In a normal election year, the incumbent Republican 5th District congressman would run for re-election and win. That’s how it works. Incumbents are always favored, and in a gerrymandered district, they’ve already picked their voters.
Turns out 2016 is anything but a normal election year.
At the top of the ticket are two of the least-liked candidates ever to run for president. And one of them is Donald Trump, a wild card like none seen before.
The 5th District, which stretches from the North Carolina border to Northern Virginia, with Charlottesville plop in the middle, has gone red for most of this century, except for Dem Tom Perriello’s unexpected win in 2008 over Virgil Goode that carried him for exactly one term.
Into this topsy-turvy landscape, enter Democrat Jane Dittmar and Republican Tom Garrett.
Dittmar, a mediator, has been methodically running for more than a year. She’s raised more than three times what Garrett has, reporting $557,000 in June 30 filings to Garrett’s $152,000, according to Virginia Public Access Project, and on September 23, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee dubbed the 5th District a “Red to Blue” race.
“That suggests the national Democrats think she has a good enough chance of winning,” says Geoffrey Skelley at UVA’s Center for Politics. “It could be an indication they might be willing to spend money on her, but it’s not guaranteed.”
Garrett, a state senator, secured the GOP nomination in May after a bruising convention and beating out three other candidates on the third ballot. He’s an unabashed Trump supporter, and while other Republican candidates in Virginia are trying to distance themselves from Trump, pundits expect him to do well in Southside.
“There are two 5th Districts,” says conservative blog Bearing Drift’s Shaun Kenney: north of the James, which includes Charlottesville, and Danville as capital of south of the river. “In Southside, with its tremendous job losses, Trump is an asset,” says Kenney.
Initially Dittmar tried to link Garrett to Trump, says Kenney. “Now she’s trying to make a case for herself rather than against Garrett.” Her public image is genuine and one of kindness, he says. “I haven’t seen anything terribly radical that would scare independents.”
The 5th, says Kenney, “is designed to be a lock for a Republican candidate. But it can be a surprise. Ask Virgil Goode.”
He notes problems with Garrett’s campaign—three staffers to Dittmar’s 10, Dittmar amassing a much larger war chest and two times the cash on hand. Route 360 in the south of the James sector “has more Dittmar signs,” he says. “That’s not a place you’d expect to find them.”
Both candidates have had minor campaign finance snafus. Dittmar misread a federal document and reported assets of more than $50 million.
Garrett used $1,495 out of his state senate war chest to pay for a congressional race website, another no-no.
But Skelley doesn’t see that playing a role in the election. “Unless it’s particularly egregious, unless it’s large sums, it’s not going to make much difference. I don’t see voters getting worked up about it.”
What has worked Garrett up is a Dittmar ad portraying him as a supporter of uranium mining, a touchy subject in Southside. Angry about the ad and insisting the 2013 bill he carried was in support of nuclear energy, not uranium mining, Garrett demanded an apology.
However, Kenney pointed out in Bearing Drift that Garrett had supported uranium mining, has taken donations from Virginia Uranium in Chatham and was now backing away. “It’s curious to me why the backtrack,” says Kenney. “Was it on principle or on polls?”
“The fact Garrett responded that way may suggest he feels vulnerable,” says Skelley.
At press time, the Center for Politics’ Crystal Ball had the 5th District race in the Likely Republican column. But November 8 is still a month away. And Dittmar was running ads well before Garrett unveiled his first on September 28, noted Skelley.
While Clinton is expected to carry the state, says Skelley, “For Dittmar to win, she has to run ahead of Clinton, and she needs [Clinton] to run better than Obama.”
Jane Dittmar, 60, is a mediator who owns Positive Solutions Group, former president of the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce and former owner of Enterprise Travel. She served two years as chair of the Albemarle Board of Supervisors representing the Scottsville District through 2015. Dittmar moved to Virginia when she was 6 years old and is a UVA grad in economics.
Her mother, a former vice president of the national League of Women Voters and president of the Virginia League, worked as a special assistant for Illinois Senator Paul Douglas. There’s an ethics award established in his honor, and that’s who Dittmar lists as her political hero.
Buckingham resident Tom Garrett, 44, is serving his second term as state senator representing the 22nd District to the east of Charlottesville. The Louisa native, an attorney who studied at the University of Richmond, spent six years in the Army, and made his first foray into elected office in 2007 as Louisa commonwealth’s attorney. A newlywed, Garrett tied the knot after winning the GOP convention in May, and is campaigning with bride Flanna at his side.
Garrett lists Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan as his political inspirations. Truman “viewed himself a citizen” and he was “a straight talker,” says Garrett, while JFK was “very much outside the box in spurring the economy” and “ahead of his time in recognizing there were socio-economic and race problems in America that had to be addressed.”
Here’s how the candidates stand on the issues.
The chances of being born in the U.S. are one in 26, according to Garrett. “I think the fundamental entitlement of every American is an equality of opportunity,” and government either perpetuates or stymies that. “To me it’s a duty to give back when I recognize how darn fortunate I’ve been,” he says. “I didn’t do anything to earn these gifts.”
Dittmar says there are two reasons she’s running. “I’m an infrastructure person. We have a digital deficit—a big one.” Albemarle has the best connectivity in the district, but whole counties like Rappahannock say Internet connectivity is its biggest problem, followed by cell phone coverage, she says. And a “broader, more idealistic” reason for running: “My dad worked for the Kennedy administration. In that era, people sent their best and brightest to Washington. I can’t believe the anger, disgust and, at best, disappointment toward Washington.”
Presidential race blowback?
“I wish I knew,” says Dittmar. She says Democrats and Republicans who are voting for Trump are supporting her. “Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders were lightning rods for anger that people feel,” she says. And despite the current Republican congressman, the 5th District “is moderate,” according a 2015 Pew study, she says.
The presidential race will affect the 5th District “however it does,” says Garrett. He believes Trump’s populism will resonate in Southside. “I’m supporting Mr. Trump and I hope he wins, but I’m not him.” Dittmar, he says, “is not Hillary Clinton. I hope people will evaluate our campaigns individually.”
Biggest issue in the 5th
Jobs and the economy, says Garrett. “There’s not a close second.” He, too, notes the “zones” of the 5th District, with Charlottesville “blessed” with the university and national security infrastructure from Sperry and the National Ground Intelligence Center. The Lynchburg metro area in the 6th District also has done well in creating jobs for those who live in the 5th, he says, whereas Henry County around Martinsville is “a proud, successful economic leader for [the] better part of a century” with jobs that are long gone. The northern end of the district is “beautiful and bucolic” and borders the Northern Virginia growth boom. “The commonality by and large in the 5th is hardworking people who say ‘please and thank you’ and ‘sir and ma’am,’ and hold the door,” he says.
Dittmar says outside of Charlottesville-Albemarle area, it’s jobs in the south and the environment in the north. The common thread throughout the district, except for Charlottesville, is Internet service—or the lack of. “You cannot grow a job base without it,” she says.
Biggest difference between you and your opponent
“White, male attorney,” says Dittmar. “Seriously, where we fall on the political spectrum, I’m a mediator. I look at both sides of the political coin. I’m always working in the center of the room. I think Tom Garrett by reputation and by the way he speaks of himself is far right. His original campaign letter brags about never compromising with moderates.” She points out Garrett said he’d join the Freedom Caucus in Congress, the unruly conservative group that vexed John Boehner when he was speaker. “We’d be sending someone there who’d be doing much of the same,” she says.
“I really like Jane,” Garrett says for the second time during an interview. “In 2015 I happened to be in the governor’s mansion when Deschutes came. I was only a member of the Senate there and it was by complete happenstance. They really wanted to come to Albemarle County.” Deschutes offered millions in economic benefits and jobs, says Garrett, but the Albemarle Board of Supervisors wouldn’t rezone 80 acres and the brewery didn’t feel welcome. “Jane said Albemarle County was not ready for those jobs,” says Garrett. “We need to find a way to get to yes versus finding a reason to say no. Those opportunities you just can’t miss.”
Garrett says he’s already working across the aisle in Richmond, working with Democrat Dave Marsden on a medical marijuana bill and Barbara Favola on one to “eliminate the seclusion and restraint of little boys in school,” he says. “I’m as ADHD as they come,” and he says he was secluded for half a year. “My heart goes out to the teachers who have to deal with little hellions like me.” Garrett says while he has a “100 percent pro-life rating,” he was the only patron of the bill that got rid of Virginia’s “draconian” sodomy law. “Government shouldn’t dictate what adults above the age of consent in privacy do with one another,” he says. And he quotes Democratic Senator Don McEachin in a Richmond Times-Dispatch profile, who says, “I don’t agree with Garrett very often, but you know he’s speaking from the heart and telling the truth.”
“First of all, a lot of work is done at the committee level,” says Dittmar. “That size group I can work with. I feel like my skills will be very beneficial at that size. Parties control what bills come forward and apparently freshmen are like freshmen in high school.” She says she’s concerned about the process, and that representatives need to have time to talk to constituents and to govern.
Gerrymandering and Citizens United—or “dark money,” says Dittmar—are considered the two biggest threats to democracy. “This district is the poster child for gerrymandering,” she says, lumping different regions of interest together. If she were just representing Albemarle and the northern part of the district, being on environmental committees in Congress would be a natural. But with Southside’s focus on jobs, she’d want to be on committees looking at economic development. States could do something about how the 700,000-population congressional districts are drawn, using a nonpartisan format to make them more compact, she says. And to those who say nonpartisan commissions are not possible, Dittmar says, “You’re talking to a mediator. We want a nonpartisan outcome. So you might get people in the room who fall into certain parties, but you get everyone together and you negotiate the outcome. You can strive for a bipartisan or nonpartisan outcome. Instead, it’s the party in power” that draws the lines.
“This is a tough one,” says Garrett, “because every nonpartisan commission is partisan.” He suggests that to get communities of interest, Democrats and Republicans should agree on the criteria. “Let the computer draw the district,” he says.
What’s next for the Affordable Care Act?
“I’m really disappointed so little effort was put into health savings accounts,” says Garrett, because it rewards those who make healthy lifestyle decisions. He says there’s been a 67 percent increase in health care premiums, and that his cousin and his family lost their health plan. “The word ‘mandate’ should be a dirty word,” says Garrett. “We need to empower people to make decisions for themselves, while recognizing in the most prosperous nation on earth, we’re not willing to let people die in the gutter.”
The ACA needs “a lot of work,” says Dittmar, because of its unintended consequences. She also notes the “wasted energy with repeal and replace when there’s no offer of replacement” in Congress. The overall objective to insure more people, allow young people to stay on their parents’ insurance until 26 and insurance portability have been accomplished, but, she says, “We need to work together” on each of the unintended consequences.
Dittmar favors universal background checks so people who should not have guns can’t buy them, which is what Virginia does, although it’s “squishy” because the background checks at gun shows are voluntary, she says. “I do not know why we have to fight as partisans on the no-fly list,” she says. “Fix the list. If the majority on there are bad hombres” that we don’t want on airplanes, why would we sell them guns? she asks.
“We have a violence problem beyond guns,” says Garrett. “You’re probably seven times more likely to be killed with a knife, with hands and feet or a blunt instrument than by an assault weapon.” He says there’s been more loss of lives from black-on-black murders each year than the total number of those in the military killed in Afghanistan since 2001. He’s a staunch believer in the Second Amendment right to defend himself, and says the vast majority of gun murders are committed with cheap handguns. “There’s no panacea,” observes Garrett, who points to the need for better schools, including charter schools, to provide the opportunity to succeed. As for gun law reform, “I don’t see the need,” he says, pointing to Nice, France, where a terrorist used a truck to kill dozens. “Is the proper response truck reform?”
“We need to control our borders,” says Garrett. He says he doesn’t blame immigrants coming here looking for work. “I’m not anti-immigrant,” he says. “I’m against the federal government not enforcing its own laws.” And his pet peeve is laws on the books that aren’t enforced equally, such as pot laws.
Dittmar likes the comprehensive reform bill the 2013 bipartisan Gang of Eight passed in the Senate, only to have it not reach the House floor, thanks to the objections of Republicans there. “It addressed borders, quotas, it addresses what to do with people already here, what path to citizenship,” she says.
Refugees fleeing Syria and ISIS
For those coming into this country from areas where terrorists and the Islamic State are a concern, Dittmar says, “The amount of vigilance we have is extraordinary.” Some of those who want to come here have acted as interpreters or provided intelligence, leaving them and their families vulnerable, she says. “We need to get them out of there or basically we’re sentencing them to death. We don’t want a black and white situation in which we say, if you’re from this country, you can’t come in.”
“We shouldn’t take refugees from any nation with ongoing Islamist bloodshed until our FBI director tells us they can be vetted,” says Garrett. And he quotes FBI director James Comey, who says there’s no way to adequately vet them. “We don’t have a duty to take people in until we know our citizens can be safe.”
Atlantic Coast Pipeline
Garrett says he tends to be pro-pipeline, but not for this one because there are alternate routes that already exist. With 1,400 pipelines already here, he wants a better grasp of how the people of the localities most affected feel before he can support the ACP.
Dittmar doesn’t support the pipeline, but she isn’t going to say don’t build it. Along with vocal opposition in Nelson County, there are groups there that want the pathway changed but don’t oppose the pipeline. In Buckingham County, its board of supervisors has passed a resolution in favor of the pipeline because it will be good for economic development, she says. She points out that the decision will be made by the state, not at the federal level. And she stresses that Dominion Virginia Power tries to influence legislators with money, and she’s not accepting donations from them. Garrett has taken a $5,000 donation, according to VPAP.
African-American voter disenfranchisement
She hasn’t seen it in the “Charlottesville-Albemarle bubble,” says Dittmar, “but there truly is voter suppression in the commonwealth.” She participated in a reenactment march in Lunenburg County, where the place to register to vote used to be only open two days a month from 2-4pm and citizens had to take time off from work to register. African-American voters are disproportionately challenged with income, health and transportation issues, she says, and while she has no problem with photo ID at the polls, it is harder for those who don’t drive to get an ID. Virginia’s lack of early voting and its requirements to get an absentee ballot also make it harder to vote, as does the state’s constitution that doesn’t automatically restore felon voting rights.
On the other hand, Garrett says he doesn’t believe African-American voters are disproportionately disenfranchised because there are so many checks and balances. And to those who say the photo ID requirement is disenfranchising, says Garrett, “I find that racist in itself.” He acknowledges that in the past efforts were made to keep blacks from voting, but says he doesn’t think that’s the case in 2016, and that black voter turnout was higher than white in 2012. The Brookings Institute reports 66.2 percent of eligible black voters went to the polls compared with 64.1 percent of eligible white voters.
For a law and order guy, Garrett objects to the federal government’s continued classification of pot as a Schedule I drug with no medical use, while cocaine and heroin are at a lower Schedule 2 category. “What I would do is remove it from federal categorization and let the states decide,” he says. Virginia could be producing industrial hemp in Southside, he says. “We’re still sending kids to prison in Virginia for marijuana,” while the same kid in Colorado goes on his way.
Dittmar isn’t ready for legalization, but she’s eager to look at the data from states that have. “I’d like to see those outcomes after a few years to see if the harms were real or overstated before I ever venture into looking at legalization.” She does favor decriminalization because “far too many people are incarcerated in this country.”
Economic resilience depends on the values of the community,” says Dittmar. For example, Nelson doesn’t want light manufacturing, she says, but does want tourism and agri-business growth. She advocates assessing the values and assets of a community and making sure the infrastructure—Internet, workforce training and paved roads—are in place for economic development. There is an issue with overregulation, which is the fault of the legislative branch, she says. “Legislators need to write better laws,” she says, with specific goals on what they want to accomplish, more study and more talking to the people being legislated.
According to Garrett, every employer he’s talked with says regulatory compliance needs to be changed. Lane Furniture in Altavista, after five generations, was “literally regulated out of business,” he asserts. And he wants localities to determine how to spend federal funds, citing the town that got $600,000 for crosswalks and a farmers market, but has crumbling water and sewer infrastructure. With $19 trillion in debt, he objects to federal funds being used to build dog parks. “State and federal government should shrink and local governments should grow, because that’s where we know how to get things done,” he says.
Garrett acknowledges climate change, but says there’s a debate about whether it’s caused by man. He advocates stewardship, recognizing that decisions do have impacts and to leave the environment in better shape than we found it.
“Climate change is here and it’s a huge threat to the whole planet,” says Dittmar. Mathews County no longer issues building permits because of rising sea levels, she says, and oyster beds are threatened because of warming seas, there’s a potable water threat in the eastern part of the state and Langley Air Force Base has runways underwater at high tide, all of which pose economic threats to Virginia. Climate change is exacerbated by emissions from cars and power plants. “We must move ourselves to cleaner fuels,” she says.
Reform the tax code and make spending bills that are just about spending, rather than adding political amendments that guaranteed to kill the legislation, advises Dittmar.
Move responsibility away from the federal government while empowering localities, says Garrett. Government must keep its promises about programs like Social Security, he says, and proposes allowing students to postpone benefits in exchange for college debt forgiveness.
It’s the media’s fault, says Garrett, because it focuses on if-it-bleeds-it-leads stories rather than those of politicians working across the aisle.
“I don’t think Americans are polarized,” says Dittmar. “I think the parties are polarized.”
The gentleman from Chatham has left the field
In office since he ran for town council in 2000, Robert Hurt at 47 seemed way too young to be walking away from elected office after serving in both houses of the General Assembly and winning election to Congress in 2010. Yet the 5th District congressman announced in January he would not seek a fourth term.
He says he “never envisioned making service in elective office a career,” and was looking forward to private life and finding other ways to serve.
That, of course, did not stop speculation. And everyone prefaces their comments by saying how much they like Hurt.
“He wasn’t able to accomplish much,” says Jane Dittmar. “He didn’t find it an environment he could flourish in.”
Tom Garrett appreciates the fact that Hurt always took his calls. “I think he’s Trumanesque,” says Garrett. “I’ve seen that in his decision to retire at such a young age. He’s just a guy who felt compelled to serve. Robert has always been approachable and humble, and has the heart of a servant.”
“There are rumors he was going to face a challenger in the primary,” says Delegate David Toscano, who stresses that Hurt is a friend. “He became more ideological over the years.”
Toscano recalls that Hurt supported then-governor Mark Warner’s tax increase in 2004 when the state was left with a crippling shortfall after Jim Gilmore cut the car tax. “Robert stood up and said, ‘I’m going to do this because it’s needed and it’s the right thing to do,’” says Toscano.
That vote was lobbed back at him by his Tea Party opponents when he ran for Congress, and when he was elected, he embraced “a more conservative wing of the party,” says Toscano. “His stands were more strident over the years.”
As for Hurt’s accomplishments in Congress, Toscano says he can’t recall any besides constituent service, but adds, “It’s not easy for one member out of 435 to accomplish much.”
Hurt declined to be interviewed before the election, but in a statement, says that in the current Congress, seven of the eight bills he introduced were bipartisan.
Brunswick County resident Kimberly Lowe, 40, is running for Congress—in the 5th and 9th districts. “You can do that as long as you’re a write-in candidate,” she says. “As long as it’s a federal race, you can run for a district you don’t live in.”
The homeschooling mother of three hails from Roanoke but has lived in Brunswick for fewer than two years. “I spent the first year here crying because people are living in poverty and despair,” she says. “When you don’t live in the rural area, you don’t know. I’ve never seen anything like this.”
An educator, Lowe says the problems she sees can’t be fixed on the local level, and that’s why she’s running for Congress. She believes industrial hemp is a natural option for farmers, and says that’s stalled on the federal level.
Lowe’s grassroots campaign is a long shot, she concedes, and she’s busy making coalitions. “Everything will set me up for 2018.”