How Virginia Dems are talking about the economy before Election Day

Democratic candidates for Virginia’s legislature say that voters need affordable housing, greater investment in education, more worker protections, and more. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

By Isabel Soisson

November 6, 2023

Virginia voters on Tuesday will cast their ballots for every single seat in the state House and Senate–all 140 of them.

Democrats currently have a razor-thin majority in the Senate, while Republicans control the House. Tuesday’s election could see one or both chambers flip party control.

Since this election will determine party control of the state government, it’ll also determine how state money gets spent – and who it helps and hurts.

Here’s what five Democratic candidates for office have to say about Virginia’s economy and what they would do if elected or reelected:

Del. Shelly Simonds, House District 70

Newport News-area Del. Shelly Simonds is running for reelection to the Virginia House of Delegates.

In an interview, she highlighted Newport News’ high rate of union membership relative to the state and said she wants to ensure that the House protects Virginians’ right to organize.

Simonds also wants to better connect students to careers and ensure that high school students are given the opportunity to hear about the “great apprenticeship opportunities” available through the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America.

“I try to work with our unions on workforce development and support our local trade schools and our regional career and education center to make sure that we’ve got lots of opportunities,” she said. It’s really important to make sure that unions have a way to connect to our students so they know about these great opportunities.”

Joshua Cole, House District 65

Joshua Cole is running to represent Fredericksburg, Stafford, and Spotsylvania in the Virginia House of Delegates.

Cole was previously a member of the House of Delegates but suffered a narrow election defeat in the 2021 state legislative elections.

Like Simonds, Cole understands that economic issues are top of mind for Virginia voters and relates to the struggles they may be facing.

“During my time in the legislature, I was the poorest delegate in Richmond, which I take as a badge of honor,” he said. “I don’t shy away from that because I want people to understand that I am a working class citizen who identifies with the people I want to represent.”

Through his conversations with voters, Cole said that one theme that kept coming up was how expensive it’s getting to live in and around the region.

“It’s expensive to live here,” he said. “They’re building housing developments all over the place, but these are expensive homes. We have to make sure that we have a legislature that understands the importance of affordable housing.”

Cole pointed to the fact that many of the people living in Stafford, Fredericksburg, and Spotsylvania have to work in Washington D.C. in order to afford to live where they do. And because of this, Virginians are also spending more on gas, even as it has become more expensive in recent years.

Cole said that he wants to focus on increasing access to public transportation so that people can get around more easily and for less cost.

“These are all major issues,” he said. “Jobs and transportation that hit the pockets of everyday working citizens here in the area.”

Michael Feggans, House District 97

Michael Feggans is running to represent Virginia Beach in the Virginia House of Delegates.

Feggans says that one of the biggest issues he’s seeing and hearing about from constituents is their inability to purchase a home. If elected, he plans to work closely with the Virginia Housing Authority, the city of Virginia Beach, and neighboring cities to solve this issue.

In Sept. 2020, the median home sale price in Virginia Beach was $312,500. As of Sept. 2023, that figure had risen to $355,000, a nearly 14% increase, according to Redfin. As of Nov. 2023, that average cost of rent for a one bedroom apartment in Virginia Beach is $1,540, a 14% increase from just a year ago.

“When you look at the amount of rent individuals have to pay now versus how much a mortgage will cost…you’re seeing individuals pay double what a mortgage would cost,” he said. “We know that we can do more.”

Feggans thinks that in particular, there should be a focus on workplace housing so the city can “attract or retain the next generation of teachers, of first responders.”

Feggans said that a lot of times, the biggest hurdle of owning a home for people is handling the down payment.

“Obtain a home…that’s one of the best ways to actually create generational wealth,” he said. “That actually a tremendous amount in terms of someone’s personal and family economics.”

Del. Rodney Willett, House District 58

Del. Rodney Willett is running for reelection to continue representing Henrico County in the Virginia House of Delegates.

In an interview, he touted the direct cash rebates that Democrats in the Virginia General Assembly fought for this year, which are delivering most taxpayers a rebate of up to $200 for individual filers and up to $400 for joint filers.

Willett said he’d like to see similar legislation to help families that are “struggling the most.”

“A third child tax credit is probably the best thing we could do,” he said. “I’d like to see that done federally. But certainly there are states now taking matters into their own hands, passing those tax credits. That has been proven to be one of the most direct, most impactful things we can do as a government to help families in need. I certainly would like to see us focus on that. That’s a Democratic initiative.”

In contrast, Willet said Republican politicians are focused on cutting taxes “for those at the upper end of the income spectrum” instead of “the folks who need it most.”

Willett criticized the effort and instead called for more spending on public schools.

Willet, who has worked as a small business entrepreneur and technology consultant, said he’s talked to business leaders who’ve said they need a “well-educated workforce” to staff their companies.

In order to achieve this, Willett said there needs to be more investment in “providing a robust education system.”

Taking money away from education and giving tax breaks to the wealthiest individuals is the exact opposite of what we should be doing,” he said.

Sen. Aaron Rouse, Senate District 22

Sen. Aaron Rouse is running for reelection to continue representing Virginia Beach in the State Senate.

He said that the economy is one of the “very important issues” on the ballot come Tuesday and spoke about his own experience of having to work from a young age just to help support his family.

“From the early age of 10 years old, I’ve been working,” he said. “Whether it was cutting grass throughout the neighborhoods, or working at the local supermarkets, working at McDonald’s, or working for the Virginia Beach school bus garage washing buses. That took a tremendous load off of my mother.”

“I know what it’s like to get my hands dirty, to put in a hard day’s work,” he added.

But a hard day’s work isn’t affording Virginians a liveable wage in today’s economy, Rouse argued.

“If you look at where we are today, where the cost of living has continuously outpaced a liveable wage…that’s a real issue,” he said. “At the end of the week, you look at your paycheck and you go ‘Wow, all this work and I only made $300 and I’m working more than 40 hours a week, and yet I have to buy Pampers, I have to buy clothes, provide rent and food for my family.’”

If reelected, Rouse wants to “prioritize people over corporations.”

Rouse mentioned his work to expand the Summer Youth Employment Program in Virginia Beach, so that young people can learn about the benefits of hard work early, like he did.

Rouse also addressed the impact that climate change is having on the local economy and efforts to prepare Virginia Beach for its effects. For example, he called attention to the $7 million the state budget allocated for “stormwater encroachment resilience activities” and natural space preservation in the Southern Rivers Watershed and Chowan River Basin.

“Virginia Beach is among the most vulnerable communities in the nation to the impacts of climate change,” Rouse said, highlighting the importance of these funds.

Rouse also said that if elected, he wants to focus on bringing more businesses to the Virginia Beach area, and he plans to do that through “a strong partnership with the state.”

  • Isabel Soisson

    Isabel Soisson is a multimedia journalist who has worked at WPMT FOX43 TV in Harrisburg, along with serving various roles at CNBC, NBC News, Philadelphia Magazine, and Philadelphia Style Magazine.

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