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. Today, I received responses from Mark Levine – thank you. As soon as I receive answers from the remaining candidate (Craig Fifer), I’ll post them (note: I originally asked the candidates to get me their responses, if at all possible, within a couple weeks). In the meantime, check out the ones that I’ve already posted, including Mark Levine’s, below. 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.
I have spent much of my life transforming progressive principles into law, as both a citizen activist and Legislative Counsel to Congressman Barney Frank (D-MA).
As a gay Jewish kid growing up in Nashville, Tennessee, I learned from an early age that even if most people have a different view, it doesn’t mean they are necessarily right. My aunt had registered Black Mississippians in Freedom Summer 1964, and my great grandfather had opposed the Russian Czar. As for me, I grew up having to defend the fact that I didn’t celebrate Christmas, and by age eight, I was demanding to leave a friend’s country club that did not accept Jews or Blacks as members. In high school, my first bill in Student Congress was to register guns (where I learned to my shock that most of the other student representatives packed their own). At Yale Law School, I formed the Committee Against Bigotry to protest against prejudice. I also had brief stints during law school as an inner-city school teacher and a Nazi-hunter for the US Department of Justice.
In my twenties, I thought that coming out as gay would be my most difficult life decision, and having resolved that, I settled in to a lucrative career at a prestigious law firm. Then, in the 1990’s, two personal tragedies profoundly altered my life’s direction.
One spring day in 1995, my boyfriend had a pain in his arm, and I learned, over the course of one week that a) he was HIV+, b) he had AIDS, and c) he was not expected to live more than three months. I did everything I could to help save his life, but I could not obtain the then-new drugs (protease inhibitors) that might have done so, as they had not yet been approved by the FDA. By the time the drugs were approved that winter, it was too late. My love had died in the fall from a steadily paralyzing disease. I buried him myself.
Then just eleven months later, my sister was murdered by her husband. The killer absconded to Mexico with my niece and nephew and vowed, if my parents and I continued our cooperation with the police, that we would never see or talk to them again. Under Tennessee law at the time, spousal abuse — even murder — was not considered grounds to obtain custody or visitation with children. This was particularly painful to me as I had promised my sister I would take care of her kids — my godchildren — if anything happened to her.
So just a few years out of law school, I wrote my first law. My first bill served to protect victims of domestic violence by giving them recourse to take their children away from physically abusive parents, whether the abuse was done to the children, the other parent, or anyone else. I brought the bill to my state delegate, who had me speak in committee and on the floor of the state legislature. The bill passed unanimously and was signed into law by Tennessee’s Republican Governor. It was too late to help my sister, of course, but since then, I’ve been determined to fight to make the legal system more fair for struggling families.
A few years later, I wrote the nation’s first bill which would have given gay and lesbian couples full and equal rights under the law. In doing so, I bucked the entire gay and lesbian establishment, including the Lambda Legal Defense Fund, which felt in 1999-2001 that marriage equality was a pipe dream. Although that bill did not pass, I co-founded Marriage Equality California and began the nation’s first Valentine’s Day marriage protests helping to lay a foundation for further battles to come.
Then came the national travesty, Bush v. Gore, that helped me understand that I had a role to play, not only in preventing personal injustice but also in doing my part to combat profound lawlessness on a national scale. The Congressional Black Caucus hired me to write its formal legal challenge before Congress to the 2000 selection of George W. Bush as President by the United States Supreme Court. I gave up my career as a trial lawyer and moved 3000 miles from California to Alexandria, Virginia.
Soon after, I became Legislative Counsel for Congressman Barney Frank, where I was trained to write federal legislation, including bills protecting civil liberties and a woman’s right to choose. I worked with then-Senator Hillary Clinton to defeat President Bush’s faith-based initiative. I also learned under the masterful and unabashedly progressive tactician Barney Frank how quiet work behind the scenes can be just as impactful as fire and brimstone displays in front of a camera. One of our great successes — negotiating with the Bush Administration to ensure the survivors of gay and lesbian victims of September 11th received the same compensation as straight survivors — was achieved by adhering to the Bush Administration’s wish that their fairness in this regard be kept a secret.
After I left the Hill to become a nationally-syndicated progressive radio talk show host and national TV commentator, I continued to successfully craft and advocate for progressive legislation from both within and outside the political system. I worked with Congressman George Miller to draft a federal law to prevent child abuse in residential institutions. I worked with DC Councilman Phil Mendelson to craft DC’s marriage equality law, and I defended that law in court against those that would have had a referendum on these civil rights. As recently as February 2015, just a month before Del. Rob Krupicka’s surprise retirement, I wrote a bill in Virginia Assembly similar to the original law I crafted in Tennessee to protect victims of domestic violence. A woman I had met last year asked me to do so, State Senator Adam Ebbin introduced the legislation, and I drove down to Richmond to advocate for it.
Some battles I’ve won. Others I’ve lost. (Bush became President. Sorry, I did try to stop it.) But I’ve never run from a fight. Having profoundly felt the pain that can result from unjust laws, I cannot sit idly by as others experience their own systematic injustice. As the only candidate in this race who has written legislation and seen it through to passage into the law at both the state and federal levels, I am confident that I am the best qualified of the Democratic candidates to represent the 45th.
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?
I’m most passionate about 1) helping struggling families and the most vulnerable in our society; 2) protecting civil rights; and 3) having a government responsive to the needs of constituents rather than lobbyist money and influence. I have advocated for all of these principles on the thousands of radio and television shows I have done, from progressive talk radio to Bill O’Reilly’s show.
Helping struggling families includes reducing income disparity, raising the minimum wage, and securing universal health care through Medicaid Expansion or Medicare for All. It includes making it easier for children to get a quality education from universal pre-K to reducing college costs and ensuring that Virginia’s Standards of Learning focuses on critical thinking rather than “teaching to the test.” Protecting the most vulnerable includes not only my work to protect victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. It also includes protecting against both child abuse and elder abuse, helping the homeless and the mentally ill, promoting affordable housing, and making sure every worker has the right to organize in a union.
Civil rights to me includes equal access to justice, ending discriminatory voter ID laws, and requiring police to wear body camera, and criminal justice reform. It means equal pay for equal work, allowing women complete control over their reproductive health, and the ERA. It means giving LGBT full and equal rights under the law and freedom from religious or other discrimination. It means giving immigrants — whether documented or undocumented — an equal education, freedom from workplace discrimination, and a chance to achieve the American Dream.
As for representation of constituents rather than lobbyists, the conviction of Governor McDonnell should serve as a wake-up call for all of Virginia that money from special interests breeds corruption. The recent ethics law was an anemic step in the right direction. As I travel around the 45th talking to voters, it is clear to me that many voters feel that decisions on transportation, development, regulation of utilities, and the environment are made based on who has money and influence in Richmond rather than on the needs of the constituents. I will always put your needs first.
As noted above, just last February, I wrote a bill that was introduced in the Virginia General Assembly inspired by the domestic violence victims protection bill I drafted following my sister’s death.
But the first bill I would introduce as a Member of the House of Delegates would raise the minimum wage. No Virginian working full time should live in poverty. Depending on how many cosponsors I could persuade to sign on the bill, the increase would be to anywhere from $10 to $15 an hour. I would also seek to increase the hourly wage for tipped workers to at least 50% of whatever the minimum wage is. Tipped workers today receive only $2.13 an hour plus tips. On a slow day, the coffee a tipped worker is serving could cost more than they make in an hour! This tiny hourly wage has not been raised at all since 1991 and not raised significantly since 1981. No one can live in Northern Virginia on that kind of wage, particularly in some jobs where the $2.13 plus tips do not even reach the paltry minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.
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 am proud to call myself a “progressive” and a “liberal.” To me, a progressive (and a liberal) is someone who looks out for those who are most vulnerable, someone who answers the question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” with an emphatic yes. A progressive recognizes that we are all born helpless and that only with the fervent support of our parents, our extended family, our teachers and mentors, our city, county, Commonwealth, and country that we reach our highest potential. Considering the foundation laid by those who came before us, how can we not then give back to our community and future generations?
4. Who is your favorite and who is your least favorite current Virginia politician and why?
My favorite current Virginia politician is our current Attorney General Mark Herring. Despite being been elected by fewer than a thousand votes, Herring has never hesitated to take strong progressive stances on everything from marriage equality to granting in-state tuition and financial aid for children of undocumented immigrants allowed to legally reside here through President Obama’s Executive Order deferring action for childhood arrivals (DACA).
My least favorite Virginia politician is former Virginia Senator Phil Puckett, who resigned from the Senate in return for a Republican offer to appoint him deputy director of the Virginia Tobacco Commission while his daughter became a state judge. Puckett sacrificed his seat – and Democratic control of the Senate – for his own personal gain and that of his family. Yes, corruption by Governor McDonnell was egregious, and there are plenty of deplorable right-wing ideologues holding Virginia back, but I hold Democrats to higher standards.
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) Yes. It brought needed transportation funds to the Commonwealth.
c) No. I support a non-partisan commission to draw district lines.
d) Yes. The ethics bill, although woefully inadequate, did, as amended, limit gifts to $100 per lobbyist per year. That was better than nothing, but more reform is needed.
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?
Offshore oil drilling: No
Natural gas fracking: No
New natural gas pipelines: No
Uranium mining: No
New coal-fired power plants: No
Mountaintop removal coal mining: No
(See further discussion in question 10 below.)
If not, what will you do to fight against these things, and to fight for a healthy environment, energy efficiency, and renewable power?
I have long supported cap and trade and/or a carbon tax and/or EPA regulation of carbon emissions and/or global pacts to reduce carbon emissions. I also support clean air and water and have regularly condemned mountaintop bombing (which is euphemistically referred to as mountaintop removal coal mining). It’s also time we stop letting raw sewage from Alexandria flow into the Potomac.
To encourage the use of renewable resources, we need incentives for companies and individuals to conserve energy and make the transformation to renewable power. Often tax credits can do the job, such as those in DC and Maryland that encourage permeable pavement and rain barrels. Homeowners and renters should also be allowed to buy or rent solar panels that supply electricity to their homes and sell the excess electricity back to Dominion. If Georgia, Florida, and Arizona can do it, why can’t Virginia? I think we can create a “green/tea alliance”, joining forces of environmentalists and tea-party advocates, emphasizing for the latter the freedom to do what you want with your property.
7. Yes or no answers. Do you support: a) a strongly progressive tax system, including a reasonable estate tax on the wealthy; b) a “Dream Act” for Virginia; c) allowing gay couples to adopt; d) closing the “gun show loophole” and taking other commonsense gun measures; e) raising the gas tax and/or instituting a carbon tax (revenue-neutral or otherwise)?
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?
We have to elect more Democrats to the General Assembly. In my fourteen years living in Alexandria, I have volunteered every year to help Democrats, as both a precinct captain and voter-protection attorney. A delegate in a “safe” seat has an obligation to help other democrats get elected, and I commit to going to “purple” districts in Fairfax, Prince William, and Loudoun counties to make the case for our values in the rest of Virginia. As someone who has long advocated for progressive issues on national radio and television, I have converted many conservatives into progressives, one conversation at a time.
The only way to make real lasting change in Richmond is with at least 21 Democratic Senators and 51 Democratic Delegates.
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?
Yes, Richmond is broken. Unfortunately, that is not unusual. Congress – and most other state legislatures – are broken as well. The power of lobbyists and corporations – everyone from the Koch Brothers to ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council) – ensures that all too often, our legislators are bought and sold to the highest bidder. The scariest thing about Governor McDonnell’s convictions for corruption was not what he did but that he thought what he did was perfectly legal and ethical.
To say Richmond is broken does not mean it cannot be fixed. I would not be running for office if I didn’t think I could be an effective force to improve Virginia’s laws and ethics. But I don’t believe that “going along to get along” will get much accomplished. My entire life, I have been “shaking things up.” I support major campaign finance reform and ethics reform to sharply curtail the power of corporations, lobbyists, and special interests. To wit:
− I have long argued on the radio and television that corporations are legal fictions, not people, and as such have zero constitutional rights and no powers beyond what the licensing entity (i.e. the Commonwealth of Virginia) confers upon them. I have spoken out at protests against Citizens United and will always oppose the ridiculous notion that corporations have constitutional rights to freedom of religion or freedom to bribe legislators.
− I hereby pledge that I will never become a lobbyist for any for-profit corporation. I hate the revolving door of government and distrust officials that use their government service to profit from their connections. Yes, I know Democrats do this as well as Republicans, but I still oppose this activity. Corporations have enough advocates in Richmond. Everyone, including those who cannot afford to give special favors to politicians, should be heard. Representative democracy should be about representing constituents and being true to one’s principles, not about kowtowing to the highest bidder.
− There are special interests I respect: unions, environmental groups, civil rights organizations, and other groups of citizens who combine around a central cause to petition their elected representatives for redress of grievances or propose ideas for more effective government. But I will speak out against for-profit corporations who lobby the Government to get special treatment – and spend money on legislators to ensure that special treatment. Just because it’s legal does not make it right.
− We need full-scale ethics reform, not the piecemeal measures approved by the General Assembly. I also support full disclosure of donors until we reach my ultimate goal: public financing of campaigns.
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.
Like Delegate Rob Krupicka and Senator Adam Ebbin, I opposed the recent legislation on behalf of Dominion, which allowed it to overcharge consumers without rebating the excess profits for the next five years. Governor MacAuliffe, in my view, wrongly signed this legislation, and I have not hesitated to point that out. At the Alexandria Democratic Committee, there were some that felt that we should not debate an issue where Democrats disagreed with each other. But I feel it is only through debate and discussion that we educate ourselves and our elected representatives about appropriate positions to take.
When I discovered a decade ago that President Bush’s NSA was spying on hundreds of millions of Americans without probable cause or a warrant, I was one of the first to call him out for this unconstitutional surveillance. And when I discovered that President Obama was doing the same, I did not hesitate to condemn him either.
Locally, I have not been shy about opposing Governor MacAuliffe and Senators Warner and Kaine on their support of offshore drilling and pipelines (and exports) of fracked natural gas. I oppose offshore drilling and fracking and efforts to promote these activities that increase global warming and are dangerous to our environment and our safety. I do not want Virginia (or even West Virginia) to suffer the earthquakes that Oklahoma is now having. I’m also tougher than our state leadership on coal production, and I’ve done several radio shows exposing the mountaintop bombing that goes by the name “mountaintop removal” and ends up turning some of the earth’s oldest mountains into the equivalent of a lunar landscape while raining toxins into our rivers.
I undoubtedly agree with our elected leaders more often than I disagree with them, and I do understand legislative bargaining can sometimes lead to voting for one legislator’s priorities in return for progress on an issues of concern to constituents of the 45th. When many good ideas and bad ideas are combined into one piece of legislation, it becomes a particularly difficult choice whether to vote for or against a bill. But these are the tough decisions legislators have to make, and party loyalty is one factor in that decision.
Ultimately, the best result is to work behind the scenes to persuade my fellow Democrats — and even Republicans – to come to reasonable compromises. That’s what I plan to do in Richmond.