Yesterday afternoon, I sat down for an on-the-record interview with Virginia Democratic Lieutenant Governor candidate Aneesh Chopra at his offices near Ballston Metro in Arlington. We spent about an hour talking, and were able to cover a significant amount of ground. Of course, given that the Virginia LG presides over the Senate, which deals with basically every issue facing our state, there’s no way we could cover it all – or even close – in an hour, or even 2 or 3 hours. Still, I thought it was productive, informative, and enjoyable. Here are my questions and Aneesh’s answers, summarized for brevity.
Question #1. What are the main issues you’ll be focusing on in your campaign? Will your focus mainly be on technology issues, which you’re known for, or will you broaden out to the wider range of issues that Virginians care about, and that the LG deals with (which is pretty much every issue)?
Aneesh Chopra’s answer (condensed): Aneesh believes we’re at a crossroads in Virginia. We’ve been the best managed state, the best state for business, the best state to raise a family, etc. But, in Aneesh’s view, over the last couple years, the General Assembly and the governor have taken us down a very wrong path…their agenda is not the right agenda for Virginia. What that’s done is taken our eye off the ball on the key challenges we face as a commonwealth. Aneesh believes that over the next 4-5 years, we’re going to make a decision on whether we’re going to be successful as a commonwealth for the next 40 years.
Aneesh sees three things that are top priorities for Virginia and top themes for his campaign: 1) the foundation of the economy is the education of the workforce – we’ve got to boost the number of graduates in Virginia over the next 5 years; 2) over 10% of the economy in Virginia is tied to federal spending, but we’re entering a period in which the likelihood of growth is less – we have to compensate for this by growing our own economy – small businesses in particular – here in Virginia (right now, we’re not in the top 20 states for entrepreneurship); 3) we’ve got to stop in its tracks the divisive agenda that has taken us off the ball.
On these three issues, Aneesh believes the lieutenant governor can play a significant role across the board. The 21st vote is critical. The LG also needs to use all the parliamentary tactics of being the presiding officer of the Senate in order to avoid the type of radical agenda we’ve seen the past few years. A proactive agenda of addressing education and diversifying the economy can be addressed/advanced by the lieutenant governor in a convening role (the LG serves on the Council on Virginia’s Future).
Question #2: I asked Aneesh about whether he thinks Democrats have gotten off to a slower start this cycle than Republicans. I also asked him when he expected to have a full website up and running.
Aneesh Chopra’s answer (condensed): On the website issue, Aneesh said his focus in 2012 was exclusively on helping Tim Kaine and Barack Obama win their elections. Now, he has a full campaign team and expects to be fully up and running shortly.
On the issue of whether Democrats are off to a slower start than Republican, Aneesh said that it’s fairly common for Virginia statewide elections not to gear up until after the presidential elections. Aneesh did acknowledge that Republicans have been out there early, and he pointed out that this, combined with opting for a nominating convention, has helped push their field to the right (e.g., on the “personhood” amendment). In addition, Aneesh pointed out that all of the Republican candidates have signed off on the “radical Republican agenda.” “When CEO friends of mine who are not that political reach out to me and say, my own employees are asking me if they’re going to be legally entitled to contraception in Virginia…that’s when you’ve crossed over; these divisive issues, it is outrageous.” In Aneesh’s view, “Governor Kaine said it best: we are successful in the commonwealth because we are a talent economy.” Aneesh says he fully embraces that spirit; “you don’t compete in a global economy with three quarters of your capacity tied behind your back, if you alienate women…minorities…the LGBT community, this is not a winning formula to move the commonwealth forward…we’re competing in a global economy.”
Question #3: I asked Aneesh about the strategy of Virginia using tax dollars to bid against other states to lure companies to Virginia.
Aneesh Chopra’s answer (condensed): His focus is on growing more new (e.g., less than 5 years old) companies in Virginia and increasing their success. By being better at helping entrepreneurs, Aneesh believes “we can generate 100,000 net new jobs from small businesses and new businesses…that is a clear opportunity for Virginia and I look forward to leading in that effort.” He says he’d focus his personal time and attention in growing new businesses in Virginia. Three particularly promising sectors, in Aneesh’s view, are health care (e.g., Evolent), energy (e.g., OPower), and education.
Question #4: Why should Democrats vote for you over your opponent, Sen. Ralph Northam? Do you have any major policy differences, is there an electability argument, or what?
Aneesh Chopra’s answer (condensed): He has “a very clear message to Virginia about the choices we face and the crossroads we’re at, the opportunities I see the lieutenant governor taking.” “It’s up to my opponent to share what his vision is. We’ll both present our visions, it will be up to the primary voters to decide…We have a very strong message to share, an important one that is crucial to the future of the commonwealth, and that I believe Virginians will respond to.”
Question #5: I asked Aneesh about the importance of diversity – geographic, gender, ethnic, racial, etc. – on the Democratic ticket.
Aneesh Chopra’s answer (condensed): “Diversity is important for the country.” Aneesh noted that he was named by Governor Kaine as the first Indian-American member of the cabinet, and that he also recruited Vivek Kundra as Virginia’s Assistant Secretary of Commerce and Technology. According to Aneesh, Governor Kaine thanked him for opening up new channels for candidates to come forward that [Kaine] might not otherwise have known about. In Aneesh’s opinion, Kundra was phenomenal, went on to be the nation’s first Chief Information Officer. This is an example of why diversity matters, and why opening up opportunity for all the talent in the commonwealth is critical. Generally speaking, Aneesh noted that he’d “love more women, minorities, candidates from every corner of the commonwealth, to run for office in Virginia, but we are we are”…[with] the candidates who have stepped up.
According to Aneesh, to be able to win this election, “the formula is clear” – we need to turn out the coalition that came out for President Obama and Tim Kaine in 2012. In 2013, we need to turn out younger voters, minorities, less political people (entrepreneurs, business community). Aneesh believes he has a very strong connection to those communities. Also, there’s clearly a novelty to being the first Asian American on a statewide ticket in Virginia. People need to see a candidate who reflects their values, and Aneesh says, “I reflect the values of the 2012 coalition that reelected President Obama.” You also need to have the resources to communicate with people. It’s also about smarter campaigning, as we did in 2012. The most important factor: do Virginians see in a candidate someone who shares their values? “I strongly believe the values and priorities I’ve shared are critical to Virginia’s future.”
Also of interest, Aneesh said he fully agreed with my analysis that the supposed “rule” that Virginia always votes opposite for governor of the party in the White House is meaningless.
Question #6: I asked about the hostility towards government by Ken Cuccinelli and other Republicans, and also more broadly about his philosophy – ideology, pragmatism, or what?
Aneesh Chopra’s answer (condensed): “My view is that Democratic values must be advanced, and if we can’t expand budgets and if we can’t pass progressive legislation, we’re going to have to open up a new front to advance our values, and that front I believe is innovation. Innovation says we can build a more equitable education system that closes the achievement gap, we can build a more affordable and accessible health care system, we can transition to a renewable energy system, that’s in our capacity to do.”
Aneesh considers himself a Mark Warner/Tim Kaine Democrat, noting that “this pragmatic ideology is not something I’ve just been thinking about and talking about, this is what I’ve done in the 6 years I’ve been in public life…You experiment, you try, you learn, you try again” Aneesh says that he might adjust Bill Clinton’s statement that the era of big government is over. In Aneesh’s view, it’s not an argument about size, about big or small, it’s about a smarter government that actually works…”you’ve got a problem, you can fix it. Government in many ways is the ultimate in convening power; we together can make better choices that advance these core values” (this is summed up in the Strategy for American Innovation).
Question #7: I asked Aneesh specifically about Ken Cuccinelli and his extremist ideology, where that virulent anti-government belief system comes from.
Aneesh Chopra’s answer (condensed): “It’s always struck me as odd; if you’re hostile to government, why do you want to serve in it? It also conveys a message to everybody that works for you that you just don’t care…President Obama in his first month or two issued a memorandum on scientific integrity, putting into practice a commonsense principle that we treat science with respect, and to watch what Cuccinelli did against UVA…objectively speaking, to have an elected Attorney General go after the state’s arguably flagship institution, amongst the country’s crown jewels for research and insight and knowledge on a charge of fraud, it was disheartening to say the least, and absolutely the wrong thing for Virginia. I hope Virginians will reject such action when they make their choice for governor this year…[Cuccinelli’s attack on UVA and science] is absolutely abhorrent, that does not reflect my personal values or Virginia’s values. But it’s more than that, it’s also the nature of how he used his office: he highly politicized an office that is supposed to work protecting consumers, it’s supposed to go after basic matters of law, and that’s not what he chose to do.”
Question #8: I asked Aneesh about 20 or so important pieces of legislation before this year’s Virginia General Assembly, and asked him to tell me how he would vote, “yea” or “nay,” on each. What I found most impressive here was that Aneesh – who isn’t a member of the General Assembly – was familiar with every bill I mentioned, didn’t even need me to read a full description before he answered immediately “yea” or “nay.”
1. Bob McDonnell’s transportation legislation. NO
2. Deeds bill: “Requires a background check for any firearm purchase.” YES
3. Janet Howell bill: “Elections; absentee voting. Provides that qualified voters may vote absentee in person without providing an excuse or reason.”OVERWHELMINGLY YES
4. Mark Herring (SB 1084): “Health insurance; authorizes SCC to establish state plan management partnership exchange.” YES!
5. Mark Herring: “Classification as hospitals of certain facilities in which abortions are performed. Eliminates language classifying facilities in which five or more first trimester abortions per month are performed as hospitals for the purpose of compliance with regulations of the Board of Health…” YES!
6. Donald McEachin: “Constitutional amendment (first resolution); restoration of voting rights. Provides for the automatic restoration of voting rights to persons convicted of nonviolent felonies…” YES!
7. Chap Petersen: “Renewable energy facilities; eligibility for incentives. Establishes a requirement that electricity generated from renewable sources be generated from a facility located in the Commonwealth…” YES!
8. Donald McEachin: “Nondiscrimination in state employment. Prohibits discrimination in state employment based on race, color, religion, national origin, sex, pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions, age, marital status, disability, sexual orientation, or status as a special disabled veteran…” YES!
9. Ralph Northam: “Study; mandatory renewable energy portfolio standard program; YES…”
10. Ralph Northam: ” Ultrasound prior to abortion. Removes the requirement that a woman undergo a transabdominal ultrasound prior to an abortion.” YES!
11. Mamie Locke: “Payday lending. Repeals provisions authorizing payday lending in the Commonwealth.” YES!
12. John Miller: “Virginia Redistricting Commission created. Establishes a five-member commission to prepare redistricting plans for the House of Delegates, state Senate, and congressional districts. Appointments to the Commission shall be made one each by the four majority and minority party leaders of the House and Senate.” YES!
13. Thomas Garrett: “Nonpublic school students; participation in interscholastic programs. Prohibits public schools from joining an organization governing interscholastic programs that does not deem eligible for participation a student who (i) is receiving home instruction or is attending a private school that does not offer the interscholastic program in which the student wishes to participate” (Tebow bill) NO
14. Charles Carrico: ” Constitutional amendment (first resolution); freedom of speech. Expands the freedom of speech provisions of the Constitution of Virginia to permit prayer and the recognition of religious beliefs, heritage, and traditions on public property, including public school property.” NO
15. Charles Carrico: “Substance abuse screening and assessment of public assistance applicants and recipients. Requires local departments of social services to screen each Virginia Initiative for Employment Not Welfare (VIEW) program participant to determine whether probable cause exists to believe the participant is engaged in the use of illegal substances.” NO
16. Chap Petersen: “Constitutional amendment (first resolution); tax credits. Provides that no tax credit shall remain in effect longer than five years unless it is reenacted by the General Assembly.” YES
17. Barbara Comstock: “Right to vote by secret ballot on labor organization representation. Declares that, in any procedure providing for the designation, selection, or authorization of a labor organization to represent employees, the right of an individual employee to vote by secret ballot is a fundamental right that shall be guaranteed from infringement.” NO
18. Mark Cole: “Elections; polling place procedures; voter identification requirements. Removes several items from the list of acceptable identification documents that a voter must present when voting at the polls on election day: a copy of a current utility bill, bank statement, government check, or paycheck that shows the name and address of the voter.” NO
Aneesh added three more bills he strongly supports: HB 1872 (jump starting the crowd funding industry in Virginia); HB 1873 (codifying that patients are entitled to electronic copies of their own health care data); HB 1935 (authorizing Virginia to establish a self-employment assistance program).
Question #9: I asked Aneesh if he was basically a nonpartisan figure, got a very strong answer which I tried to quote exactly.
Aneesh Chopra’s answer (condensed): “I am a Democrat. President Lyndon Johnson allowed people of my skin color to immigrate to the United States. I will for the rest of my life be a Democrat. It is in my blood. I would not exist if President Johnson had not taken the courageous choices that he did. My core Democratic values are rock [solid] on the notion that we lift the next generation up, my kids should live a better life than me, period end of story. I strongly believe a stronger, more effective government will make that happen. This is not a lack of ideology, this is opening up a new front for Democrats who have held these beliefs for so long to see them realized.” [We then got into a discussion about Aneeh’s work, including with Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, on pushing for equality in pay for women in part by increasing access to data and information.]
Question #10: I asked Aneesh about his $1,000 contribution to Bobby Jindal in 2004.
Aneesh Chopra’s answer (condensed): Jindal “moved to the DC area as an assistant secretary for health, we shared a professional interest and we became social friends, he wasn’t a candidate at the time, we were just friends. When he chose to run for office, he asked for my help, I provided him some support…he is a friend who asked, but obviously I don’t support the agenda he’s carried through in Louisiana, and I haven’t given him any money since.”
Finally, we chatted a bit more about Ken Cuccinelli. I mentioned to Aneesh that Cuccinelli was coming out with a book, and Aneesh said so was he (on how to achieve a smarter government). I noted that Cuccinelli’s book was on how government was evil, liberals are evil, etc, and Aneesh said that will be “a wonderful contrast.” Aneesh noted that not all Republicans are extreme, such as former Kaine administration Secretary of Natural Resources Preston Bryant, a Republican who led the effort to preserver 400,000 acres of land in Virginia.
Aneesh concluded by saying he had a great deal of confidence in the 2013 Democratic ticket, and also that the 2012 Obama coalition will react very favorably to our agenda and we’ll see a very different electoral map from 2009.