Candidates Take Stand on Social Justice Issues
Forum gives legislators chance to talk about issues confronting ‘most vulnerable citizens.’

By Victoria Ross
Monday, October 17, 2011
Connection Newspapers.

Immigration reform, affordable housing, predatory lending and poverty topped the list of issues discussed by 15 Virginia General Assembly candidates at the annual social justice forum on Saturday, Oct. 15.

The 18th annual forum, hosted by Social Action Linking Together (SALT), Virginia Organizing and other social advocacy groups, took place at the Arlington-Fairfax Elks Lodge.

“The governor has already announced there will be more draconian cuts to make up the $800 million shortfall, despite bragging about a surplus all year,” said Julie Blust with Virginia Organizing, a statewide grassroots organization.

“This is precisely why we are bringing these issues to the forefront. We know the next General Assembly session could be devastating for our constituencies …and we want to know where the candidates stand.”

Although 50 candidates from 26 House of Delegates and Senate races were invited, only one Republican candidate attended the two-hour conference.

“If there’s any set of issues in which we as a people are portrayed as more divided than we really are, it’s the social justice issues,” said Tim McGhee, a Republican who will face Del. Adam P. Ebbin (D-49) in a race for the State Senate seat being vacated by Patsy Ticer.

John Horejsi, coordinator for SALT, moderated the discussion during which candidates each had a chance to answer audience questions.

“The entire General Assembly is up for election this year. We need to make sure that voters have some criteria on social justice issues that used to be known as the common good,” Horejsi said before introducing the candidates to the audience of about 70 people.

“More than a quarter of our preschoolers grow up poor, there’s a growing hostility towards immigrants and the poor, Catholic Charities of Arlington has experienced a 450 percent increase in request for emergency assistance from families asking for help with their rent, utility bills and medication needs,” Horejsi said. “With 17 tons of food delivered, Catholic charities say they are still dangerously low on grocery supplies.”

While the candidates discussed weighty issues, pledging to be active leaders on issues such as affordable housing, prison reform and mental health services, they also provided some levity. They joked with each other about their recently redrawn districts, as well as the need to keep the Senate a Democratic firewall in the Virginia General Assembly.

Currently, Virginia’s Senate tilts blue with 22 Democrats and 18 Republicans. The House of Delegates, with 100 members, has a solid Republican majority with 53 Republicans, 44 Democrats and three Independents.

Sen. Dick Saslaw (D-35), who was first elected to the House of Delegates in 1976, quipped that he came to Richmond with Thomas Jefferson.

“After all these years, the main reason I’m still doing this is to restore cuts in education and social service.…I just don’t want to see the lunatics take over the asylum. That’s the reason I’m still in it,” Saslaw said.

Ralph Craft, a campaign aide who served as Sen. Dave Marsden (D-37) stand-in, said it was critical to keep the Senate in the hands of the Democrats. He compared the redistricted 37th Senate district to the shape of Chinese dragon, which drew laughter from the audience and touched off some banter about the shapes of the districts.

Jack Dobbyn, a Democrat who is running against Republican incumbent Dave Albo this fall, said the 42nd House of Delegates District is shaped like a “butterfly,” and was redrawn to cut out minority populations.

“On a more serious note,” Dobbyn said, “I’m running because we want to have great public schools. I was raised to believe that what you do for the least of your children you do for all of us.”

Sen. Janet Howell (D-32) said she ran for office 20 years because she had gotten angry. “I was upset with how Virginia was failing our children and their education,” she said. “We were dead last among the states in services for our disabled and vulnerable.”

Del. Bob Brink (D-48), who represents Arlington and parts of McLean, told the audience that it’s critical to ensure that “the essential services of government are maintained through extremely difficult times.”

Del. Ken Plum (D-36), who faces Republican challenger Hugh “Mac” Cannon in the Nov. 8 General Election, said some of the issues he started out working on as a legislator in 1978, such as racial integration, poverty and homelessness, are still issues legislators need to tackle.

“It pains me that some of these issues still confront us.…In rich Fairfax County, there’s hunger among students. We just can’t allow hunger to be an issue. … We can’t take any more insanity from the House.”

Del. Eileen Filler-Corn (D-41), who has introduced legislation providing more support for families of children with autism, said the point of being a legislator is “to move the ball forward. I want you to know I’m there and I’m working for you.”

When a question was raised about the need for criminal justice reform, especially for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Del. David Bulova (D-37) noted that he was the chief co-patron of a bill designed to help veterans who have committed crimes. He said the legislation was based on successful programs in New York and Pennsylvania.

“It allows local courts to establish special dockets for veterans and active military service members who suffer from PTSD or traumatic brain injury and get into trouble with the law,” Bulova said, adding that a recent RAND study indicated that nearly 20 percent of service men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

He said many more suffer from traumatic brain injury, both diagnosed and undiagnosed.

“Unfortunately, while trying to recover, some of these veterans fall into drug and alcohol abuse or commit minor crimes and end up in the criminal justice system. It is during these trying times that our veterans need our assistance the most.” He said the premise behind his bill is to provide alternatives to incarceration when possible, and to ensure that judges are trained to recognize PTSD and are aware of the rehabilitative programs.

“I grew up in a household here social justice issues were talked about and important. These are important issues confronting our community,” Bulova said.

Transportation funding, which has dominated the headlines this election cycle, was also a key talking point for many of the candidates.

“We need to protect the general fund from transportation being siphoned off it. We’re in quicksand here.…Reliance on debt is not the answer,” said Del. Vivian Watts (D-39), who served as a former Secretary for Transportation and Public Safety from 1986 to 1990.

She explained her decision to vote against Gov. Bob McDonnell’s (R) transportation bill this session, which authorizes him to sell $1.8 billion in bonds that help fund 900 projects, including the widening of Interstate 66 and high-occupancy toll lanes on Interstates 395 and 95.

“I’m always concerned about Northern Virginia getting its fair share, but it’s as important to look at where the money comes from as what we get back. Less than a third of transportation revenue comes from Northern Virginia, while almost 45 percent of General Fund revenue comes from our income and sales taxes. Funding transportation from the General Fund is not a good deal for us, even before you consider the cuts to education and other services that result. New revenue must be part of the solution. Please don’t hesitate to share your thoughts and guidance with me on this most difficult issue.

“New revenue must be part of the solution,” said Bulova, “We need to be honest the need for new revenue for transportation.”

Another hot issue was immigration reform, in particular laws that discriminate against legal and undocumented immigrants.

Sen. Chap Petersen (D-34) said the state needs to address sentencing reform for immigrants, who are subject to immediate deportation if they are convicted of a felony. “The biggest frustration is the threshold for property crimes,” Petersen said. “Shoplifting is a felony, so even if you’ve been here almost all of your life, and don’t know anyone from your home country, you can be deported.”

Edgar Aranda, chair of the Virginia Coalition of Latino Organizations (VACOLAO), said he thought the forum was an important way to get some sensitive issues on the table. “Immigrants’ rights are human rights,” he said. “We want to help the immigrant community achieve the American dream,”
He said it was critical that candidates support equal treatment, opportunity and representation for Latinos.

“I think one of the most important things to come out of this is for voters to know they have a voice, and that legislators will listen to them,” Horejsi said.