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Virginia voters will head to the polls in just two weeks to elect a new governor. But polls in the final stretch of the race indicate a general dissatisfaction with both major candidates, a tone made worse by the toll a recent federal government shutdown took on the commonwealth. Kojo chats with a veteran political reporter who recently explored how these issues are shaping voter perspectives in one of Virginia’s true bellwether districts.
- Marc Fisher Senior Editor, The Washington Post
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, the struggle to get the federal government's new online health insurance marketplace back on track. We'll explore what's gone wrong already with healthcare.gov and what federal officials are doing to fix it. But first, how Washington's recent political dysfunction is spilling over into the race for Virginia.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIVoters in the Commonwealth will elect a new Governor in just two weeks, but in at least one of the Virginia's true Bellwether Districts, voters appear to be none too happy with either major party candidate. Particularly in the wake of the federal government shutdown that threatened the livelihoods of so many who live and work in Virginia. The Washington Post's Marc Fisher recently spent time reporting in a fiercely competitive corner of the Commonwealth. He joins us to explore the political dynamics he saw at work. Marc Fisher joins us by phone. He is a Senior Editor at the Washington Post. Marc, thank you for joining us.
MR. MARC FISHERHappy to be with you, Kojo.
NNAMDIMarc, most people, these days, consider Virginia to be a purple state, where both Republicans and Democrats are competitive. You recently pounded the pavement in one of the districts where one can typically get a sense of how the political winds are blowing across the Commonwealth, so before we go any farther, where is the Coles District in Prince William County, and how would you describe it?
FISHERWell, it's about 35 miles from downtown Washington, in Prince William County, which is a bedroom community, for the part. A lot of people commute, either to the Pentagon or to Tysons Corner, or all the way into the District. And it's an area that is, it's just the other side of Fairfax County. And it's an area that has lots of new suburban developments. It has large areas that are still quite rural and quite gorgeous. Rolling hills, horse farms and the like. And it also has some fairly urban areas, densely populated, older suburban areas that have lots of non-white population.
FISHERIt has some poor areas along the Route 1 corridor, and it also has some quite well-to-do estate developments out in its western side. The area that I'm writing about, called the Coles Magisterial District. It's one of eight districts within Prince William County, and it's one of those places that is absolutely delicious to any political reporter, because it has this amazing track record of having voted for the winning candidate in a dozen consecutive elections. For President, for Governor, for Senator. Whichever way the state of Virginia went, this one little district went. And so it's a great laboratory to figure out how people are thinking and feeling about this Governor's race.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, we're talking with Marc Fisher. He's a Senior Editor of The Washington Post. He joins us by phone to discuss his visit to the Coles District in Prince William County, which, in many ways, typifies how the Commonwealth of Virginia is developing. We're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Are you a Virginia voter? How do you feel about the major party candidates for Governor? We're about to find out from Marc just how people in Coles felt about it.
NNAMDIWe'd like to know how you feel. 800-433-8850. Marc, you interviewed more than 40 voters for this piece. But only one, as in a single person, expressed enthusiasm for either candidate. What did you find was the reason for the general dissatisfaction with Ken Cuccinelli and Terry McAuliffe?
FISHERWell, people are just fed up. They don't like either of these candidates personally. They don't think that either of them is a straightforward person who's willing to cut deals and compromise and make progress on key issues. And, unfortunately for both of the major party candidates in the Governor's race, a lot of the people who I talked to and a lot of the other voters in that part of Prince William County, are holding these Governor candidates responsible for the mess in Washington.
FISHERAnd people realize that that's not quite fair, that the Governor of Virginia doesn't have anything to do with what goes on in Washington, but they see this election as their way to send a message that what's going on in Washington, the shutdown, the constant brinksmanship, is just unacceptable. And is not what would happen in their lives and their daily work place, for example. And so, the fact that neither of these Governor candidates has any kind of a positive message, neither one of them has really campaigned about how they would govern.
FISHERThis has been a distinctly and extremely negative campaign from both sides, both of them trying to attack the other. And a lot of the folks out there see Terry McAuliffe, the Democrat, as a wheeler-dealer who's just a classic Washington character. And they see Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican, as a social extremist, someone who has hard line positions and is uncompromising.
NNAMDIAnd it's important to point out what you indicated earlier, as I said, what kind of typifies the way the Commonwealth is developing. To what degree are the demographics in a district like this one emblematic of the demographic changes taking place throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia right now?
FISHERWell, increasingly, Virginia is starting to look like Prince William County already exists. And what that means is it is a majority/minority community. It is a place that has a fair amount of immigrants, both Hispanic and Asian. It is a place where there's -- folks are living together in communities that are not racially and ethnically segregated. They're very mixed. And it is a place that has a lot of newcomers to Virginia from other parts of the country, particularly from the northeast, many of whom have come for either tech jobs or for military assignments.
FISHERAnd, so, as a result, you have a very diverse community that's growing younger, that has a lot more kids in school, that wants excellent educations, and that really wants solutions to transportation problems that bedevil the suburbs, but particularly bedevil Prince William County, which doesn't have a whole lot in the way of public transit. And so, this is an area that has some significant problems that government needs to address, and the folks who are living there say that that's not happening. And they see stalemate everywhere they turn.
NNAMDIAnd I found a line in your piece, particularly informative. And that is even though, as you pointed out earlier, they don't necessarily blame these two major party candidates for the Government shutdown, you said, in their lives, you actually do the job you are hired to do. These people get the, it would appear, have the impression that the politicians who are now running for Governor are not unlike the politicians who led to the federal shutdown.
FISHERRight. And it was interesting, as I went door to door, some people recognized that conclusion may be unfair, and they do understand. I traveled with, on one day, with the Republican State Delegate from that area, a guy named Rich Anderson. He goes out door knocking all the time, when he's running for re-election, and the rest of the time as well. He spends a significant amount of his time going door to door, just to get a sense of what people are thinking.
FISHERAnd he was just getting beaten up left and right by people, by both Democrats and Republicans. And he has come back to them with, well, look, you know, down in Richmond, we have to balance our budget. We can't play these games they play in Washington. We really do get things done. We really do talk across party lines. It's not Washington. And yet, and some people would respond to that and say, yeah, I understand, but you're the ones who are running this year.
FISHERYou're the ones on the ballot. And we need a message back to the politicians in Washington, and you are our only means to do that. And so, that may have felt unfair to some people, but they have this overwhelming, compelling feeling that they have to send a message to the architects of this shutdown and stalemate.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Marc Fisher, Senior Editor of The Washington Post. He's discussing the impressions he got from voters in the Coles District in Prince William County, Virginia, Especially as it has to do with the major party candidates for Governor. You can call us at 800-433-8850. Are you planning on voting in Virginia's upcoming gubernatorial election? What are the issues that will shape your decision about who to vote for? 800-433-8850. You can send email to kojo k-o-j-o @wamu.org. Marc, when it comes to the bread and butter issues that voters in this district told you were important to them, what were they?
FISHERWell, number one, I think, is transportation. The traffic is just awful.
NNAMDII think that would be number one, two, three and four.
FISHERYes. Exactly. And a lot of people really do spend two, three, even four hours a day going to and from work, and that is an unacceptable drain on their lives, the quality of life. And so they are looking for someone who is willing to make the deals that will get roads built and will get transit inserted into their community. They look at Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican candidate for Governor, and they say, here's someone who opposed the bi-partisan transportation bill that passed last year in Richmond.
FISHERThey look at Terry McAuliffe and say, this is someone who doesn't seem really up to snuff on the issues, doesn't really know his stuff. The number two issue that I heard, again and again, door to door, is about jobs and the economy. And clearly, that's something that transcends Prince William County. It's a state and national issue. But they were looking for candidates to have practical plans that showed where government could play a role in juicing the economy and bringing jobs to their communities so they don't have to drive hours everyday.
FISHERAnd they were not hearing that from either candidate for Governor. So, there's a lot of dissatisfaction about those two key issues about these candidates, even beyond the impact of the shutdown, which is especially strong in a place like Prince William County, where there are so many government contractors and federal workers.
NNAMDIYou recently spent a lot of time studying the Republican candidate, Ken Cuccinelli, for a long form profile that was published in the Post last week. One of the characterizations you explored was a notion that Cuccinelli would rather be right than win. And that he'd rather stick to core principles than temper himself for the sake of winning votes. How did you see those characterizations of Cuccinelli, that you explored in your profile, at work, on the ground, in a place like the Coles District?
FISHERWell, in Coles, the impressions that people have of Ken Cuccinelli are twofold. First of all, you have people who are social conservatives, who believe that he is one of them, that he is a principled guy who's going to stand tall against abortion, who's going to stand tall against same the sex marriage. And who's going to generally reflect their views on things like home schooling and school choice. And so that's where Cuccinelli has some real support in a place like Prince William County, which as a significant Christian conservative population, a significant, sort of, fiscal conservative population.
FISHERBut for, that's generally true in the more rural parts of the Coles District that I visited. But once you get into the suburban townhouse developments where you have a much more mixed political perspectives and considerable more progressive viewpoints, they tend to see Ken Cuccinelli as someone who is opposed to women, who's hostile to a lot of their ideals. And who, as a lot of people put it to me, wants to get into my bedroom.
FISHERAnd Cuccinelli has a very strong, faith driven view of what government's role ought to be, and what the social, sort of, rules and expectations of society ought to be. He home schools -- he and his wife home school their children all the way up until they get to high school. And, so that's something that, you know, works well for him in some conservative communities, but raises suspicions in others.
NNAMDIOn the other side, Terry McAuliffe carried a reputation, going in to this race, for some people, as a political player, even a huckster, more in touch with Washington than with the Commonwealth. Did you find any of his campaigning has changed that reputation in a place like Coles?
FISHERYou know, not really. And that's one of the most interesting aspects of the reporting out there. There are -- I ran into quite a number of people who plan to vote for Terry McAuliffe as a way of voting against Ken Cuccinelli, but, you know, it's really hard to find anyone who's enthusiastic, in and of itself, for Terry McAuliffe.
FISHERI found people who thought that he was too much of a wheeler dealer, that he was too much connected to the Washington power structure, that he didn't know enough about Virginia politics or to have enough background in Virginia. And yet, a lot of people were willing to vote for him because he was not Republican, or because he was not Ken Cuccinelli. And the McAuliffe campaign, curiously, has not given people a lot of positive reasons to vote for him.
FISHERTheir campaign ads have been primarily attacks on Cuccinelli. And interestingly, Terry McAuliffe has yet to appear in one of his own TV ads. They're all either people talking about him or against Cuccinelli.
NNAMDIThe Richmond Times Dispatch editorial board wrote this weekend, "We cannot in good conscious endorse a candidate for governor." It's apparently the first time in modern Virginia history the newspaper has refused to endorse a candidate. What do you make of that, Marc?
FISHERIt's an amazing editorial, and if you have the moment, people should go look up Richmond Times Dispatch and click on this editorial and read it. It's coming from one of the major editorial voices in Virginia. Very strongly opinionated voice that has traditionally been quite Republican and fairly conservative. And here they are saying that Ken Cuccinelli is unacceptable, that Terry McAuliffe is beyond the pail. And they're just not going to endorse anyone. And you can see it as sort of a refusal to engage or a sort of bankruptcy, where they're unwilling to offer their opinions to voters.
FISHERAnd they're not alone. The Daily Progress in Charlottesville, on the same day, yesterday, came out with an editorial endorsing for governor, Bill Bowling, the lieutenant governor who's not a candidate and not on the ballot. And they're asking people to write-in his name, as a main-stream Republican, which doesn't otherwise exist in this race. So there's a tremendous dissatisfaction with these candidates, not only on the street, but also in the editorial boards around the State of Virginia.
FISHERAnd what effect that will have on turnout is really what will determine who wins this election because there's traditionally a significant -- almost 50 percent drop-off in turnout between a presidential year and the governor's race in the following year. And with candidates who people are not excited about, that drop-off can be even greater.
NNAMDIAlex, in Franconia, Va. wants to talk about issues in general and transportation in particular. Alex, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ALEXI've been presently listening to what you've been saying and I agree that, you know, I've found in the Commonwealth that people are not excited about both candidates, but it's clear that Terry McAuliffe has stepped out there in his effort to get Democrats to work with Republicans in getting us a transportation bill, which is really going to solve a lot of frustrations on the ground, that people experience in the mornings and in the evenings, but beyond that, I think we're going to end up with -- when McAuliffe is in office -- and I believe he's going to win -- with people being pleasantly surprised.
ALEXBecause he has this reputation and people don't really know where it comes from. And I think they're going to be very pleasantly surprised. I think the crucial error on the Cuccinelli campaign is trying to bring the church into people's homes, and his church. And, you know, people are tired of that.
NNAMDIHow enthusiastic are you about McAuliffe, Alex?
ALEXI voted already.
ALEXOkay. And I voted for Terry already. And I voted for the Democratic slate because I think when you go from McAuliffe to Jackson and you go down and you listen to what the other side is saying -- and I take, you know, there's a wonderful video going on that I do on recent sheriff race in Fairfax County between the first woman…
NNAMDIOkay. I can't afford to go there because we're running out of time very quickly. But, Marc Fisher, he did mention that people don't know where Terry McAuliffe got this reputation from. One of the reasons he's got his national reputation was because of his close association with the Clintons. And so what do you think the tone of this race spells for those who want to compete in Virginia in 2014 and beyond? Hillary Clinton may be running for president in 2016. She was campaigning for Terry McAuliffe this past weekend.
FISHERShe was here this past weekend and Bill Clinton is coming this coming week. He's going to do a three-day swing through Virginia for Terry McAuliffe. And clearly the McAuliffe campaign believes -- probably with good reason -- that both Clintons are considerably more popular in the Commonwealth than McAuliffe himself is, and so they're bringing in some star power, which makes sense. And is actually very interesting to look at in contrast to what Cuccinelli is doing. He's bringing in star power as well, but it seems to be trying to appeal exclusively to his hard conservative base, rather than to independents.
FISHERHe's bringing people like Mike Huckabee and the Duggan family from the TV reality show, Christian conservatives. And he's bringing a number of -- Ted Cruz and so on. And so there's a clear message there that he thinks he can win only by rallying his conservative base, whereas McAuliffe seems to be trying to get people -- Democrats to vote for him even if they don't know much about him or have suspicions about whether he's right for this job, as well as reaching out to disparaged Cuccinelli, and in turn women especially, over to the Democratic side.
NNAMDIMarc Fisher, thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDIMarc Fisher is a senior editor at the Washington Post. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, the struggle to get the federal government's new online health insurance marketplace back on track. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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