On April 8, I sent Blue Virginia interview questions to all five Democratic candidates running for the 45th House of Delegates district (Alexandria, south Arlington) seat being vacated by Del. Rob Krupicka. The candidates are Larry Altenburg, Craig Fifer, Julie Jakopic, Mark Levine and Clarence Tong. I told the candidates that I’d post their interviews in the order I received them. The first one I received back, on April 13, was from Larry Altenburg. On April 16, I received responses from Clarence Tong, and on April 21 from Julie Jakopic. Earlier this week, I received responses from Mark Levine. Last night, I received answers from the remaining candidate (Craig Fifer) – thanks! Finally, please note that the primary for this nomination will take place on June 9, so if you’re a Democrat who lives in the 45th, make sure you vote!
1. Tell us a bit about yourself, and specifically, what in your background and/or temperament makes you the best qualified of the Democratic candidates to represent the 45th House of Delegates district in Richmond.
My entire career has been devoted to public service. For over 20 years, I’ve been honored to serve the people of Virginia professionally and through non-profit and political advocacy. As a local government communications director, e-government manager, and instructional technology trainer, I’ve brought the services of government to the people it serves. I’ve worked hard to make government more transparent, responsive, and accessible, and to help those in every part of our society have a voice and a vote.
I’ve been an active volunteer in human services and my faith community, having served on the United Way regional council and many other non-profit boards ranging from the Virginia Society for Technology in Education to the Harrison Museum of African American Culture. As a Court-Appointed Special Advocate (CASA), I have been a tireless advocate for children who are victims of abuse and neglect.
I’ve faithfully served our Party and our values time and again whenever needed, in positions ranging from precinct captain and parliamentarian to Young Democrats convention chair and DNC national convention delegate. I’ve served as Chair of the Sixth Congressional District Democratic Committee and a member of the Eighth District Committee; as President of the Virginia Young Democrats and Vice President for Development of Young Democrats of America; and as Vice Chair for Technology and Communications for the Democratic Party of Virginia. Of course, the most important Party role I’ve played is as grassroots volunteer — knocking on doors, making phone calls, stuffing envelopes, and doing whatever else is needed to elect Democrats. It’s humbling and exciting to put these skills into practice again as I canvass on my own behalf.
If I were running to join a Democratic majority in the House of Delegates, I would stop there. But the next delegate from the 45th District will have to pass legislation in a hostile and highly partisan environment. I have a proven track record of standing up for progressive values while working with others from all perspectives. As the Northern Virginia chair of the bipartisan Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership and a graduate of the Political Leaders Program Class of 2003, I am part of an extensive network of Virginians from all political persuasions who share a common vision of effective and ethical government. I’ve used these connections many times to advance issues and legislation that should not face partisan barriers.
There are five great Democrats in this race, but this isn’t an abstract competition. I’m the best choice for delegate because I have a proven track record of championing our progressive values while getting results. To learn more or get involved with my campaign, please visit www.fiferfordelegate.com.
2. What three issues are you most passionate about and why? What specifically have you done to further those issues? What would be the first bill you’d introduce in the House of Delegates?
My campaign focuses on three big ideas:
Dignity and Opportunity: I will work to invest in early education, nutrition, and child protection programs to give kids a strong start to life; ensure women can make their own health care decisions; expand Medicaid and mental health services to provide a high quality of life for everyone; work to eliminate the wage gap by ensuring women receive equal pay for equal work; and fight for social and economic equality regardless of who you are, where you came from, or who you love.
As a Court-Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for children who are victims of abuse or neglect, I have worked firsthand to effect meaningful improvements in children’s lives. As a Party leader, I have championed our Democratic values of equality and opportunity while helping elect progressive candidates who will put those values into practice. As a delegate myself, I will be able to effect change statewide via the policy process and through budget investments.
Effective and Transparent Government: I have been a leader in increasing the public’s access to government services, records, and data. I will apply this expertise at the state level to improve cooperation between state and local agencies to make government work better; fight for real ethics reform and non-partisan redistricting to make government more honest; and apply proven best practices to decision-making to make government more responsive.
I’m a frequent public speaker on topics related to communications, technology, ethics, and law. I’ve produced and delivered formal ethics training for audiences of hundreds, ranging from high school students and teachers to professional firefighters and government communicators. As an appointee of Governors Warner and Kaine to the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council for eight years and the current President of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, I’m an expert on government transparency and a sought-after presenter. I have the substance to put together persuasive arguments and the communications skills to deliver them.
Safe and Sustainable Communities: I know that a high quality of life depends on communities free from threats like crime, traffic, and pollution. I will work to support Virginia’s first responders to keep us safe; invest in scalable transportation systems to keep us moving; and promote sustainable energy choices to protect our environment.
As a local government communications director, I work every day to advance initiatives in public safety, transit, and environmental protection by ensuring that the public has access to accurate, timely, and persuasive information in support of progressive initiatives like the Potomac Yard Metrorail Station and Bus Rapid Transit, and in opposition to steps backwards like power lines through neighborhoods and risky industrial facilities.
Legislative Priorities: While delegates obviously file and carry many bills at a time, my top priority will be bills related to making sure every child gets a safe and healthy start to life. One of the clearest returns on investment in this area is quality preschool, which provides kids with meaningful education and socialization in a supportive and safe environment. The increase in positive outcomes and decrease in negative outcomes for kids and for society mean that every dollar invested yields seven to eight dollars in benefits. Still, providing quality education is expensive. The Virginia Preschool Initiative (VPI) is an important state program that helps fund local preschool opportunities for at-risk children who are not served by Head Start. At the same time, it requires a local match based on each locality’s ability to pay as determined by a state formula. Alexandria, for example, must pay $7,000 per VPI slot in local match dollars and the cost to operate preschool classrooms. This burden places some or all VPI slots out of reach for many localities, and comes on top of the state’s chronic underfunding of K-12 costs and all the budget challenges localities face in the first place. I will introduce legislation and a budget amendment to repeal the local match requirement for VPI, so that kids get the preschool they need while the state fulfills its obligation to localities to properly fund public education.
3. How would you describe yourself ideologically – “progressive,” “moderate,” “liberal,” or something else? How does your record of votes, endorsements, employment, and other activities reflect your political ideology?
I’m a progressive. I’ve been a longtime Democratic activist, working in Party leadership positions and with shoe rubber to help elect progressive candidates and make our Party stronger and more effective. I also view my 20-year career in public service as evidence of my progressive values. My employment in local government and public education demonstrates my belief that government can be a tool for good when we are willing to help each other.
4. Who is your favorite and who is your least favorite current Virginia politician and why?
I will work with anyone who participates in good faith to get results for Virginia. While I have been blessed to learn from and work with many great politicians over the last two decades, and while I certainly have strong opinions about the shortcomings of some others, I also believe that politics should be about ideas and not about personalities.
5. If you had been in the House of Delegates at the time, would you have voted for a) HB 2313, the comprehensive transportation package passed in 2013; b) repeal of Virginia’s estate tax, which is costing our state around $130 million a year in order to benefit a few hundred of the wealthiest Virginians; c) the 2011 redistricting bill HB 5001, which gerrymandered the state and helped to lock in a Republican majority in the House of Delegates for the rest of the decade; or d) the 2014 and 2015 ethics reform packages, which many (myself included) have criticized as extremely weak, possibly even a step backwards in the case of the most recent “reforms.”
a) I would have voted for HB2313 in 2013, which provides crucial revenue to support our infrastructure commitments and transportation needs. That said, I would have strenuously objected to the nonsensical fee on hybrid vehicles and actively worked to remove it from the bill. I also would have worked to shift more of the new revenue towards sustainable and scalable transportation alternatives like rail and telework, rather than so much emphasis on roads.
b) I would not have voted for repeal of the estate tax, which was a contrived political debate that preyed on people’s dreams of striking it rich and their detestation of taxes. As you noted, this was tax relief for those who needed it least, at the expense of millions of others for whom the Commonwealth could fund fewer services and facilities.
c) I would not have voted for HB5001 in 2011, or for any other redistricting bill that put partisanship above democracy. Our elected officials should represent genuine communities of interest, not figments of creative cartography. I’m a member of OneVirginia2021: Virginians for Fair Redistricting, which advocates for districts to be drawn by an independent, impartial commission using objective and transparent criteria.
d) I would not have voted for any ethics bills that loosened the relatively few rules we already
have in place. There’s no reason why ethics requirements must be watered down. Practically all Virginia demands of elected officials is that they disclose their potential sources of influence, and even that seems too great a burden for some. I will continue the fight for real ethics reform, including strict and meaningful limits on gifts, full reporting, and recorded votes.
6. What is your vision for Virginia’s energy future? Do you support any of the following: offshore oil drilling, natural gas “fracking,” new natural gas pipelines (e.g., Mountain Valley Pipeline, Atlantic Coast Pipeline) uranium mining, new coal-fired power plants, mountaintop removal coal mining? If not, what will you do to fight against these things, and to fight for a healthy environment, energy efficiency, and renewable power?
I grew up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and enjoyed daily reminders of our abundant natural blessings. At the same time, I saw the importance of coal and cargo trucking to the state’s economy. We need an energy future that preserves both nature and jobs, and my vision is a transition from the dirty and dangerous energy jobs of yesterday to clean and safe jobs in renewable energy fields like wind and solar.
I do not support any of the short-sighted, unsustainable energy approaches listed in the question. They provide instant gratification without long-term reliability, and often sacrifice safety and environmental integrity in the process. Virginia is blessed with an incredible diversity of wildlife, forests, waterways, and other natural amenities. We owe it to our planet and to future generations to preserve these gifts. We can’t afford to gamble with the Potomac River, the Chesapeake Bay, the Appalachian Mountains, or the Shenandoah National Forest.
I have a long record of vocal support for investments in public transit, which help keep Virginia moving while limiting pollution and other environmental impacts. In my personal life, I make environmental protection a daily priority. I deliberatively chose to live close enough to walk to work, and when I have to travel further I drive a hybrid electric vehicle. As an avid runner and cyclist, I’ve even chosen hobbies that leverage my own personal energy and the 45th District’s tremendous natural amenities.
7. Yes or no answers. Do you support:
a) a strongly progressive tax system, including a reasonable estate tax on the wealthy;
Yes. All Virginians deserve the opportunity to work hard and pass the fruits of their labor to their heirs, and the state shouldn’t use estates as easy targets for taxation. At the same time, wealthy estates have often benefited from tax shelters throughout the decedents’ lives, and it is fair and appropriate for estates to be taxed in proportion to all other taxes on wealth.
b) “Dream Act” for Virginia;
Yes. Children should never be punished for the circumstances of their births, and those who grow up in Virginia and work hard in school should have equal opportunity to a college education. Not only is this fair to kids, but it makes economic sense for us all.
c) allowing gay couples to adopt;
Yes. It is a double tragedy that a child already in need would be denied a loving home due to meanspirited discrimination. There is no rational reason to deny anyone’s equal rights on the basis of sexual orientation.
d) closing the “gun show loophole” and taking other commonsense gun measures;
Yes. Controlling access by criminals to some guns and not others just doesn’t make sense when the United States has one of the highest rates of gun-related deaths of any country in the world.
e) raising the gas tax and/or instituting a carbon tax (revenue-neutral or otherwise)?
Yes. We made tremendous progress in 2013 by replacing the flat, unindexed gas tax with a percentage-based one. Still, a higher gas tax with personal and work-related deductions would discourage single-occupancy private vehicles in favor of shared rides and public transit. It’s also important to ensure that a large proportion of gas tax revenue goes to alternative transportation like transit and telework, and not just to build more roads.
8. Given that the 45th House of Delegates district is a solid “blue” district, and thus a “safe seat,” it is crucial that whoever is elected has a plan to help elect Democrats – preferably progressives – across Virginia. That includes fundraising, organizing volunteers, and maximizing turnout in the 45th district for statewide and Congressional elections. Do you agree with this vision for the Delegate from the 45th district, and if so, what exactly is your plan to accomplish it?
As I have done my entire career, I will continue to help to elect progressive, Democratic candidates throughout Virginia and beyond. I agree that delegates from safe districts have a special duty to help those in competitive areas. I’ve organized Democratic support ranging from solitary door-knocking to a 13-state Young Democrats “campaign invasion,” and I’ve raised tens of thousands of dollars for Democrats (not including my current campaign). I will help the Democratic caucus wherever needed, and maintain a visible profile in the 45th District in order to encourage participation in Democratic events and elections.
9. Do you agree or disagree that Richmond is broken – for instance, the tremendous influence of money, lobbyists and corporations (e.g., Dominion Virginia Power, car title/payday lenders) on legislation – and needs major ethics reform? More broadly, if elected to the House of Delegates, would your general attitude be more “go along, get along” with this system or to “shake things up?” Please be as specific as possible in your answer. For instance, would you support campaign finance reform that sharply curtails the power of corporations, lobbyists, and special interests?
I agree that Virginia needs major ethics reform. As a local government and public education professional for 20 years, I’ve worked alongside thousands of elected and non-elected public servants who follow the rules and do their best to serve with honor and integrity. The very few who break the rules undermine the public’s trust in government and harm the reputation of those who serve ethically.
Virginia’s approach to campaign finance is that candidates may accept contributions of any amounts and sources, as long as they are properly reported. This provides a false sense of transparency, since many forms of influence occur in other ways. Some members of the General Assembly have come to expect a lifestyle of gifts and trips that is perfectly legal but still unacceptable. The 2015 ethics reform package, such as it was, only serves to give the impression that Virginia isn’t serious about change.
Meanwhile, legislators are faced with the extraordinarily challenge of considering thousands of bills during a session short enough to make understanding legislation difficult but long enough to interfere with most meaningful employment. This creates what I have long called “the myth of the citizen legislature,” in which members are expected to represent mainstream occupations but few can actually afford to do so. The result is a quality of government less than the people of Virginia deserve. Delegates must raise money constantly since they are always running for re-election, which encourages relationships with those who have money to give. Without time to read and understand all the legislation they’re considering, delegates must rely on lobbyists to be subject-matter experts. And with a less-than-part-time salary, delegates must find other employment that still allows them months off at a time, and are tempted by anything that offers perks with monetary value.
My proposal is to lengthen the General Assembly to six months with breaks. I would raise the salary to an amount that’s not particularly attractive, but would give members a choice about whether to hold a second job. The longer session, combined with caps on the number of bills permitted, would permit members the time to actually read and understand the bills on which they vote, and to research questions via a variety of sources without relying as much on lobbyists. It would also provide for a more deliberate pace, and more opportunities for public attendance at committee and subcommittee meetings and engagement with members.
I have a proven track record of working to improve the integrity of our government. As an appointee of Governors Warner and Kaine to the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council for eight years and the current President of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, I’ve drafted successful legislation to improve access to government while protecting personal privacy.
After playing a key role in drafting and passing legislation to require the State Board of Elections to promulgate uniform statewide residency requirements for all Virginia voters (rather than allowing each local registrar to apply different subjective standards), I served as the representative of the Democratic Party of Virginia on the SBE task force that wrote the regulations and I played a lead role in drafting them. These regulations protect the voting rights of military servicemembers, college students, people who are homeless, people with long work assignments out of town, and many other voters who are frequently disenfranchised.
10. Please tell us how you would stand up to party leadership, and even to a Democratic
governor, if you believed that they were wrong about an issue and/or that it would hurt the 45th district.
I’ve never been a pushover. I add value to the organizations in which I’m involved, often by challenging leadership when I think there’s a better way to achieve results. In Party leadership positions, I have been unafraid to speak up when some have tried to marginalize dissent. I have earned widespread respect for being fair and objective, and working to reach solutions regardless of personalities.
As the Delegate from the 45th District, I will have a fair amount of freedom to speak and vote our progressive values without political repercussions. This will give me some rein to push back without fear of reprisals. The best way to influence outcomes is to build relationships, and I will work to have the kind of relationships with leadership on both sides of the aisle that will enable me to interact freely and candidly.