My campaign for Congress in Virginia’s 5th District is off to a great start. We are bringing on a mixture of young and seasoned staff, including veterans of Congressional and Presidential campaigns in the 5th, who know every inch of the district. We are waiting to hear from the Democratic committee whether we will have a convention or a primary. Either way, our approach is closest to the Obama model, a strong field operation.
So far, I have put 12,000 miles on my car, getting to know all 23 jurisdictions of the district. My recent excursions have included the first leg of the March to Confront White Supremacy in Charlottesville, the NAACP fish-fry in Campbell County, the Ag fair in Franklin County (where I entered the Ladies Frying Pan Toss), the Pride Fest in Charlottesville, the Headwaters education gathering in Cliff Miller’s big barn in Sperryville and the Smith Mountain Democrats Picnic. This morning, I visited Four Corners Farm in Franklin, a hugely popular sustainable farm, run by two generations of farmers. Four Corners is right in the proposed path of a fracked-gas pipeline. Surveyors were entering the farm, against the farmers’ wishes, and there were lots of witnesses on hand to watch.
The two pipelines that threaten several counties in the 5th are completely unnecessary. They will ravage farms, successful businesses (which employ hundreds of people) and a historic African-American community. Over a thousand waterways will be affected, including the James River. Forests will be scarred. Mountaintops will be removed. According to the Southern Environmental Law Center, Virginia has plenty of gas capacity, with existing pipelines and scheduled upgrades, well into the 2030s. Hopefully, by then, we will have weaned ourselves from fracked gas and invested in new energy, bringing a cleaner environment and permanent jobs to the state.
I will move on from Franklin to Charlotte and Halifax and then to Centerfest in Historic Centertown Bedford on Saturday. Sunday, I will be at the 29th Annual Albemarle Democrats BBQ and in Greene for a potluck.
Listening to dozens and dozens of people talking about what issues are foremost in their minds, I am forming a clear picture of priorities. At the Ag Fair, a young tractor salesman lamented that he could not afford to buy land to start a dairy farm. This is a huge problem for young farmers who haven’t been lucky enough to inherit land. We need to find ways to help them get loans, equipment and whatever they need to pursue their dreams. Otherwise, we will lose a generation of farmers.
Healthcare is on everyone’s minds. Teachers worry about losing Medicaid money for special education programs. Advocates for the elderly worry that nursing homes will be faced with catastrophic funding shortages, given that two thirds of nursing home patients are on Medicaid. “We’re going to have elderly patients in the street,” one attorney in Charlottesville told me. An Affordable Care Act repeal will mean that people ages 50-64 can be charged five times more than 21 year olds for their healthcare, a huge rise in costs for their insurance plans. I have also discovered that some 5th district prisons have shocking healthcare conditions. The women’s prison in Fluvanna has cancer patients with tumors growing out of their bodies due to lack of care. This must be stopped.
Affordable housing is a pressing issue for Charlottesville and surrounding Albemarle County. I spent the day yesterday touring low income housing with Jen Jacobs and Jane Andrews from AHIP, a group dedicated to repairing housing that is dilapidated and dangerous. Homeowner in some of the houses we visited, marked Xs on their floors so their children would not fall through. There is a housing crisis as wait lists for public housing and housing choice vouchers are now closed. One in four people who qualify for housing subsidies do not get it. Budgets are squeezed more and more, HUD money is in danger of being severely cut and this must be reversed. Desperate people end up in Southwood a hundred-acre trailer park with 300 wretched trailers. Roofs are collapsing. Walls are patched with tar paper. Feral cats roam the woods. To live here still costs about $550 a month, with lot fees and rent, too much for many families, who double up in these hovels. It is an appalling environment for children. Boston College just did a study showing the emotional well being of children is directly connected to the quality of their house. A Dickensian environment causes debilitating stress. Part of my job in Congress will be to get more HUD money into the district to resolve this situation.
Education must be addressed in several ways. I sat with a group of young teachers in Charlottesville and a group of older teachers in Bedford and Franklin who all said teachers’ pay is ridiculously low. One teacher said a colleague had given up teaching to become a baby-sitter, to earn more money. Because of this, some counties have a chronic shortage of teachers. Public school budgets are being starved, which also means many gifted programs have been eliminated. The current trend in Trump’s Department of Education is to accelerate that, as schools are bled to fund vouchers. Public schools in the 5th need full funding. Another education issue that teachers talk about is institutional racism in the schools. 23% of students are African-American and over 49% of the referrals to the police and juvenile authorities are African-American. We need to reduce this school-to-prison pipeline. We also need to make community college affordable for all. Franklin County used its tobacco fund to send their students to community college with no tuition. Right now, the student debt crisis is drowning an entire generation. We need to change the law so that student loan debt can be wiped out with other debts in bankruptcy. As it is, students, their parents and their grandparents take student loan debt to the grave.
I heard a story yesterday that goes to the heart of the jobs issue in the district. My lunch companion had just come from a garage where the parking attendant had fallen asleep with her hand outstretched. She woke with a start, collected his payment, and apologized, saying she had worked three jobs the day before and had worked an all-night shift. She could never survive on the pay from one of those jobs and could barely feed her family with the takings from three. Let’s give that woman a raise. The Virginia minimum wage is $1.50 less than West Virginia.
I want to end with one note on the events in Charlottesville. I ran into the mayor the other day at the Pride Fest. He is facing intense scrutiny over the police decision not to intervene in several incidents on August 12th, such as a young black man being severely beaten. But while the investigations move forward, I want to mention a phenomenal service in the Methodist church, just behind Emancipation Park and the Lee statue. The Rev. William Barber was speaking to a packed house and his theme was the birth of a new civil rights movement…that if one thing could come out of the tragedy of Heather Heyer’s death it would be a breakthrough in race relations, a new beginning. The reaction to his words was a thunderous sound, as everyone in that church stamped their feet. That night was full of hope.