Earlier this afternoon, I had the chance to chat with 5th CD Democratic nominee Jane Dittmar, who recently reported her campaign’s “1st quarter fundraising totals surpassed the quarter-million mark.” For those not familiar, the 5th CD is a huge, sprawling district stretching from the North Carolina border through Southside Virginia north to Fauquier County, and including Charlottesville and Albemarle County. For two years, the district was represented by Democrat Tom Perriello, but unfortunately he was ousted in the Tea Party wipeout of 2010 (ugh). Since then, the district has been (mis)represented by the abysmal Robert Hurt (R), who a few months ago announced that he was stepping down after his term ends. Good riddance on two counts: 1) Hurt is an empty suit; 2) this gives Democrats a chance, albeit not an easy one, to take back this district.
Which brings us back to Jane Dittmar, “the immediate past Chair of the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors and former representative of the Scottsville District.” Dittmar also is “a certified mediator for both General District and Circuit Courts and have served as court coordinator for the General District, Juvenile and Domestic Relations, and Circuit courts of the City of Charlottesville and the counties of Albemarle, Fluvanna, Greene and Louisa.” She also “served as President of the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce from 1992-2000.” Dittmar went to Arlington County Public Schools after her family moved to Virginia from rural Illinois, then graduated from the University of Virginia with a degree in Economics. Since then, she has lived and raised her family in Nelson, Fluvanna, and Albemarle Counties, and the City of Charlottesville.
So anyway…the interview!
First, I asked her about her background and why she’s running for Congress right now. Dittmar emphasized her business background, including “one of my signature successes, putting together public-private partnerships.” As Chair of the Albemarle Board of Supervisors, she “opened a dam that will supply our area for 50 years with our water needs,” improved the road system and “worked on a long-range solid waste program that was very innovative.” She looked at running for Congress because “our government is much maligned,” and “we are not using…our congressional seat to help our district.” For instance, when she was on the Albemarle Board of Supervisors, she worked to deploy/expand broadband (“we have a huge digital divide in our county,” and this is even a bigger issue in the 5th CD), but Rep. Hurt – who HAD been considered “moderate” when he was in the Virginia General Assembly – “[Hurt] was more caught up in the conservative Republican movement, which has to do with ‘starving the beast,’ which is government, and blaming government for our problems…that’s not what I believe.”
Second, I asked her what the main priorities in the district, what areas really need attention. Dittmar said that infrastructure (water, transportation) is a major issue in the district, and one that “local government cannot do…by itself; it has to be a full-court press and a connection between Washington, Richmond and local governments.” Dittmar said she strongly supports expanding rail service and an “intermodal transportation system” in the 5th CD.
Third, we talked about environmental and energy issues. Dittmar said that when she meets with people around the district, a lot of them “believe that the #1 problem facing the country and the planet is global warming; it is not lost on Democrats or people engaged in politics.” She added that “the deniers…are just amazing to me.” Back when she was growing up, she noted, there was an advertising campaign that said, “four out of five dentists (80%) believe this is the right toothpaste,” and “that was considered credible.” Today, “we have 97% of our scientific community” in agreement on man-made climate change. She said she’s “very concerned about…how the tax code has been used to skew behaviors that have hurt our renewable energy progress…I would like to look at that once I’m in Congress.” With regard to fracking, she said she’s “very concerned” with its potential impact on groundwater and well water supplies, among other issues.
Dittmar said there are many “tobacco farms that are fallow now” in the district, and “it looks like that area would be ideal” for solar farms — “could be not just energy producers but job producers.” Regarding the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Mountain Valley Pipeline, they are both issues in the 5th CD, since they cross the district. Dittmar said that it makes sense for FERC to look at the impact of these pipelines from a comprehensive perspective — aquifers, climate, just “a much smarter look at what we’re trying to accomplish…” In general, Dittmar said “renewables are the future, so to the extent policy…can push us forward faster, I’m eager to be involved with not only those discussions but working towards that.” According to Dittmar, “need to be talking about” what to do about climate change, “not having a debate about whether climate change is actually happening.”
Next, we turned to politics. I asked how her campaign was going and how she planned to take back the district. Dittmar pointed out that some of the changes made to the 5th CD were done with the intent of helping protect Robert Hurt, so it’s kind of amusing that now “they will not have a Republican nominated until mid-May, who will then have to get out and do retail campaigning in just 5 1/2 months.” “We’re going to work hard to make sure it [backfires on the Republicans].” Meanwhile, her campaign is working in “traditional Democratic counties and towns and the base,” but “we are also reaching out and resonating in a decent way with moderates…independents…because they are tired of the extreme right.” “We’ve even heard from moderate Republicans in the northern part of the district who say their party has really run away from them.” So, “depending on who [Republicans] nominate, we may see some good crossover voting...we will certainly be happy with their vote if they cast it our way.” Dittmar added that the Republican presidential primary showed that there were “a whole lot of Republicans who [couldn’t bring themselves] to vote for either Trump or Cruz.” Dittmar said she didn’t have any particular preference regarding which Republican is nominated to run for the 5th CD seat, that “I like all of them” as potential opponents — they are all “very far right” and certainly beatable.
On the Democratic race for president, Dittmar said she’s staying out of it, because “about half of our staff is for one and half for the other, and we have a ton of volunteers, including some pretty passionate Bernie volunteers that are helping us…I’m just so proud of the Democratic Party for having two substantial candidates.” We talked about the importance of Democrats staying involved and engaged in non-presidential years, and Dittmar agreed strongly that this is crucial. Dittmar said she’ll be “working very hard to create volunteer base and excitement and enthusiasm” for this year, in 2017, 2018 and beyond – “it has to be a team effort and it has to be every single year.” She said “I’ve made a commitment to every single local Democratic committee” to help keep the enthusiasm and engagement going in non-presidential-election years. That certainly includes the many enthusiastic supporters of Bernie Sanders. The key is to not have a greater dropoff for Democrats than Republicans in non-presidential-election years, and we need to fix that problem.
Finally, Dittmar commented on the Trump/Cruz Republican Party, said “there is a huge amount at risk, more so than a number of presidential elections in my lifetime...the Supreme Court…the [potential for] a rollback to some of the gains we have had for our middle class under Obama, in health care and other areas that we must protect.” She concluded that if Democrats keep the White House and appoint a replacement for Antonin Scalia to the Supreme Court, “I hope we can do something about Citizens United; I think our democracy is for sale…it worries me, I can’t believe we would want to have our country go in this direction.”