Democratic Candidates for Virginia Governor to Debate at Community College

Leigh Dang, preparing to enroll at Northern Virginia Community College, hopes to gain skills that will help her land a more secure job.
Leigh Dang, preparing to enroll at Northern Virginia Community College, hopes to gain skills that will help her land a more secure job. (By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
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By Rosalind S. Helderman and Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, May 18, 2009

Every day, from before 7 a.m. until late in the evening, the churn of Virginia's economic anxieties washes into the classrooms of the Northern Virginia Community College.

It is a place of aspirations, where the unemployed and underemployed toil long hours to become more computer-savvy, learn a foreign language, win a technical certification -- anything to make them more appealing to employers.

But it is a place, too, where high school graduates who had expected to attend a four-year university wind up when their parents' savings evaporate in the stock market. There are students on welfare and on food stamps, students who have been evicted from their homes.

And it is there that the three men seeking the Democratic nomination for governor in Virginia will go tomorrow for their final debate before the June 9 primary, their last opportunity to meet head-to-head in a campaign whose central question has been which candidate can best handle the economic crisis.

The matchup will give state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (Bath), former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe and former state delegate Brian Moran (Alexandria) their final opportunity to contrast their approaches to the issue.

They are meeting at a time of economic unease unprecedented in recent memory, in a state that recently was booming but whose unemployment rate has now reached 6.8 percent. Although that jobless rate reflects the collapse of rural Virginia's manufacturing economy, the suburban office parks and shopping malls of Northern Virginia have not escaped.

At Northern Virginia Community College, enrollment is up 10 percent from last year, as the economically vulnerable grasp for the promise of education.

"We feel up close and personal what happens to people when their jobs are affected by an economic downturn," NVCC President Robert Templin said.

The candidates will address the concerns of men and women such as Leigh Dang of Burke, who plans to enroll next semester at the community college after losing her job of five years as a clerk at a department store in February. No longer able to afford her rent, Dang, at 50, gave up her apartment in Fairfax County and moved in with a roommate she found on Craigslist.

She was forced to downsize, giving away many of the things she had acquired since coming to this country from Vietnam 10 years ago and putting others in storage.

Now Dang hopes to learn new skills that will help her find a more secure job -- maybe even a more meaningful job. She said she wants to hear from the candidates that her government -- Dang is a naturalized U.S. citizen -- will not abandon her.

"I appreciate the government. We don't feel alone," she said. "The government should support us."

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