Republican David M. Foster knows he is more conservative than most Arlington and McLean voters on issues such as Medicaid expansion, gun control and abortion. But he hopes that enough voters share his disdain for the Columbia Pike streetcar to propel him into Virginia’s House of Delegates in a special election Aug. 19.
It is a long shot, to say the least, in a legislative district where President Obama captured nearly 62 percent of the vote in 2012 and Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) won more than 65 percent last year.
Foster’s Democratic opponent, Richard “Rip” Sullivan, notes that whoever goes to Richmond “will be voting on issues far and wide that have nothing to do with the streetcar.” He says his commitment to protecting women’s access to abortion, expanding Medicaid to insure more poor Virginians and promoting clean energy rather than offshore drilling are far more consistent with the views of voters in the 48th legislative district.
“This is not a County Board election,” Sullivan said, referring to a special election this spring in which fiscal conservative John Vihstadt rode a wave of anti-streetcar sentiment to become the first non-Democrat elected to the Arlington County Board in 15 years. “Voters know the difference.”
No matter who the voters of the 48th send to Richmond later this month, Republicans will continue to dominate the House of Delegates. The GOP holds 68 seats to the Democrats’ 32, and lawmakers regularly thwart McAuliffe’s agenda — including his recent efforts to expand Medicaid as part of implementing the federal Affordable Care Act.
Sullivan and Foster are vying to replace longtime Del. Robert H. Brink (D), who resigned June 30 to take a job in the McAuliffe administration. Campaign officials say they expect low turnout for an August election that was organized on short notice, which could help Foster; the Democratic get-out-the-vote machine may not be as efficient when many voters are on vacation or preparing for the start of the school year.
Voters don’t register by political party in Virginia, but Republican candidates have done better in special elections in Arlington — where 69 percent of 48th district voters live — than in general elections.
“I think there is a chance” that Foster could win, said Frank Shafroth, the director of George Mason University’s Center for State and Local Government Leadership, and moderator of a debate between the candidates on Aug. 11. “For any Republican to run in that district, they either have to be crazy or offer something . . . wanted by voters.”
Foster clearly hopes that “something” is opposition to the $333 million streetcar. Fewer than 60 words into announcing his candidacy, he promised to introduce a bill in the General Assembly to force the issue onto the ballot. He ranks it first on his list of important initiatives — especially since the state announced an additional $65 million in funding for the project.
The route “spans Arlington and Fairfax, and now it involves $100 million of promised state money,” Foster said. “I think it’s very impractical and unaffordable, a very dangerous bet for the long term.”
Sullivan, who also called for a nonbinding advisory referendum on the streetcar, said Foster is trying to exploit a local controversy for votes when he should be talking about bigger, broader issues.
Those issues, he says, include positioning Virginia as a leader in clean energy and away from offshore drilling; boosting school funding; reducing class sizes and reforming standardized testing in schools. He supports gay marriage, calling it “the civil rights issue of our time” and saying it’s also important economically. He pledges to defend women’s access to abortion and support McAuliffe’s bid to expand Medicaid for as many as 400,000 Virginians.
The governor has ordered his staff to come up with a plan for unilateral expansion by Sept. 1. But the Republican leadership has warned that there’s no way for the governor to take action on the matter without the consent of the legislature.
Sullivan called the position taken by Republican lawmakers “intransigent and shortsighted and, frankly, contrary to what would make good policy from both a health-care and fiscal perspective.”
Foster, who supports the GOP leadership’s position, prefers to talk about “reforming and expanding Medicaid so we can keep some of those federal dollars in Virginia.”
“I want to help more needy people get insurance and, critically, make sure we can afford it in the long term,” Foster said, a reference to Republicans’ suspicions that the federal government, which will pick up 100 percent of the cost for the first three years, may leave the states with a big financial obligation a few years later. “We will do no one any favors if we produce a program that goes insolvent in a few years.”
Sullivan, 55, primarily has lived in McLean since 1974. A partner in the law firm of Reed Smith, he has served on civic boards, including as president of the Legal Services of Northern Virginia, and ran unsuccessfully for a General Assembly seat in 2007.
He said he supports gun ownership for sport and for personal safety reason, but wants to reinstate a repealed Virginia law that limits purchases to one gun per month, and close a loophole that allows buyers at gun shows to avoid background checks.
Both he and Foster, 60, received their law degrees from the University of Virginia.
Foster, an Arlington native, worked on Capitol Hill before law school and is a partner at the downtown law firm Fulbright & Jaworski. He was twice elected to the nonpartisan Arlington School Board, and appointed to the state Board of Education by then-Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) in 2010.
A year earlier, he lost a race for the Republican nomination for attorney general to Ken Cuccinelli II. He calls himself a “common-sense conservative” and says he would bring a spirit of bipartisanship to deeply divided Richmond if he wins the House of Delegates race — while also giving Arlingtonians a seat at the table of the ruling majority.
Democrats have attacked Foster for opposing abortion and backing gun rights and the death penalty. But Foster has tried to adopt a moderate tone, saying, “we can’t overrule the U.S. Supreme Court” on abortion “even if we wish to.” He said a failed 2012 proposal requiring transvaginal ultrasounds for women seeking abortions “went too far,” and promised to evaluate future bills involving abortion “on a case-by-case basis.”
Foster wants more flexibility for local school boards in how they can use state money, and handle the calendar. He said he would seek to improve Virginia’s business climate by supporting the state’s “right to work” laws (which prevent contracts that require employees to join a union as a condition of employment) and opposes any attempt to increase the minimum wage or paid leave beyond what federal law requires.
Shafroth, of George Mason, said those fiscal positions could strike a chord with some voters in the 48th, a district that he said can be conservative on business issues even though “the stereotype is that it’s highly liberal.”
“Voters change,” Shafroth said, pointing to an influx of young adult residents in the area in recent years. “And what they want changes.”