Breaking down the 24th Senate race

The Top Story by Chris Graham

VoteHe had to fend off perhaps the fight of his political life in June with a party-primary challenge from Rockbridge County businessman Scott Sayre.
With the change of seasons from summer to fall, 24th District Republican Sen. Emmett Hanger would seem to have if not the second-biggest fight of his life on his hands, then at least a formidable task up ahead of him heading into October and November – with not one but two challengers on the general-election ballot in the form of Democrat David Cox and Libertarian Arin Sime.
But it’s been mighty quiet in the Valley and Central Virginia on the 24th front – and a quiet election usually means a cakewalk for the incumbent.

  

The issues

Candidates in this year’s General Assembly elections – in which all 140 seats in the Virginia Senate and the Virginia House of Delegates are up for grabs – have been going back and forth on two main issues, the so-called abusive-driver fees that were enacted by legislators earlier this year and the illegal-immigration issue that has become a political hot-button at the local level in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.

Neither seems to have caught the attention of voters in the 24th – or at the least risen to the level of public awareness that the candidates for the open Senate seat have felt the need to issue policy pronouncements addressing their positions on them.

In interviews broadcast on “The Augusta Free Press Show” this month, we asked Hanger, Cox and Sime to address those two issues and another that we at The Augusta Free Press have identified as being key for legislators next year, involving the state budget.

  

Driver fees

“I do think we should repeal them. I think it’s bad law. I think it’s a sneaky way to try to increase state revenues without having to pass a tax increase,” said Sime, an Albemarle County-based small businessman.

“(Virginians) continue to hate those with a passion,” said Cox, a Rockbridge County-based minister and community activist who ran for the 24th District seat in the Virginia House of Delegates in 2005 and lost to Republican Ben Cline.

“The first item of business, as far as I’m concerned, really is rescinding this abusive-driver-fees law – but then the second item of business is to get a really good transportation bill through,” Cox said.

“We’ve learned since that bill was passed that maintenance as much as construction is a big issue. One out of 11 Virginia bridges are considered structurally unsafe by VDOT – and we have to address those. So the job, if anything, is even bigger than we thought it was. But it’s going to be difficult because our resources are less. And rescinding the traffic-fees bill will cause us to have to find another $50 million to replace that,” Cox said.

“I’d like to see a sincere public-safety driving bill passed that might in fact increase fines, but these would apply to everybody who are abusive drivers, not just Virginians,” Cox said.

“I did not think that the abuser fees were a good way to address raising revenue for transportation, and I voted against it, and spoke fairly aggressively against the concept,” said Hanger, a former Augusta County revenue commissioner and House of Delegates member who has represented the 24th District in the Senate since 1996.

“It had been floated out for two or three years as a possibility of raising money in that manner – and I felt it to be an inappropriate way. And as it turned out, it had some shortcomings that really weren’t on the radar when it was going through the legislature,” Hanger said.

“At a minimum, we’re going to need to revisit and make some changes – and there are some, and I am one of them at this point in time – who think that it’s still an inappropriate way to raise money for transportation, and we should probably just repeal that portion of the Transportation Act,” Hanger said.

  

Immigration

“What I am hearing from people is that this is not a terribly important issue for them in their own lives,” Cox said in response to a question on the importance of the immigration issue in the 24th.

“If you asked them, I’m sure that they would say yes, it’s important – but it is not one that they mention when they talk about their worries. They’re more concerned with making sure that their children can get to school and get a good education, that they can get to work on safe roads, that they can have jobs to go to, that they can somehow pay for insurance, that they can find health care for their parents. Those are the sorts of issues I think that people around here are more concerned about – at least judging from what people say to me,” Cox said.

“Here in the western part of Virginia, particularly in the Valley, we’ve benefited tremendously, I guess, from legal immigration,” Hanger said. “People continue to assimilate into our area. And quite frankly, because we have such a low level of unemployment here, and our farm economy and construction economy are struggling to keep up, we need those individuals to do the work.

“There is a steady stream of illegal immigrants that should be isolated and pulled out and sent back to wherever they came from or incarcerated – they are here, they’re disrupting things, they’re a part of the drug culture, gangs. That actually is a small segment. Most of the people that are finding their way here to the Valley are interested in assimilating into the American experience and being a part of our economy. It’s just a matter of how they can do it in a legal way,” Hanger said.

“Illegal immigration is primarily a problem at the federal level. The reason that we’re seeing so many local governments and state governments trying to address the problem is because the federal government clearly is not. And so their unwillingness to address the border issues is kind of forcing the hand of local and state governments, who are really dealing with a lot of the burden of the expenses associated with illegal immigration,” Sime said.

“Quite honestly, I think the very limited amount of things that local and state government can do to truly address the problem – a lot of them are trying to at least send the message, even if it doesn’t make a big impact,” Sime said. “I have no problem with us allowing local law enforcement to work with (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) in terms of checking citizenship and that sort of thing. I think that’s perfectly reasonable to allow.

“At the state level, one of the things that has come into the discussion in this race is offering more benefits to illegal immigrants – and specifically how to try to refine the language regarding in-state tuition so that illegal immigrants in certain situations would be able to get in-state tuition. That’s something that I disagree with very strongly. I do not believe that we should be rewarding illegal behavior with benefits that we offer to law-abiding, taxpaying, in-state students,” Sime said.

  

The state budget

Gov. Tim Kaine said last month in a speech to members of the money committees of the General Assembly that the state will have to address potential shortfalls in funding in core government areas like education – in a manner that reminded me, if no one else, of the talk that came from Kaine’s predecessor, Mark Warner, in the walkup to the introduction of Warner’s 2004 tax package.

“Obviously there is a concern because the revenues are coming in slightly below the original estimates,” said Hanger, who was one of several Republicans to break with the majority of their party to side with Warner in 2004 on the tax issue.

“But we have to keep in mind, and I think we all were aware that perhaps there would be some tightening – because housing sales, in particular, were beginning to slow, and as a result of that, sales-tax collections were beginning to slow. So we’ve seen that come about here in Virginia – and where we’re at right now is not really that bad a situation. Our budget was built on expectations of revenue increase or growth in the range of about 6 percent. What we’re experiencing is about one and a half percent less than that, or about four, four and a half percent growth. So we’re still experiencing positive growth – so I think certainly belt-tightening is in order for our first step, and then to evaluate it,” Hanger said.

“We depend on growth – and if you look back the past 20, 25 years, you’ll see on average the state budget has grown roughly 5 percent per year. And that is pretty much the bare minimum that we can expect – particularly this next year as we look at rebenchmarking the state’s effort for support of K-12 education. We’ll find that there are significant needs there that we’ll have to have some positive growth in the economy in order to support that rebenchmarking,” Hanger said.

“I think they’re laying a lot of the groundwork for a repeat of 2004 – when of course we had a large tax increase passed. And that tax increase has been one of the defining events of this campaign, really, in terms of shaping the debate in this district,” Sime said.

“This is not a problem of a declining state budget at all. In fact, in the last decade, the budget has gone from about $18 billion to we’re almost up to $37 billion now, I believe. So the budget has more than doubled,” Sime said. “In fact, the revenue projections that Gov. Kaine is talking about really base around the fact that the General Assembly in the last budget predicted about a six and a half percent rate of growth this year in tax collection. Instead, we’re experiencing somewhere around a 3 percent rate of growth in tax collection. So we’ve a shortfall in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Well, that’s still an increase in tax collections. We’re still collecting more money than we were before from the taxpayers.

“The budget is still growing – and we’re still increasing spending. So to frame the argument – I really dislike the word shortfall in that discussion, because it implies that the government is getting less money than it was before. But no, all that really is happening is that they made overly optimistic projections about how much money they’d be able to take from taxpayers, and now they’re paying for it,” Sime said.

“I think that the Assembly was a little overeager last year in boosting the budget a little too much. Twenty percent is a mighty big hike. I think we’re going to have to find ways of bringing that under control,” Cox said.

“Economic tides rise and fall – and I would actually warn people that we may be facing more. For example, if the war winds down, and things somehow miraculously get resolved in Iraq, our economy in Virginia depends an awful lot on military spending. So I think we’re vulnerable in a number of ways. I think we do have to take a very close look at how we are doing our budgeting and how we’re doing our government,” Cox said.

“I would like to see the governor propose an effort that will review really all spending and all regulations and all programs – to find out, what is it that we really no longer need? Are there programs that have succeeded that we just don’t need anymore, or they’re not cost-effective? Are there regulations that we can rescind because the issue that they dealt with is no longer applicable? That would make life easier for businesses and nonprofits and many other people. And it would also cut down on the cost of government. So that’s one area to look at. We’re obviously going to have to look at revenue as well,” Cox said.

  

The stakes

“I would say that the best thing that Cox and Sime could do is pack up their suitcases and go home,” said Kurt Michael, the chair of the Augusta County Republican Committee, who endorsed Sayre in the GOP primary in the 24th but has since publicly endorsed Hanger in the general election.

“That’s the reality. Because they’re not going to win unless they have some other platform that they’re trying to get out there that I’m not hearing. Otherwise, I don’t know why they’re cluttering up the roadways with signs,” Michael told the AFP.

Michael’s counterpart in the Augusta County Democratic Committee, Tom Long, is holding out hope for an upset six weeks hence.

“There’s some reason to think an upset could happen. We know it’s an uphill race. I’m not going to sugarcoat it or anything. It is an uphill race anytime you’re up against an incumbent. But as you and I both know, the Republicans remain split. We do have Mr. Sime running his Libertarian campaign – and he could very well draw some votes away from Sen. Hanger. And Mr. Sime seems to be pretty energetic in his campaigning,” Long told the AFP.

“What does David need to do? His first task is to get name recognition built up in this northern end of the district – and I think that’s starting to happen. There are a couple of events this weekend that will introduce him to people. And somehow we’ve got to break through the media – the print media around here really has done very little on this race so far, and somehow David needs to break through that. A quiet race could play to the advantage of Sen. Hanger,” Long said.
“There still is time – but when you’re a challenger, you’ve got to get your name out there,” Long said.

But Long also confided his concern about the state Democratic Party’s apparent lack of interest in the race in the 24th. James Madison University political-science professor Bob Roberts told the AFP that absent a change of heart from state Democrats, Hanger will emerge in November basically unscathed.

“The Democrats would have to pour a lot more money into the race – and they haven’t done so,” Roberts said. “The only possible scenario would be a very, very low turnout because of the lack of campaigning – and then the Republicans, for whatever reason, a significant number of Republicans staying home or defecting.

“That’s the only scenario – because Cox doesn’t have any money, and that means the state Democratic Party doesn’t regard it as a significant chance to take it. They’ve got eight other races that they’re spending their money on – and there are close races down in Roanoke and up in Winchester that they have their attention on,” Roberts said.

   

Forum

Join The Augusta Free Press for a 24th District Senate Forum on Oct. 22 at 7 p.m. David Cox, Emmett Hanger and Arin Sime will take part in the debate at Westwood Hills Elementary School in Waynesboro. Questions may be submitted in advance for consideration by our moderator. Those questions should be sent to augfreepress2@comcast.net.

  

On the Web

www.arinsime.com

www.coxforva.org

www.emmetthanger.com

  

Chris Graham is the executive editor of The Augusta Free Press.

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