If residents are having a difficult time differentiating between the platforms of the five Democratic candidates running for the 45th district delegate seat, they are not alone. In the penultimate debate for the Democratic primary, candidates expressed frustration at echoing the policy stances made by their peers. In the debate on May 31, hosted by the Mount Vernon Democrats, candidates attempted to separate their campaigns from their peers by focusing on their priorities. In this, some differences began to emerge.
Julie Jakopic said her top priority is early childhood education, specifically ensuring that all families have access to pre-K programs. Craig Fifer likewise cited access to pre-k education was his campaign priority. As with the other candidates, Fifer said it was difficult to narrow his campaign to one issue, but said access to pre-K is one of the easiest positions to push as non-partisan legislation. Larry Altenburg noted that his priority is also on education, but that said that his focus was less on pre-k programs and more on reducing testing for K-12 students.
Candidates Mark Levine and Clarence Tong differentiated themselves by focusing on non-education related issues. For Levine, the most crucial issue in his platform is an increase in the Virginia minimum wage, and said raising the $2.13 wage for jobs with tips as a sub-focus. Tong said that expanding Medicaid in Virginia was his top priority, but acknowledged that it would seem impossible without more Democrats in the Virginia legislature. However, Tong referenced Medicaid expansion in Montana as an example of a Republican majority state managing to find some way of compromising on health care expansion.
All of the candidates agreed on the need to improve and expand Route 1. Each candidate expressed their disapproval of Gov. Terry McAuilffe’s authorization of oil drilling off along Virginia’s coast and expressed approval of offshore wind farms.
All of the candidates disagreed with the so-called “King’s Dominion Law,” which prohibits schools from starting before Labor Day, but there were variations as the conversation shifted into the length of the school year.
Jakopic stated that she believed that the determination of school year length should be made by the local school districts, but added that she was personally not in favor of starting the school year before Labor Day. Levine agreed with the local control over school year length, but added that he didn’t think there was anything sacred about waiting until Labor Day to begin the school year. Altenburg took the discussion one step further and argued that there were benefits to year-round school, particularly a reduction in “summer learning loss,” the loss of academic skills and knowledge from educational inactivity over the summer. Altenburg was also the only candidate who expressed approval of a bill that removes the state’s ability to review and adjust Dominion Virginia Power’s base electricity rates until 2022, saying that the bill ensured that Dominion Power would provide support for clean air.
The relatively small venue of the debate, the main room of an Alexandria condominium, meant the debate was attended by more campaign volunteers than voters, all of whom were able to ask questions to the candidates. Dick Kennedy, a member of the board of directors for the Virginia branch of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, asked whether the candidates would support the legalization of marijuana. Fifer, Tong, and Altenburg expressed support for decriminalization for the drug. Jakopic supported legalization on the condition that taxes from the sale be put into substance abuse treatment. Levine supported full and unconditional legalization, expressing personal disdain for smoking, but saying that marijuana should be treated in a similar fashion to alcohol. Following the debate, Kennedy said he was most supportive of Levine’s platform on the issue, but was content that all of the candidates had given thoughtful answers.
“I liked the [debate] format,” said Ken Sharma, the vice chair of voter registration for the Fairfax County Democratic Committee. “It was more of a discussion than a debate.”
“I came here knowing a couple of the candidates,” said John Mathes, a volunteer at the debate, “But I was super impressed with all five.”
The Democratic Primary will be held on June 9. By which any Republican or Independent candidates for the 45th District seat must also register.
Amina Luqman contributed to this story