“Let me be clear: I’m your senator, not your Democrat senator.”
While spoken part way through answering an audience member’s question, these words encompassed an overarching theme expressed during Senator Mark Warner’s visit to the Draper Mercantile on Friday morning. He repeatedly called for reasonable people to work together in a bipartisan effort to address issues instead of being driven to extreme opposite sides.
The event, which started with a breakfast buffet and free coffee at 8 a.m., was a chance for locals to hear Warner explain what he has done and will do in Washington, and to take questions from the audience about their concerns. Warner took the Mercantile’s stage at 9 a.m. and stayed for about an hour.
After opening words from Pulaski County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Peggy White, Pulaski County Board of Supervisors Chairman Joe Sheffey gave Warner a warm introduction, saying, “When Mark was governor, I presented him with a (Pulaski) county shirt. When he became senator, I presented him with a second (Pulaski) county shirt. I have one more shirt left to present him. And that’s when he runs and becomes our president.”
Warner then stepped up to the microphone and addressed the crowd with his characteristic frank and humorous style. Among several other talking points, he told everyone, “The single biggest issue today is getting our finances in shape.”
He also made three requests before turning to the audience for questions. “First of all, don’t vote for anybody who signs any of these stupid pledges…Second of all, realize that both Fox News and MSNBC both lie. Neither one tells the truth…Third of all, support reasonable politicians of either party.”
The first questioner was an education technologist, Rebecca Scheckler of Radford University, who said that she manages online training for future medical professionals, and that she believed problems with Internet access in rural Pulaski could be solved by using the whitespace left over from TV channels going digital for wireless Internet service.
“This is my kind of question,” said Warner. “Yes. I absolutely agree. And pushing the FCC to move faster on getting not just that white space, but other spectrum out there shouldn’t take as long as it is.” He said he planned to work with new Federal Communications Commission head Tom Wheeler on the issue.
Another audience member asked when the Democrats were going to do something about voter suppression across the country, and that he felt it was an attack on the Democratic voting base.
“We live in the greatest democracy in the world. If there was widespread evidence of voter fraud, I’d have a different opinion,” said Warner. “But I’ve not seen it in Virginia, I’ve not seen it any state, a wide evidence of real hardcore data around voter fraud…If there’s evidence of voter fraud, let’s address it. But if there’s not clear cut evidence, we should not be restricting people’s right to vote, we should be encouraging people to vote.”
The next questioner asked for Warner’s thoughts on the cost of college education and student loans.
“Boy oh boy,” said Warner. “This is a huge issue. Right now, there’s more student loan debt in America than there is credit card debt.” He spoke for several minutes on the subject, saying he was worried about a possible student loan debt crisis similar to the housing loan crisis. Warner said all the data on the financial consequences of going to college should be made clear to the public, including what graduation rates are not only for colleges but for different majors, show expected debt levels for each major and a projection of how likely a degree in a given subject will lead to a job.
He noted that the financial climate is such that, “We’ve cut down on grants and we keep feeding these kids more and more loans. That’s not a good solution.” He cited that stark fiscal circumstances hobbled economic growth, because expensive student loans would lead fewer graduated to feel free enough to attempt things in the business world that might fail.
Pulaski Schools Superintendant Dr. Tom Brewster asked Warner if he had any insight when the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act would take place.
“You mean, just the fact that it was supposed to be reauthorized four or five years ago and it sill hasn’t been?” asked Warner. He said that it had come out of committee at least six months ago and not moved. “I think that at some point there’s got a to be a penalty put on Congress if we don’t get these darn bills reauthorized. The short answer is, no. I don’t have the slightest idea.”
Delegate Joseph Yost, building on Brewster’s question, asked if there was going to be any flexibility on SOL testing, citing the high number of tests performed under the program.
Warner said this was a state issue, but he agreed that communities needed more leeway on how often to apply SOL tests.
Board of Supervisors member Andy McCready said Virginia state government is asking localities what laws they have in place that are burdensome, and wondered if Washington might begin to follow the same action, and engage in repealing laws that are unnecessary.
“Let me give you one that we have actually done,” Warner replied. “We’ve done GPRA, the Government Performance and Results Act.” GPRA requires agencies to engage in project management tasks such as setting goals, measuring results, and reporting their progress.
Warner answered further questions with topics ranging from veterans care—“We all say we love our veterans but we need to put our money where our mouths are”—to Congress’s legislative effect on business, handled in a joking manner—“So you don’t think it’s really great policy that we wait until 11:59 on the last day of each year to address this? I don’t understand, you’re so unreasonable!”—to the sequester—“We are not gonna fix sequestration without fixing the budget.”
Just after 10 a.m., Warner wrapped up. “America came roaring through the ‘90s. And we can do it again. We’re still where the best and the brightest from around the world want to come.”