Story by Chris Graham
Leslie Byrne was back in the office the morning after her hard-fought victory in the June 14 Democratic Party lieutenant-governor primary.
She really had no choice – to hear her tell it.
“The first priority was to start talking to folks now that we’re the candidate, to start gathering support, particularly from the supporters of the other three candidates, which we have done successfully, and to begin to build our consolidated campaign efforts with Tim Kaine and Creigh Deeds. And to begin to raise money for the fall, when people are beginning to pay attention,” Byrne told The Augusta Free Press during a recent campaign swing through Staunton.
Byrne’s standing in the fall elections – she will face Republican nominee Bill Bolling in the Nov. 8 balloting – was solidified by a Mason-Dixon poll released last month that shows the two in a virtual dead heat.
Both candidates are now focusing on the roughly 30 percent of voters who are undecided as to their choice.
Byrne said the undecideds have the same concerns as those who have already made up their minds.
“They want a good education for their kids. They want health care that’s affordable. They want a transportation system that works,” said Byrne, a former Northern Virginia state senator and congresswoman.
“I think those issues that we’ve talked about for the last year are important,” Byrne said. “I’m even more convinced now that small-business people and working people are terribly concerned about how they’re going to afford health care, how their benefits are going to last, how we’re going to broaden the availability of health care.
“People are also concerned that 30 percent of our ninth-graders are not graduating from high school,” Byrne said. “How are we going to address that? Our Republican friends have said no to everything. They’ve said no to funding. They’ve said no to improving and investing in education. Now they want to promise everything without a way to back it up.
“I think that’s how you reach that undecided middle right now, by talking about the real issues,” Byrne said. “I have a lot of confidence in voters. When you talk straight with them, they understand what you’re saying. It’s when you try to hide what you’re going to do under name-calling and negative campaigning that they start to think, ‘Wait a minute. There’s something else going on here.’ ”
Bolling has consistently attacked Byrne as being a tax-and-spend liberal who is out of touch with mainstream Virginia voters. Byrne counters that it is Bolling and his ticketmates who are the ones out of touch.
“The voters have two very clear models,” Byrne said. “They can go back to the Gilmore years. That’s Bill Bolling, Jerry Kilgore and Bob McDonnell, all three. That’s the model that they have used, where we spent money that we didn’t have, where we cooked the books on so many things that made it look better than it was, and then made a big mess when they left office. Or we have the Mark Warner model, that said, look, if you want to have quality education, you’re going to have to invest in it. It’s not going to be an easy road, no free lunch, to this priority. There’s not going to be any free lunch to transportation.
“So if these are the kinds of things that you want, Mr. and Mrs. Virginia, then you’re going to have to figure out what your priorities are and have a leadership team in place that can deliver those priorities,” Byrne said. “I think that’s the message, is that Mark Warner has been very successful. The question is whether we go back to the way it was before Mark Warner, or we go forward and start building on the success that he’s had while tackling some of the things that he has not been able to attack.”
Byrne vows to use the office of lieutenant governor to serve as a “listening post” for people who do not have ready access to the office of the governor.
“The lieutenant governor doesn’t get the state troopers and the entourage. You just walk into a store and start talking,” Byrne said. “Sometimes that’s pretty good. Sometimes folks feel intimidated when they see those trappings of higher office. Those folks who know me know that I’m not intimidating.”
Byrne plans to champion improvements to the state health-care system from her bully pulpit.
“This health-care issue is a long-term issue. It’s not going to be fixed in one session,” Byrne said. “We need to continue to try to find innovative ways that we can deal with the costs of prescription drugs and health-care insurance. It influences so much of what happens in the economy. You and I both know people who stay in jobs that they don’t like because they’re afraid of losing their health insurance. You and I both know people who have a spouse go to work not because they need to go to work but because they need the benefits.
“There are all kinds of ways that this affects us, on a personal level, on a family level and on an economic level,” Byrne said. “It’s hard for small businesses to compete for contracts because their costs for providing benefits to employees is so much higher than large corporations. And yet we know that small businesses are the ones who create the most jobs.
“Everything that I see down the line is impacted by this health-care issue. So I feel very strongly that we’ve got to continue to keep the pressure on to lower the costs of health insurance, create these buying pools for prescription drugs. Those kind of things may not happen in one session. It may take longer than that. But we’ve got to keep pushing,” Byrne said.