Now that re-districting is finally accomplished, the members of the Assembly are out in force, getting acquainted with their new (they hope) constituents. Here is a short take on one such meeting.
SENATOR BARKER AND DELEGATE CHARNIELE HERRING: TOWN HALL IN ALEXANDRIA
On Saturday morning, 11 June 2011, State Senator George Barker of the39th District and Delegate Charniele Herring of the 46th District held a joint town hall meeting at the Charles E. Beatley Library on Duke Street. For Senator Barker, it was an opportunity to meet new constituents in his re-designed Senate district, and for Delegate Herring it was more or less old home week, since most of the 35-or-so attendees seemed to know and like her. Senator Barker introduced himself with a brief bio: he earned a degree in health care in 1975, and worked for regional health care in Virginia until elected in 2007 to the Virginia Senate.
Last session he had 20 bills passed and signed by the Governor, several of which were first suggested to him by his constituents, and he encouraged the audience to do the same in the future, since he actually listens to what the voters of his district have to say. He talked about two constitutional amendments which were passed, one to increase the size of the “rainy day fund,” since it proved to be inadequate to fulfill its function during the recession, and the other to provide more flexibility to localities in implementing certain state legislation. He also commented on the rather remarkable fact that the House and the Senate managed finally to pass the commonwealth’s budget unanimously. Then he threw the meeting open to the audience, to find out what was on people’s minds.
An engaged audience tossed one question after another to the two candidates, who shared in answering:
1) On restoring the civil rights of felons, Herring said she had introduced a bill for automatic restoration, but it was killed in subcommittee by determined Republican opposition; she will keep trying, but it may not happen until a Democratic majority is restored in the House.
2) “What are you going to do about the Cuccinelli problem?” evoked strained laughter; it was pointed out that the Attorney General, who had originally said he wanted to be Attorney General for 20 years (unlike the Governor, the Attorney General has no term limits), but was now hedging his bets, and might run for the governorship. One member of the audience suggested half-facetiously that maybe we should kick Cuccinelli upstairs, electing him governor so he’d be gone in four years. The clearly Democratic audience groaned and laughed: “Think of the damage he could do in four more years.”
3) Transportation and BRAC: Barker said the BRAC placement was about as bad a choice as possible insofar as transportation was concerned— a commuters’ nightmare. Herring suggested we had to get tough with the feds and insist on a full environmental study, rather than going along with the artificially narrow one for an on-ramp— the study does not even go to I-95.
4) Airport security: “5 states have made full body scans and pat-downs illegal; is Virginia going to do that?” Short answer: No. The issue was never raised at all.
5) Charles Howe, prominent in Alexandria for many years, asked about “string rail,” and offered to provide information to Senator Barker on the topic.
6) Communicating with constituents: both Barker and Herring said they provide a broad spectrum, regular mail, e-mail, town halls, office meetings, facebook; Barker admitted he does not use twitter but Herring said she tweets several times a day (t_herring). Really. Barker can be e-mailed at email@example.com, and Herring is on facebook, or DelCHerring@virginia.gov; one member of the audience advised everyone to sign up for Herring’s excellent newsletter at chernieleherring.com.
7) Jobs, “anything going on?”: Barker pointed out that it is Northern Virginia which pulls up the rest of the state in terms of economic recovery; remove Northern Virginia, and Virginia’s unemployment is the national average, or worse. To create more jobs we have to bring more businesses to Virginia, but so far Virginia’s leadership has not offered as good incentive packages as North Carolina and Maryland, so we keep losing out. Herring said that green jobs are not coming to Virginia because of stubborn Republican opposition to the whole idea of green. Barker added that transportation problems in Northern Virginia keep companies that are already here from expanding facilities in Virginia; they end up building in other states instead when they want to grow their business.
8) Dulles rail: what is the state really doing, since Cuccinelli appears to be trying to de-fund Dulles rail? As Barker pointed out, the Attorney General is independent, and does not respond to the governor’s leadership or priorities, so there is a mixed message, despite the obvious advantages of Dulles rail. The first phase is funded, it is the rest of the line that is under fire.
9) “Obamacare“: Barker was somewhat positive on the effect of the new federal health care law, since the Governor has authorized the state Department of Health to implement the law, as he is required to do, although of course Attorney General Cuccinelli is simultaneously engaged in a law suit seeking to declare the law unconstitutional. The question, said Barker, is how to make the health care system better in Virginia, and get ready for full implementation of the law in 2014; the first step is setting up the health insurance exchanges. Herring announced she was not as positive; when the health exchange legislation was introduced in the House, the usual abortion foes tried to insert language denying abortion coverage, but the Republican leadership refused to consider muddying the bill, and demanded a “clean” bill with no restrictive language, which was passed; however, when the legislation landed on the Governor’s desk, he inserted very restrictive language in an amendment which then passed the legislature in the veto session. Herring, who has a degree in economics, was clearly furious at this, because, she said, such restrictions violated the free market, interfering in a consumer’s right to purchase whatever kind of insurance coverage was personally preferred; the Governor’s amendment not only denied including abortion coverage in any exchange, it denied any insurance company inclusion in a Virginia exchange if it offered abortion coverage anywhere. The audience greeted this with angry groans.
10) Immigration: Herring said there were many bills offered in the House, most of them hostile to immigrants, casting ever wider nets, tasking police and the courts with severe requirements, such as asking anyone stopped by police, for example, to enquire whether one was born in America and were they a citizen of a foreign country. As she pointed out, that included her: born in Santo Domingo, she has dual citizenship; this kind of meddling is having an adverse effect on our economy, as well, making many companies nervous about setting up shop in Virginia. Fortunately, said Barker, the Senate consistently killed the most extreme legislation coming out of the House. If, he asked, immigration and immigrants are supposedly so bad for the economy, why is Northern Virginia’s economy so strong, since this is the very area that has the highest ratio of immigrants in the state?
11) “Why should we re-elect you, Senator Barker?”: Barker took this in stride, since he had already proved that he has a strong record of listening to his constituents and representing their concerns and viewpoints in Richmond. This time his point was that there is a small Democratic majority in the Senate (2 seats so far), and the Senate has been a buffer, killing the most extreme legislation sent up from the House. He suspects that sometimes the House gets reckless, knowing the Senate will save them from their own worst proposals, which various Delegates pass just so they can go back to their constituents and say they tried. The worst thing for Virginia would be for Republicans to control both branches of the legislature and all three executive offices at the same time- therefore, send him back to the Senate.
12) Any more medical schools, especially in Northern Virginia? Barker acknowledged that we do not have enough medical personnel in Virginia; 25 years ago the free-standing Eastern Virginia Medical School was established, and there is the Osteopathic School in Blacksburg plus another school in southwest Virginia; there is the possibility of another eventually, tied to Inova here in Northern Virginia.
13) Funding for Metrorail and bus: Virginia’s funding for WMATA is not equal to Virginia’s supposed share, so that Alexandria and other local jurisdictions have to make up the difference. Virginia will have to step up to meet its obligations; currently mass transit is starved for money, and maintenance is sorely neglected, which will mean greater expenditures in the future.
Go to: http://www.senatorbarker.com
Go to: http://www.charnieleherring.com