The other day, following my interview with Atif Qarni, I heard from another Democratic candidate for the VA10 nomination – Mark Leighton – asking if he could respond to the same questions I asked Qarni. I agreed, as I think it’s important to hear from the candidates, even if they’re not well known or hold elective office, and even if they’re not considered to be among the frontrunners for the nomination. As long they hold Democratic values and are serious about why they’re running, I think voters should be able to hear what they have to say. So, with that, check out Mark Leighton’s thoughtful responses to my questions.
Blue Virginia: “First off, maybe can you tell Blue Virginia readers who aren’t familiar with you a bit about your background and why you decided to run for Congress at this time?
Mark Leighton: “I’m a librarian at George Mason University. I’m originally from Maine, and moved here for good in 1999 because I wanted to get involved in politics. I went to law school because I thought it would help, and volunteered on campaigns over the years, but never got the chance to be as involved as I wanted. One person who was helping me once said, “There’s a line 25 people deep for these jobs.” Sounds like this primary might be similar, incidentally. But I was frustrated because I saw some great Democratic ideas not get taken up by our elected officials, or maybe they’d talk about ideas but not follow through with them. So what can you do? I kept working at my regular job, but I still wanted to get involved, so when this opportunity came, as unfortunately as it did, I decided to declare. It happened a bit faster than I thought it would, but I’ve been around enough that I don’t feel I need to wait anymore. Either way this turns out, I want to stay involved in party affairs because I think there should always be an open door to talent and a way to keep interested people involved and help build a continuing presence in the community.”
Blue Virginia: “Overall, for people who don’t really know you that well, how would you describe yourself on an ideological spectrum – liberal, progressive, left, moderate, conservative whatever. And are there any members of Congress you view as role models?”
Mark Leighton: “I would say I am center-left. Of course, doesn’t everyone say they’re ‘center- something’? I’ve read fire-breathing conservatives describing themselves as “center-right,” so let me explain some things I believe and you can be the judge.
There’s some things I am more left on. For example, I’ve supported gay marriage since 1996, when a court in Hawaii decided the case that inspired the Defense of Marriage Act. I remember John Kerry and Barack Obama saying they supported civil unions but not gay marriage, which to me was an obvious dodge. The opposition to gay marriage essentially collapsed once politicians began speaking out against it, which proved to me it wasn’t as big an issue as people had thought. It’s too bad more Democrats weren’t on the right side of the issue when it mattered. Although it didn’t happen, I actually considered moving back to Maine in 2012 and running against Olympia Snowe partly on a platform of legalizing same-sex marriage The other two issues would have been my current health care proposal and to end the filibuster, which I still think needs to go.
I also support some form of – call it what you will – affirmative action or reparations, but narrowly tailored to people who can trace their lineage to family who were denied their rights in the past. I believe that would help prevent any resentment others might feel, while ensuring we righted some historical wrongs. And it would apply to a different set of people than most people think. Did you know in 1904, only 4% of Virginians voted in the presidential election? That was because the Byrd Organization (and its predecessors) restricted the vote not only to blacks and women, but to many poor whites as well. So I’d like to explore some form of program that would likely take the form of some targeted poverty relief, because I think it’s fair. Incidentally, I’ve wished for years they’d take down all those Confederate statues and was glad to see they finally did. The left has won a lot of these culture issues recently, and I’m glad, but I think it took too long and some people were too meek about it. These things used to be unthinkable but now they’re commonplace. I almost wish they were still that way so I could stand up for them in this race.
I also disagreed with the recent censure motion for Rep. Tlaib. Some of her associations are problematic, but considering the behavior of the people on the right, they had no business passing that motion. So those are some left of center ideas.
But I have plenty of center positions too. My health care proposal would create a consumer-oriented marketplace to enable people to shop around for their own health care, instead of getting it from their employer. While it’s up to the 10th district voters to decide, I currently would not vote for Medicare for All or a similar plan (although I believe in “regular order” so I would commit to bringing it to a floor vote). I of course support better quality at a lower cost; I just think there’s better ways to do it. Another issue is China: I spent time in the 90s teaching there, so I am very wary of that government and think we’ve been too naïve about their intentions for too long. Another issue is climate change: I certainly believe it is a crisis that needs urgent attention, but the reality is that we cannot immediately transition to a green energy system overnight. So I support an “all of the above” energy plan that helps grow the green side of energy production as quickly as possible while easing the transition away from coal, oil, and gas. Unfortunately, those things are still necessary, but we can make sure they don’t contaminate our waterways and green spaces in the meantime. For reproductive rights, I think it’s past time to try to settle it through a legislative solution, and recent election results prove Democrats can get an acceptable bill passed and we don’t have to trade away our priorities. On the issue of gun violence, I have long thought there ought to be a sort of driver’s license for gun purchases. Have people take a 4 week gun safety class similar to driver’s ed in order to get a gun license. That will weed out people with mental health or domestic violence issues. I think that could pass constitutional muster, although with this Supreme Court you never know. Lastly, while I obviously don’t want students being burdened with huge loans, I wish Joe Biden’s loan forgiveness had included a tax on the for-profit schools that drove up those mountains of debt. I would like to see a forgiveness plan paid for by a tax like that. But for a long-term solution, my platform calls for a requirement for colleges that accept federal student loans to keep their tuition in sync with inflation, or lose access to those loans. I think that’s a better way to solve our soaring college costs.
So that’s kind of a mix of things but overall I’d say it qualifies me for center-left, which I think fits the district well.
As for who my congressional role models are, one person I admire is Alexandria Ocasio- Cortez. While I don’t necessarily agree with her on every issue, she has used her office to really drive an agenda and make it a topic of conversation. She put the Green New Deal on the map (I acknowledge there were others who helped). Ro Khanna to a lesser extent is another example, since he is pushing to transition coal-country workers into tech jobs – they call it “Silicon Hollow.” There’s so many congresspeople who you never hear about, because they focus on getting their district taken care of and leave it at that, which is fine as far as it goes, but there’s a whole other level you can be participating on. This is a job that sets federal policy for the whole nation. So I’m going to try to emulate people like AOC, but with my own set of policy ideas. I truly think my health care plan, to sever the link between your job and your health care, is something that could solve a lot of our problems. By introducing consumer competition, it would lower costs and improve quality. When that happens, health care in general becomes cheaper, which helps the entitlement programs and our national debt. It also drives growth, since health care is one-seventh of our economy. It’s win-win-win. I’ll be talking about this a lot, if you haven’t guessed.”
Blue Virginia: “So if you’re elected to the US House, do you see yourself following in Representative Wexton’s footsteps in terms of issues you’ll focus on and policy positions, or would you chart a significantly different path? And if the latter, which areas specifically would you see yourself charting a different direction or maybe emphasis or focus than Representative Wexton?”
Mark Leighton: “I believe I would chart a pretty similar path, with one exception. Since we’re both relatively center-left, I don’t think there’d be too many differences.
The one exception I would say is that I would definitely be out there pushing some policy ideas to the greatest extent possible. Rep. Wexton has done a lot, and as an appropriator she is able to focus on getting some great funding for the district. But this is a “swing seat,” and that carries with it a great potential to help drive the policy conversation. One example is Blanche Lincoln from Arkansas – they basically rewrote the Dodd-Frank bill in 2010 to get her vote. I bet you’re familiar with Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema’s impact on recent legislation. Being from a swing district means you can have an outsized influence on things, although obviously it’s a balancing act with the entire caucus, but I would definitely lean on that to talk about some big issues. I will hasten to add though that this doesn’t mean I have the same views as the three I mentioned, by any means.”
Blue Virginia: “The district is about 54% Loudoun, 26% Prince William, 10% Fauquier, etc. Does it matter where the next representative lives or is that not an issue particularly?”
Mark Leighton: “Well, you have to treat all your constituents equally. I think you need to be able to talk to commuters in Sterling about the metro as well as farmers in Fauquier about droughts. Growing up where I did, I’m used to the divide between a more urban/suburban area and a more rural area. Rappahannock looks a lot like where my parents are from.
In addition, there’s the letter of the law, and the spirit of the law. The letter of the law says you don’t have to live in the district, so I guess technically it doesn’t count. But it’d be nice to follow the spirit too, which I think means that people need to be connected to this district. This is a big, interconnected region, and I accept that people can be “local” even if they are temporarily on the other side of an imaginary boundary line. Abigail Spanberger didn’t live in her district after they redrew it. So to me, it comes down to two things: do you know the local area and issues, and are you running for the right reasons, i.e., to get something done? A few years ago there was a rich dilettante who pretty publicly moved to a place basically just to run for office there. Anyone who is only running here because they think being a Representative sounds cool or they want the perks of the office is in it for the wrong reasons. We need people who know the district and have serious intentions.”
Blue Virginia: “What would you say the most important issues facing the country and even the planet right now are? The climate crisis? Threats to democracy? Economic inequality? Racial injustice? National security? Immigration? etc. Tell us what do you think are the top, the most urgent, pressing issues that we’re facing at the moment.”
Mark Leighton: “For the nation, I’d say the divisiveness and bad feelings on both sides, that make it so hard to address the big problems we have that are being neglected. How many times are we going to have a government shutdown, or threaten to default on our debt? That’s why my slogan is Let’s Get Things Done, because I want to cool things down and work together to tackle these problems. The extremists aren’t going to go along, but I know too many Republican voters to accept that there aren’t decent GOP voters who have legitimate concerns which Democrats can address. I don’t support gimmicky ideas like abolishing parole, but crime is a valid concern. I would never support putting kids in cages, but the border needs more attention. I think we can peel off these voters and pass some good policies, and that will drive future success.
For the planet, I guess it depends on short-term or long-term. In the short term, the rise of China has threatened our interests, and many 3rd world nations are going along with them in a very cynical way because we weren’t stepping up our outreach, although Joe Biden has vastly improved that. We need to keep that up.
For the long-term threat, how could it be anything other than climate change? I know Democrats don’t need to be told this. Books like Elizabeth Kolbert’s or my friend Peter Brannen’s are frightening. I’ve got specific plans on my website on how to fight it. One idea that deserves more attention is reforestation. We abate 10% of our emissions through good forestry practices, and we can help other countries do the same.”
Blue Virginia: “I just want to open it up, if there’s anything else you want to share with Blue Virginia readers about yourself or your candidacy or anything else on your mind.”
Mark Leighton: “I spoke earlier about Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. Another person I admire is Hubert Humphrey (they probably don’t get mentioned together very often). But Humphrey was known as a “happy warrior” because he didn’t take things personally and just went around dealing with whoever he had to deal with to try and get enough votes to get things passed, and he succeeded because of that. That’s also a big reason why I respect President Biden, because it seems like he is cut from the same cloth. He’s gotten some pretty substantive things done. I will be trying to do that from day one.”
Blue Virginia: “Where can people find information about you?”
Mark Leighton: “My website is leightonforcongress.com. I’ve got plenty on there about my platform. My Twitter – excuse me, ‘X’ – handle is @Leighton4VA10. My Facebook page is facebook.com/leighton4congress. Come check them out.”