Virginia Delegates Schuyler VanValkenburg, ‘04, and Rodney Willett spoke on pressing issues, like college affordability and climate change at a Henrico candidate “meet and greet” at Deep Run High School Sunday.
All candidates for House of Delegates District 57, House of Delegates District 58 and State Senate District 16 were invited to attend. Of the invitees, only VanValkenburg and Willett, both Democrats, were in attendance. Questions referring to candidates not in attendance at the event were prohibited.
VanValkenburg, an alumnus of the University of Richmond and current Virginia State Delegate representing the 72nd district, is running to represent the State Senate District 16 against incumbent Republican Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant. Dunnavant’s district, which she won by just under two points in 2019, now has an estimated Democratic lean due to redistricting, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. Willett, an incumbent delegate, is running to represent the 58th House of Delegates district against Republican Riley Shaia.
VanValkenburg believes that Virginia fails to fund colleges appropriately and the decentralized approach to governing colleges raises costs. Some of the costs associated with college are being driven by the market demand for more amenities in schools.
“Really nice housing, really nice gyms…that’s all expensive,” Valkenburg said. “If we’re going to provide a platinum four years, it’s going to leave a lot of people out because it’s not going to be affordable.”
When asked if he was referring to the University of Richmond, VanValkenburg said that there are universities everywhere that are building and adding expensive features, increasing tuition bills.
“Maybe the right way wasn’t before when we were sleeping in dorms with no air conditioning in Marsh Hall. That wasn’t an awesome experience,” he said. “But the kind of bare-bones gym we had, it worked just fine.”
When asked about climate change, Willett and VanValkenburg said they plan to maintain recently enacted legislation. Willett mentioned the Clean Economy Act and membership in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) as examples. They both emphasized this as a policy difference to Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who supported the State Air Pollution Board’s decision to repeal RGGI regulation earlier this year, according to a press release.
Charlotte Broadbent is a senior at St. Catherine’s School and co-president of GreenTeenzRVA, a youth-led nonprofit organization for environmental activism. “I was a little bit disappointed in hearing that progress might not happen for a long time, but I think that it’s important to remain hopeful and continue pushing for more change,” she said.
On gun violence, VanValkenburg said that in 2020, the legislature passed a series of eight laws, including universal background checks and red flag laws. However, after Youngkin was elected in 2021 and Republicans gained the majority in the House, the legislature has not been able to do any more on this issue.
“I think the legislature has been more bipartisan than [most other state legislatures]. On this issue, we are more partisan than most, unfortunately,” VanValkenburg said.
VanValkenburg also suggested statewide gun buyback programs, where people who don’t want their weapons anymore can sell them back to their cities, he said.
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Willett, a self-identified gun owner, said that he supported an assault weapon restriction bill in the last House session that did not pass. He defended the gun laws already in place in Virginia, such as the Red Flag Law.
“Why would we take them off the books? Do we not want to save lives?” Willett said.
On the issue of abortion, VanValkenburg said he thinks the law should stay the same in Virginia, and hopes to eventually codify abortion rights into the Virginia Constitution. Currently, Virginia law allows for abortion until the end of the second trimester of pregnancy.
Willett also supports current Virginia laws on abortion, he said. Restrictive bills on abortion have been proposed in Virginia before, but have always been killed before passing. Willett is concerned about the possibility of losing doctors if Virginia passes abortion restrictions.
“They’re not going to practice,” Willett said.
When asked about affordable education and alternative education options, Willett said that Virginia had an amazing higher education system and that the legislature needed to help make it more affordable for students.
VanValkenburg believes there should be three good paths to getting a job that pays well after high school: joining the military, going into a career and going to college.
“We need to make sure that if you go into that path, you can make money and you can provide for your family,” he said.
The event was co-hosted by the League of Women Voters of Richmond Metropolitan Area and the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy. Audience members submitted questions for candidates to answer at the event.
The LWV-RMA is a nonpartisan organization that seeks to encourage informed and active citizen participation in government, according to its website. Organizers had voter applications available for those interested in registering to vote and provided information on fact sheets about early voting and Virginia redistricting at the event, Mary Crutchfield, director of voter services for the organization, said.
The Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy is an interfaith advocacy organization focusing on engaging people of faith and goodwill in working for social, economic and racial justice in Virginia’s policies and practices, Sheila Herlihy Hennessee, faith organizer at the organization, said.
“We are strongly nonpartisan, and this year’s elections are so deeply important. We think it’s really important that voters know the positions of the people on the ballot,” she said. “It’s important for democracy that our elected officials get to share their perspective and that we as voters hear directly from them.”
Mary Reichert and Kathy Morand are retired nurses and local residents who attended the event.
“We know Schuyler and Rodney very well, and we wanted to come support them,” Reichert said. “I’m so happy that I came because I had not heard them speak at length like this, and that was a good opportunity to hear their views on a lot of things,” Morand said.
Both VanValkenburg and Willett encouraged people to vote in the upcoming elections.
In-person early voting began on Sept. 22 and ends Nov. 4. Voter registration is open until Oct. 16, after which individuals can register and vote using a provisional ballot through election day, according to the Virginia Department of Elections website.
Contact City and State Editor Nick Mossman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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