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."
The three Democratic candidates for governor have outlined economic plans that they hope will convince voters that they would do exactly that.
They compete to assure workers that government will be on their side while reassuring corporate leaders that they will foster a business climate conducive to growth.
Finding that balance has been important to Democrats' successes in recent years. Some business leaders, in particular, have migrated into the Democratic camp because they have been dissatisfied with state spending on roads and transit, especially in regions such as Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. To a lesser extent, spending on education has been a source of disappointment.
"Republicans credentials as good stewards of the public purse are suspect,'' said Clayton Roberts, executive director of Virginia Free, a Richmond-based coalition of businesses from across the state.
But the state's political landscape remains deeply divided, and there are no guarantees for Democrats in an uncertain time. They must convince such voters as Cherisse Britt, 20, an NVCC student who voted last year for President Obama but described herself as a moderate Republican who could go either way this year.
Britt, an office assistant for a dentist, is taking classes to become a dental hygienist, a field in which beginners make good money. But recently, she has noticed a disturbing trend -- unemployed hygienists calling her office in search of work.
"It's been really scaring me," she said.
The economic plan Deeds offers would boost the number of green jobs in the state by offering grants to companies that weatherize the homes of low-income families and establish biofuel plants in economically stressed areas. Companies would have to agree to create at least 200 jobs to be eligible.
Deeds also says that he would invest money in transportation and higher education immediately to create an economic climate that would entice businesses to Virginia. His proposals include investing in high-speed rail and light rail and providing student grants and loans to increase by 70,000 the number of degrees issued over the next 10 years by state colleges.
"If you make smart investments -- and do it right -- the economy will grow, the private sector will prosper," Deeds said. "You will grow enough tax revenue to do all the other things you need to do."
Moran stresses that his economic plan differs from those of his rivals because of its emphasis on growing small businesses, which he says represent more than 97 percent of the state's employers and account for about half of the private-sector jobs.
He speaks of investing in "Main Street, not just Wall Street," and his plan includes a tax credit of $2,000 per new employee for small businesses. He also says he would eliminate the corporate income tax for companies making less than $200,000 per year.
Moran's plan also includes tying the minimum wage to inflation and making Virginia's earned-income tax credit refundable, which would make workers eligible for a refund check even if the credit was greater than what they owed in state income taxes. He pledges to visit the hardest-hit regions of the state in his first 100 days in office and to create economic development plans for those areas.
"People are worried about jobs and retirement,'' Moran said. "The economy overshadows everything else."
Deeds and Moran each spent years planning to run for governor. McAuliffe said he entered the race late last year in part because of the economic crisis gripping the nation. He is promoting a simple message -- that he has the business background needed to bring jobs to Virginia.
"That's why it's important I get elected,'' he said. "I am the only one who can get this economy moving. . . . This is something I have done in my past."
McAuliffe unveiled a five-chapter plan that lists the ways he would promote renewable energy and energy efficiency in Virginia. Proposals include creating a statewide utility to help customers pay the costs of investing in energy efficiency, establishing a $100 million revolving loan fund to retrofit older homes, supporting wind turbines off the coast and offering apprenticeship programs to offer green job training.
"We have to get in the game on alternative energy,'' McAuliffe said. "We are going backward, not forward."
Templin, the NVCC president, said he recognizes that there are many approaches to shoring up a faltering economy, but one of them plays out before him every single day. "With an unstable economy, rocketing up and plunging down," he said, "the one constant that sees people through is education."