Democrats Talk Housing, Unions and Education in Candidate Forum

By Megan Schiffres

March 25, 2021

Democratic candidates for governor spent Wednesday laying out plans in an online forum.

RICHMOND – Virginia needs to do a lot of work to fix its housing crisis. All five Democratic candidates in the governor’s race agree with that. However, their approach to handle it differs dramatically.

All five laid out their position on housing, workers’ rights, education and health care during a forum Wednesday night.

Former Governor of Virginia Terry McAuliffe, Sen. Jennifer McClellan, Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, Del. Lee Carter, and Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax all took part in the event, hosted by the Democratic Party of Virginia. 

The Housing Crisis In Virginia 

All the candidates agree there’s a lot of work to be done to fix the housing crisis in Virginia. But, their approaches differ drastically.

For Carter, the housing issue in Virginia is about access, not building more units. 

“Housing is one of those areas where the conversation around this issue has been focused on a small handful of proposed solutions that tend to be focusing on supply. But we don’t have a supply problem in the Commonwealth. We have more empty houses than homeless people here in Virginia. And so there’s a mismatch between the people who need homes and the homes that are available,” Carter said. “So, we’ve got to step outside of the box. And stop thinking about how we can subsidize the construction of more units, and start thinking about whether or not housing is serving a human need, or if housing is being used to allow for massive corporate investors to make money. Because that’s how we’ve been doing it.”

He’s right, there are more than enough vacant housing units in Virginia to support the Commonwealth’s houseless population. According to the US Census Bureau, there are 3,562,143 unoccupied housing units in Virginia. Most of those units are seasonally in use or for sale. However, 3.6% of those housing units, or 128,233 spaces, are classified as “other” vacant units by the Census Bureau. With a houseless population of 5,975, according to a report by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, that’s more than enough space to house every single houseless person in Virginia. 

Carter is also supportive of rent control efforts, limiting the grounds upon which a landlord can evict a tenant, and creating vacancy taxes for developers. 

Focusing on More Affordable Housing

Unlike Carter, Foy and McClellan focused on creating more affordable housing, by incentivizing developers to build housing for low income families. 

“My plan is to encourage and work with localities in order to have more inclusionary zoning, which would pretty much incentivize developers to go into high demand areas and build more affordable housing. Or build housing and actually set aside units for low or moderate income individuals.,” said Foy.

Both Foy and McClellan also support additional protections and rental assistance for tenants during the pandemic. For example, Foy committed to extending the moratorium on evictions until 2022. But while these are important steps towards ending the crisis, McClellan says housing issues in Virginia can’t be fully addressed without reforming conditions for workers. 

“The bottom line is money. The cost of construction has outpaced wages. And so if we’re really going to address affordable housing, we also need to continue our work to increase the minimum wage and lift up wages and salaries for everyone,” McClellan said. 

The Rights of Virginia Workers 

The candidates agreed on some major protections for Virginia workers.

For example, everyone supports the General Assembly’s passage of a bill to steadily raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2026. Foy said the minimum wage should be adjusted for inflation. Meanwhile, McClellan and McAuliffe said 2025 isn’t fast enough. McAuliffe specified that he wants the minimum wage increase to $15 an hour to happen by 2024. 

Candidates also agree on the need for guaranteed paid sick leave and paid family leave for all Virginia workers. These protections, candidates agree, should extend to independent contractors and workers in the gig economy. 

“As your governor, I will pass my state ‘Momnibus’ Act which will encompass several bills that will help uplift millions of women and families and communities effectively out of poverty,” said Foy. “And so that will include a paid sick days bill. That includes paid family medical leave. That includes a true $15 minimum wage that’s tied to the index, so as inflation goes up, wages go up.”


Cooperatives Not Corporations 

The most starkly contrasting candidates, Carter and McAuliffe, were unsurprisingly in opposition with each other on the issue of the influence of large corporations on Virginia’s economy. 

Carter’s focus Wednesday night was on his plan to encourage Virginian workers to form unions or cooperatives as opposed to traditional corporations. 

“By building up cooperative ownership, by building up that employee-owned sector of our economy, and focusing on the communities that have been hit the hardest, focusing on them first, we can build Black ownership of business in a board based manner that’s not just a small handful of business owners but real ownership of the workplace put directly into the hands of working people,” Carter said. 

Corporate vs. Local Investment in Virginia’s Economy 

In general, Carter expressed opposition to the influence of these traditional corporations on both working conditions and Virginia’s economy as a whole. He points to the deal Governor Ralph Northam pursued to get Amazon’s headquarters in Virginia as a prime example of the Commonwealth pandering to outside corporate interests. 

“We can continue on the model that we’ve been doing where way pay ten, hundreds of millions of dollars to companies like Amazon and Nestle and Ikea and say ‘Pretty please give us some jobs.’ Or we can take that money and put it directly in the hands of working Virginians and say this is your start-up money. This is the money that you need to either buy out the existing owner or to start your own employee-owned business. That way you have control over your own economic future. Not Jeff Bezos, not Elon Musk. But you,” said Carter. 

Meanwhile, McAuliffe used his time on the virtual debate stage to tout his role in Virginia’s bid to Amazon. He also claimed credit for bringing Nestle to the Commonwealth. 

“I wrote the bid to bring Amazon to Virginia. I recruited Nestle corporation to move out of California,” McAuliffe said. 

The former governor pointed to Virginia’s education system as the reason why these corporations chose to relocate to the Commonwealth. However, McAuliffe and all the other candidates also pointed to several ways they would reform Virginia’s education system. 

RELATED: Looking Ahead: Virginia Democrats Offer Solutions in First Debate

Supporting Teachers in the Commonwealth

All the candidates support increasing teacher salaries across the board.

McAuliffe and Fairfax both say they want to raise it to at least the national average. The average teacher salary in the US was $59,100 in 2017, according to the National Center for Education Statistics

“I’m calling for raising teacher pay above the national average for the first time in Virginia history. I’m calling for a two billion dollar a year investment to totally transform our education system, so we can lead the country and every child in Virginia gets a world class, equitable education,” said McAulifffe. 

But McAuliffe isn’t stopping there. He says he’ll create a grant program to incentivize teaching students to study and work in Virginia. 

“If you’re willing to come to Virginia to graduate at any of our colleges or universities or HBCUs and you will go teach in one of our high demand areas, we will pay for your room, board, and tuition. We will be the first state to do that. Thereby we can diversify our educator base,” McAuliffe said. 

Reforming the Education System 

While it’s a priority for all of them, the Democratic candidates for governor all have different plans to fix Virginia’s school system.

Foy, for example, wants to fund Virginia’s Standards of Quality (SOQ). SOQ largely drives state funding of schools, according to the Charlottesville Tomorrow. They also report that the SOQ only provides funding for 67% of statewide teaching positions. 

Both McAuliffe and Fairfax point to the school system’s crumbling infrastructure as a major problem in Virginia. Fairfax has a proposal, which he calls the 40-30-10 Plan, to assess every school building in the Commonwealth. 

“What it would do is rebuild and reimagine every public school in the Commonwealth of Virginia that is at least 40 years old or older, with a 30 billion dollar investment, and to do so within 10 years,” said Fairfax. 

Fairfax also proposed a program that would provide children ages 14 and above with guaranteed employment. He didn’t mention anything about providing jobs for the 59,976 currently unemployed adults in Virginia. 

“We would guarantee a summer job or enrichment opportunity to every young person in Virginia who’s at least 14 years old or older. What that allows them to do is to not only begin to make money and develop their work ethic, but to advance their academic, their athletic, their artistic interests. So they can build their own futures going forward. This will have a huge impact, particularly for those communities left behind,” Fairfax said. 

Two women have come forward with allegations of sexual assault, including rape, against Fairfax. He denies these claims. 

Amending the Constitution of Virginia 

Carter’s plan for reforming education in Virginia, like Foy’s, focused on the allocation of funding. He wants to move the Commonwealth away from the composite index. The index determines a school division’s ability to pay education costs fundamental to determining the Commonwealth’s SOQ. That’s because this funding formula in part ties a school’s allocation to the property value of its neighborhoods. 

“So if you have a locality with a low property law base, then they’re unable to fund the schools like the rich localities are. Because they’re unable to fund the schools that well, then their property values are lower. And [then] they have a lower property tax base. You get into this cycle,” said Carter. 

To break out of this cycle, Carter says the General Assembly needs to amend Virginia’s constitution. It currently says the Commonwealth “shall seek to ensure that an educational program of high quality is established and maintained.”

Carter wants to change one small, important word in that article. 

“We’re going to get rid of the word ‘seek to’. The Commonwealth will provide a high quality education for every student. That means that there will be a legal, constitutional requirement for the General Assembly to step in and help out those localities that are struggling, to increase our state share of spending,” Carter said. 

Universal Healthcare 

It wasn’t part of the discussion with all the candidates, but healthcare also came up in Wednesday night’s debate. 

Carter, for one, proposed that Virginia create a state-wide, universal health care program. 

“I would love to see the federal government implement Medicare For All, but it looks like that’s going to be a long-term fight. So, as governor I will push for a state-level universal health care program. So that Virginia will act even if the feds don’t. And ideally that’ll shame the federal government into passing Medicare For All. But at the very least, we can guarantee that the eight and a half million people who call this Commonwealth home can see a doctor when they need to and not have to worry about a bill. Not have to worry about bankruptcy. The only thing that you, the patient, would have to worry about is getting better. That’s how health care should be and that’s what I’m going to fight for as your next governor,” said Carter. 

McAuliffe and Fairfax are taking a more moderate approach to health care reform in Virginia. They both said universal access to affordable health care is a goal. However, they didn’t go so far as to join Carter in his pledge to provide free universal care.

Meg Schiffres is Dogwood’s associate editor. You can reach her at [email protected].

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