By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
With the Nov. 2 general election only a few weeks away, the race for the 45th District seat in the Virginia House of Delegates is heating up between Democrat Elizabeth Bennett-Parker and Republican Justin David Maddox.
Bennett-Parker and Maddox diverge on their approaches to several issues, from police reform to education, but both said they are hyper-focused on the issues that are challenging residents of District 45, which includes Alexandria, Arlington and parts of Fairfax County.
Most residents are likely familiar with Elizabeth Bennett-Parker from her time on City Council. She received the most votes in the 2018 council election, becoming vice mayor, and since then has served on the dais with a quiet yet well-researched and detail-oriented approach to local politics. Bennett-Parker defeated incumbent Del. Mark Levine, who simultaneously ran for lieutenant governor, in the Democratic primary in June.
Born in Alexandria as the daughter of two naval officers, Bennett-Parker, who lives in Rosemont with her husband and grandmother, said her parents taught her early on about the value of taking a stand and serving the community.
“My mom used to always tell me that if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem, so I’ve applied that to my entire career,” Bennett-Parker said.
Outside of her three years on council, Bennett-Parker also co-leads the nonprofit Together We Bake and founded Fruitcycle, a business that fights food insecurity. She also formerly worked for the National Governors Association.
Bennett-Parker said the experience she brings as someone who served in local office in the district she would be representing is invaluable and is largely lacking at the state level. Out of 100 delegates, only 18 have served in city or county government and none of those delegates represent Northern Virginia.
“Obviously, we’ve got some different issues here than in other parts of the state, and I think having that experience of having served in city or county government in the House of Delegates is really important, given the role that local government plays in peoples’ lives and that local authority in Virginia is limited to what we’re allowed to do by Richmond,” Bennett-Parker said.
Coming into City Council, Bennett-Parker said she was aware of the Dillon Rule and how it governs what authority is given to local governments in Virginia. What she wasn’t as aware of was just how many areas of local government the Dillon Rule touches. From regulations for gas-powered leaf blowers to implementation of speed cameras, Bennett-Parker said there are certain pieces of local governance that City Council just can’t do on its own. Having someone with experience in Alexandria politics who is knowledgeable about the issues and challenges facing the city and the region would be a benefit for Northern Virginia as a whole, Bennett-Parker argued.
“With flooding and our stormwater fee that we have, we had to go to Richmond and ask for permission to use our own money on the flood mitigation pilot program we wanted to establish in the city and have since established,” Bennett-Parker said. “… We all recognize the local-state issue and that we need strong partners in Richmond.”
One of the issues Bennett-Parker is focused on in her campaign is education and ensuring Virginia’s education system is equitable. For Bennett-Parker, that starts with the local composite index, the formula the state uses to determine each locality’s share of education funding. The LCI is currently based on each locality’s true value of real property, adjusted gross income and local taxable retail sales.
The vice mayor argued that the formula doesn’t take into account key measures like high need student populations or rising capital costs, both of which are present in Alexandria.
“The formula as it is does not take into account the actual costs of providing education and support for students, and this is the single largest portion of the general fund budget in both Arlington and Alexandria,” Bennett-Parker said. “This formula sort of suppresses our investment in our education system and exacerbates existing inequities that we have and limits our ability to do things like increase teacher pay, hire more staff, support students with specialized needs and ensure that we’re [offering] a high-quality education for all.”
Comprehensive tax reform is another key component of Bennett-Parker’s campaign, particularly when it comes to making sure that “wealthy individuals and corporations are paying their fair share of our societal costs.” She also supports mandatory combined reporting, which aims to ensure that corporations that exist in multiple states are taxed appropriately, and making the earned income tax credit refundable.
As a business owner herself, Bennett-Parker said that guaranteeing local businesses have access to resources and support is key to the city and region’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Bennett-Parker, one of the most common complaints she heard from business owners was the challenge of accessing federal and state funding sources over the last year and a half.
“The funding they got was from the local Alexandria government and the funding we were giving to businesses. We just learned as a community and as a state that there needs to be better systems and outreach in place to know where those business owners are and how to support them and reach them with these resources,” Bennett-Parker said.
Racial and social justice has been a passion for Bennett-Parker since she arrived on City Council three years ago.
When it comes to tackling such an all-encompassing issue, Bennett-Parker said the state needs to approach every issue, whether it is transportation or healthcare, through an equity-based lens. When it comes to healthcare, the vice mayor said paid sick and family medical leave is just one way to tackle statewide inequities.
“You don’t want residents to have to choose between their health and a paycheck,” Bennett-Parker said. “If someone’s sick or has a sick child or family member or has given birth, they should be able to take time off to address their own health or the health of their family member without worrying if they’ll then be able to pay their bills or lose their job.”
Bennett-Parker’s experience on council has helped inform many of the issues that are at the core of her election campaign, including affordable housing and flooding. Having faced the local restrictions around both issues, Bennett-Parker said she hopes to direct state funding to tackle these large-scale, regional challenges and “empower” her local counterparts.
“Part of the work is to empower localities with additional tools and flexibility to address and incentivize affordable housing and to help make it more affordable to our communities,” Bennett-Parker said.
As far as the flooding that has continued to hit the city’s residents over the past few years, Bennett-Parker said she is focused on addressing the underlying need for largescale capacity projects and the looming threat of climate change.
“Yes, we should absolutely be leaders in that effort, but we also need to work with businesses and residents to do their part as well,” Bennett-Parker said. “… I’m interested [in] looking more into that and how we can further those efforts because that has to do with making energy efficiency and renewable energy improvements on commercial property and how we can help further that work.”
As vice mayor, Bennett-Parker spearheaded council’s declaration of a climate emergency and supported amending the city’s green building policy to include the requirement that any future public buildings be net zero.
Although the issues on Bennett-Parker’s mind are numerous, she said, ultimately, she hopes residents value her experience and passion for giving back to a community that has already given her so much.
“Having started the small business to fight food waste, serving as a nonprofit leader, serving as vice mayor, serving as chair of the VRE and member of regional bodies, [I hope] residents know that I’m going to bring not only the experience but the desire to continue serving and to better the community in this role if elected,” Bennett-Parker said.
As the Republican candidate for a seat in a majority Democrat district, Justin David Maddox, or J.D. Maddox as he prefers to be called, is aware that he is an underdog. For Maddox, it’s what gives him an edge, ironically enough.
“You’ve had one party dominating [this] position for 10 years, and actually longer than that, and no option,” Maddox said. “… I also think Americans love an underdog, and I’m the underdog. I’m happy to say it. I think people appreciate that someone is willing to step out and resist that one-party rule.”
A former Central Intelligence Agency branch chief whose work focused on counterterrorism and counter disinformation, Maddox said he is distraught by what he sees as a hyperpolarized political environment. It’s what inspired him to enter the race in the first place.
“There’s nobody in the middle, there’s nobody left in the middle who will voice what I think is really the majority opinion about what’s going on,” Maddox said. “… It really upsets me, and I think it upsets people who are around me. Because I am so sensitized to it, I feel like I need to step in.”
Born in Fort Belvoir, Maddox was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan in 2001 and 2004 as part of the National Nuclear Security Agency’s nuclear threat response team. He then spent years briefing Congress on law enforcement and intelligence matters before serving as CIA branch chief from 2006 to 2011. In the CIA, Maddox primarily focused on counter disinformation, assessing online propaganda from outside the states.
Maddox left the federal government in 2016 to found Inventive Insights, a consultancy firm that develops technology-based solutions to national issues such as disinformation. He has also worked as an adjunct professor at George Mason University since 2011.
“What I bring because of my CIA experience is a deep understanding of the political dynamics and the disinformation dynamics that are going on right now and how important that is to our society at large,” Maddox said. “But I also bring a real rigor of analysis and some real discipline behind what I’m doing. … I’m a guy who requires facts, I’m a guy who requires real deep, thorough research behind the things I’m presenting and that people are presenting to me.”
Maddox, an Old Town resident, positions himself and his “return to the practical work of government” in stark contrast to outgoing Del. Mark Levine, who Maddox claims focused too much on social justice causes and not enough on basic governance.
“While he was focused on those issues for years, the sewer was not being attended to here in Alexandria, the I.T. system is antiquated now, the school system needs a complete overhaul, the police are not appropriately supported in this area,” Maddox said. “… This is basic stuff that has gone unattended for years, and so I want to bring back a renewed focus on those basic areas of governance and also continue to focus on social justice where it’s appropriate.”
In talking about his policy priorities, Maddox, like his opponent, is not afraid to go beyond generalizations and vague concepts.
For Maddox, one of the most significant issues facing the Commonwealth and Northern Virginia specifically is an employment gap for public service jobs. In order to tackle this issue, Maddox has devised what he calls the 4-for-4 Program.
Akin to ROTC but for civilian service-oriented positions, the program would allow people who commit to providing four years of state or local service – as perhaps a firefighter or home caregiver – after graduating from high school to receive four years of paid college.
“It’s getting rid of those burdensome student loans. It’s helping out manufacturers and service providers and anyone else in the state who needs better workers or more workers. And it really helps to position graduating students into new jobs immediately, so they don’t have all that anxiety about getting their first job and positions them four years later for continuing in that role or actually continuing in Virginia,” Maddox said.
While Bennett-Parker and Maddox are both focused on increasing pay for teachers, Maddox supports returning school resource officers to Alexandria City Public Schools. As part of its budget process, City Council reallocated $800,000 from the SRO program to fund mental health services for students, against the wishes of the School Board.
“You can’t look at a crumbling system, do nothing about it and then extract one thing that’s working and hope that it gets better,” Maddox said. “That doesn’t make any sense. So, let’s at least put back in place what is working, keep our kids safe and continue with that.”
One of the most controversial topics in the city over the last year has been how best to approach police reform. Maddox argued that while change needs to be implemented, it should not be done at the expense of police officers and their ability to carry out the job. Maddox called the current approach to police reform “knee jerk solutions.”
“We need to refocus on their tactics. There are 99% good cops and there’s 1% that gets a lot of attention because of some of the bad they’ve done,” Maddox said. “We have got to make sure that the tactics they’re using are appropriate and that they are humane.”
Maddox also expressed disappointment that the city’s public school system has driven many parents to enroll their children in private schools. Maddox is one of those parents, and said that while his children received a solid education in the “fundamentals,” much of what is taught in ACPS is “derivative.”
“I think that we’re not teaching some of the fundamentals of our Western education, and I think we need to get back to a place where we’re teaching from the original texts and teaching from some of the basic literature of the Western canon. If you can teach more from those original texts and less so from derivative sources, you really educate people in the fundamentals of how we function as a country, as a society, as a system,” Maddox said, referring to documents such as the Declaration of Independence and Magna Carta.
Another hot topic in Alexandria has been density and the city’s approach to growth. For Maddox, density is a worthwhile pursuit, but it must be done responsibly and in a way that ensures “we’re not tipping the balance without attending to the infrastructure that we need to have in place.”
If the city is to pursue density as a means of addressing its affordable housing crisis, Maddox said there are options that exist outside of the density waiver-based incentive approach council has taken in the past. Maddox pointed to the Lucille and Bruce Terwilliger Place in Arlington as a model. A partnership with the American Legion, the project involves the construction of a 6,000-square foot facility that will include 160 affordable housing units. Half of the units will prioritize providing housing for homeless veterans.
Like his opponent, Maddox is also focused on tackling flooding and attributed the recent flood events to climate change and aging city infrastructure.
“What’s happening is there is simply not capacity in those pipes to carry the water, and so the city is appropriately spot fixing and has said in the last week that it’s not going to be until 2024 that they’re actually able to go at this in a systemic way,” Maddox said. “That’s terrible. We need to push the city to speed up its efforts.”
Whether they choose a Democratic frontrunner or a self-proclaimed Republican underdog, District 45 voters will make their voices heard on Nov. 2.