The bill would allow a local government to reject builders' rezoning proposals if it is determined that an area's transportation infrastructure could not support the additional traffic.
He said he is also promoting a bill that would send some of the state's budget surplus into a transportation fund.
Doug Koelemay, Northern Virginia's representative to the Commonwealth Transportation Board, said $20 million had just been scraped together from other projects around the region so that a project to add lanes to the Beltway between Newington and Occoquan could be advertised this summer. "Unless we get a substantial funding package out of the General Assembly this year, in the next 18 months or so, we'll have to do a lot more cannibalizing of a lot of these projects," Koelemay said.
He noted that about 75 percent of the state's transportation budget now consists of federal dollars. "Who's missing from the equation, really, is the state," he said.
Aside from Webb's attendance, Sickles said after the meeting, increasing concern about the short deadline for additions to Fort Belvoir had brought local politicians out. The area's leaders, he said, feel strongly that the expansion needs to be postponed until the infrastructure is in place to support it. On this subject, he said, "We're not hearing as much from the community as we are from each other."