Health care policy affects us all. Medical emergencies can happen to anyone, regardless of age. We are the only major country on earth that doesn’t guarantee health care as a right, which means if you’re uninsured and you get sick, you could end up losing your house. We need to be expanding coverage to more people, not taking life-saving coverage away from those who need it most.
Ultimately we need a Medicare-for-All solution that would give each of us the freedom and security to start a business or change careers without the threat of losing our insurance. Until that happens at the federal level, Virginia needs to step up to fill the coverage gap. That means accepting available federal funds for Medicaid expansion, which would help cover more than 400,000 Virginians (4,600 people in the 26th district). State governments in West Virginia and Maryland have already expanded Medicaid coverage, but our representatives in Richmond haven’t. That means if you live in Bergton, and you're making less than 138 percent of the federal poverty level, you’re not eligible for expanded Medicaid coverage, but your friends or family members in Mathias qualify. We must change that.
Another way of covering those that don’t currently qualify for coverage under the Affordable Care Act is allocating more funding for rural health care initiatives that provide care for those without insurance (like the Free Clinic) or payment on a sliding scale for those with less comprehensive insurance. I’m a patient at the Harrisonburg Community Health Center, which can see anyone, regardless of insurance status. However, our health centers and clinics are limited by funding, space, and staff, so we need to support funding for them. Access to care for people in rural areas needs to be a priority in Virginia.
PROTECTING OUR LAND & WATER
The people of the 26th district are deeply connected to our land and water. I grew up fishing in Linville Creek and visiting Rockingham County swimming holes. Hunters, hikers, anglers, farmers, and activists alike know that a stable climate, clean water, and clean air are vital for us now, and for future generations.
More than 300,000 residents of the Shenandoah Valley obtain all or some of our drinking water from streams and rivers that flow from the George Washington National Forest. Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in the national forest would pose a serious threat to our drinking water. Special interest groups in Richmond are lobbying for laws to allow natural gas companies to keep the chemicals they use in the fracking process a “trade secret.” That’s outrageous. We have the right to know what chemicals are being pumped into our ground and potentially contaminating our water. As delegate, I will support a statewide ban on fracking.
We must also protect our district from pipelines carrying fossil fuels from other districts and states. Pipelines infringe on the rights of property owners, and, as we’ve seen in other states, a pipeline leak would be catastrophic. Virginia should be leading the charge on renewable energy infrastructure. I oppose spending $8.6 billion on pipelines that would provide very few permanent jobs for Virginians, but would have us shoulder the risk for the sake of corporate profits.
FIXING A RIGGED POLITICAL SYSTEM
“To the victors go the spoils.” That’s our current method of redistricting. In this case, the victors will enjoy those spoils for at least a decade. Redistricting happens in Virginia every ten years, following the federal census. The party in power redraws the districts to give themselves an unfair advantage.
This is called gerrymandering. It’s undemocratic and it needs to end. Because of gerrymandering, we end up with entrenched politicians who have drawn their own “safe districts.” The situation is often so dire for the incumbents’ challengers that in many of these districts, those in power run unopposed. Districts should be drawn by an independent, nonpartisan board that has nothing to gain from drawing the districts unfairly.
While gerrymandering allows politicians to choose their voters instead of us choosing them, massive corporate donations to candidates silence our concerns and push the agendas of corporations. We must work to get big money out of politics.
Corporations aren’t people, and they certainly shouldn’t be the arbiters of their own regulatory legislation. They should have a seat at the table to discuss regulations, but they should not be able to buy the table and keep citizens out of the discussions, which is what is happening now. A healthy economy for the long-term rests on a platform of mutual respect between private companies and residents, and a state that facilitates fair negotiations over rules and regulations.
A LIVING WAGE
Virginia’s minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. That's not much more than I was making when I was a high school student flipping burgers at Hardee's in Timberville in the mid-1990s. It hasn't kept pace with inflation and economic growth, and is completely inadequate by any standard. According to researchers at MIT, a living wage for a single adult in Harrisonburg or Rockingham County is calculated to be $11.31 an hour and that of a single parent with one child is $23.02 an hour. No one working 40 hours a week should be living below the poverty line. That’s why, as delegate, I will fight for a living wage for all Virginians, and I will oppose regressive laws that make it harder for employees to collectively bargain for higher wages and safer work environments.
STANDING WITH IMMIGRANTS
The Shenandoah Valley has been a home to immigrants and refugees for hundreds of years. Many of our ancestors came here fleeing economic disaster and religious persecution. Today, immigrants and refugees are still settling in the 26th district for similar reasons. In my 2007 documentary, The Latino Undergound, I explored the complex topic of immigration law as it relates to the Valley. I discovered that not only is unfair trade policy a cause of emigration from Latin American countries, but there is no way for those fleeing economic despair to obtain any legal status in the US.
We need comprehensive immigration reform at the federal level that offers a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. In the meantime, we must do everything we can at the state and local level to keep the families of our neighbors and co-workers together and protect their civil, human, and labor rights. We need to make sure we don't make a bad situation even worse.
While crime statistics show that immigrants are among the most law-abiding demographic groups, many often experience discrimination and profiling. Law enforcement staff and resources should be prioritized to protect our communities from legitimate threats to our safety. Except in cases where public safety is threatened, state law enforcement should not be assisting with immigration investigations, nor should it be legal for law enforcement to check the immigration status of any person without a warrant. Local jails should not be detaining undocumented persons longer than required by criminal law with the intent of handing them over to ICE officials.
The constitution guarantees citizens the right to due process, a speedy trial, and competent legal counsel. These rights are essential components of the American values of “liberty and justice for all.” Our broken immigration system has effectively created second class citizens. I believe any person being tried in our legal system should have access to a speedy trial, but today in Virginia, some are waiting years to be tried in immigration court. Staggeringly high numbers of immigrants are trapped in limbo, left to navigate our immigration court system without legal counsel, subject to exploitation by the prison-industrial complex.
Immigrants are vital to our community and our economy, and they need a path toward citizenship. When we deny them legal status, affordable college education, and access to legal transportation, we all suffer the consequences. Until our government in Washington finds the political courage to do the right thing, Virginia must manage the problems the federal government ignores. I support legislation that offers in-state tuition rates to undocumented immigrants who work and pay taxes in Virginia, and I believe undocumented people should be allowed to legally obtain Virginia driver’s licenses.
EDUCATION & AFFORDABLE COLLEGE
In a competitive job market, a robust education system that spans from early childhood to post-secondary school is essential to achieve financial prosperity. Yet, our state education budget has been slashed by $800 Million since 2009. Consequently, teachers have missed out on hard earned raises and young children have been placed on waiting lists instead of into Pre-K classrooms.
At the same time, college tuition rates have skyrocketed, leaving the average university graduate with more than $26,000 in student loan debt. In 1965, average tuition at a four-year public university was just $243, and many of the best colleges did not charge any tuition at all. Once hailed a flagship state for public college education, Virginia has begun to fall behind as the General Assembly has divested $900 million from public colleges since 2009.
When politicians tell us we can’t afford to compensate teachers fairly for their essential work, or to make Pre-K education universally accessible to every child in the commonwealth, or to offer free vocational training and community college education, they are really saying that they don’t have the political gumption to invest in Virginia’s future.
We know that when we invest in early childhood education, we are giving our kids a better chance to succeed in school and in life. We know that if we are going to attract and retain the best teachers, we have to offer them a competitive salary. And we know that we all benefit when our best and brightest are able to access our public colleges regardless of their socioeconomic status.
Through my work at JMU, I have helped to secure funding to support the work of educators serving the most vulnerable children in our community and as delegate, I won't stop fighting until every child in Virginia has access to the quality public education they deserve. Our future depends on their success.