Northern Virginia leaders pressed their agenda of education and transportation issues today, as the region's Democrats championed new controls on weapons at schools and other politicians sought more resources to ease traffic congestion in Washington's suburbs.
Five Democratic candidates from Northern Virginia met here to criticize Republican legislators who voted to weaken a bill that would have made it easier to expel students who bring guns onto school property.
Led by Del. Linda T. "Toddy" Puller (Fairfax), who hopes to capture a state Senate seat in November, Democrats from Fairfax and neighboring Prince William County said they wanted an absolute statewide ban on guns on school property.
Current law allows rural school boards to adopt local hunting exemptions for young people, who have long been allowed to keep unloaded firearms locked in their car trunks in school parking lots.
Puller and her allies called for a "zero-tolerance" policy toward guns at school. "It makes no sense to allow guns in our schools for any reason," she said.
Republicans from Gov. James S. Gilmore III on down sought to counter the Democrats by saying any broader ban on guns at school was unnecessary, given bans already adopted in several localities. GOP leaders also cited a new state law that sets a mandatory five-year prison term for anyone using any firearm illegally.
"It's not a major news flash to say guns shouldn't be in school," said Mark A. Miner, Gilmore's press secretary.
Democrats said that by seizing on the gun issue, they may be able to sway suburban parents whose children would have little opportunity to hunt before or after school hours, as some rural youngsters do.
Democrat James E. Mitchell III, a challenger in the House district around Centreville, said he was mailing a four-page brochure devoted to his opposition to guns at schools.
"Guns and schools don't mix," says the Mitchell flier, which is costing the candidate about $1 a copy to send to 18,000 households.
"Students in my district would have to drive many miles in order to go hunting after school--and hope they don't get stuck in traffic," said Kristen J. Amundson, a Democratic candidate for the state House, tying together the education and transportation themes that have dominated the campaign in Northern Virginia.
This month, Democrats led by Northern Virginians forced Gilmore to respond to their calls for more highway money and aggressive planning on transportation projects.
The governor had laid the groundwork for a thorough rewrite of state transportation policy by appointing a special commission of business leaders, elected officials and planners.
Today, that panel received another earful on Northern Virginia's needs. Fairfax City Mayor John Mason and Kathleen K. Seefeldt (D), chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, said the region faces more than its share of transportation problems over the next 20 years.
In a new poll, published over the weekend by the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, more than 35 percent of those surveyed in Northern Virginia said traffic congestion was a "constant disruption," while 19 percent of those elsewhere in the state said traffic was a daily hassle. Two-thirds of those in the Washington suburbs said they would prefer that the state build roads instead of cutting taxes, according to the Pilot poll.
State and local governments must take "fairly dramatic steps" to help a region that occupies less than 4 percent of the state's land area but is home to 25 percent of its population and creates a third of its wealth, Mason said.
Transportation commission Chairman J. Kenneth Klinge, of Alexandria, said the views of the Northern Virginia officials would be factored into the panel's decision-making by its December 2000 reporting deadline.
"Just because you build a project, it doesn't mean you make things better," Klinge said. "Congestion in Prince William and Fairfax and congestion in Arlington and Alexandria aren't necessarily the same thing."