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The League of Women Voters of the Williamsburg Area kicked off its series of candidate forums with the state Senate’s District 1 race on Thursday.
The forum, hosted at the Williamsburg Regional Library by its former director John Moorman, featured both candidates running for the state Senate seat, incumbent Sen. John Miller (D) and his challenger Mark Matney ( R), a lawyer from Newport News.
Tackling issues such as transportation, redistricting, healthcare and education, the two candidates led a calm forum that LWVWA President Linda Rice emphasized was “not a debate” to an audience of about 75 people in the library’s theater.
Miller and Matney’s differences were highlighted from the first question. Though they agreed transportation to be an important issue, especially on the Peninsula, they disagreed on how it should be funded.
Matney advocating for more public-private partnerships to solve transportation problems.
“We’ve just gone through a significant tax increase for transportation, and the only way we can deal with this for the future is to begin using the private-public partnerships that we’ve seen so successful in Northern Virginia,” he said.
Miller touted the transportation package he voted to support in 2013, which he said allows the state to take responsibility for its own roads and paved the way for major projects on the Peninsula like the widening of Interstate 64 that broke ground last week.
“The problem with public-private partnerships, I’ll give you two examples: the Midtown Tunnel and Route 460,” he said. “Both of those are public-private partnerships and [the commonwealth] has been taken to the cleaners on both those projects. Transportation is a core service of government and we need to be able to fund that adequately.”
The candidates also disagreed on how to handle redistricting: Miller wants an independent commission to do the job; Matney called the current process “a good system,” arguing a system without partisanship is not achievable.
As for healthcare, both men noted the use of ERs as a healthcare tool is a problem with rising costs.
Matney said he would like to raise awareness of the public health system as a patient’s first option instead of the ER. Miller advocated for expanding Medicaid to help those without coverage, a battle the Democrats fought and lost in the 2014 legislative session.
Throughout the forum, Matney made clear his priorities would be to diversify the local economy in order to create jobs. He wants to better promote our area to businesses by improving the tax system and infrastructure, and focus on education in order to make sure students are graduating with skills employers need.
“We need to make sure in an atmosphere in which we’re relying on the military to provide 42 percent of our local economy, we are moving away from that dependence,” Matney said.
Miller said education would remain his priority, touting his record for education reform in his first two terms. Last year, he successfully passed a bill that reduced the number of Standards of Learning tests from 34 to 29 – a number he’d like to see further reduced to match only the 17 tests required by the federal government.
“We spend too much time teaching to the test. We’re developing a generation of children who are great memorizers but they can’t think critically,” he said. “They can tell you the day we went to the moon, but not why we went to the moon.”
He also said he wants to ensure children are physically fit and supports a requirement that schools offer children 20 minutes of physical activity each day.
While Miller and Matney took opposing positions on most topics, the forum remained civil with few attacks on each other’s record or background.
Matney did question Miller’s ability to pass legislation, arguing the incumbent has passed “about one in five” of the bills he has introduced in his two Senate terms.
“It’s not about the number of bills that you pass, it’s about the quality of bills that you pass and the ideas that you advance,” Miller responded. “Sometimes you put in legislation just to get a discussion going. It’s not a scorecard.”
The candidates agreed on the need for better transparency in the House of Delegates. After Miller advocated for each vote cast, including at the subcommittee level, be recorded and the breakdown of votes accessible to the public, Matney agreed.
“We need to have a legislature that’s accountable, and the only way to be accountable is to have transparency in our voting,” he said. “We have a different worldview on a lot of the issues, but it doesn’t mean on every issue we’re going to have a distinction.”
Thursday’s forum kicked off a series from the LWVWA, which will host a meet-and-greet of the candidates running for the James City County Board of Supervisors at 7 p.m. Oct. 15 in the JCC Government Complex.
Del. Brenda Pogge (R-96th District) and her challenger, Brandon Waltrip (I) will participate in a forum 7 p.m. Oct. 21 at the James City County Library.
The forum for Del. Monty Mason (D-93rd District) and challenger Lara Overy (R) is scheduled for 7 p.m. Oct. 29 in the Williamsburg Regional Library.