By CALLIE HARKINS
On Wednesday, Sept. 27., UMW hosted the District 27 Virginia State Senate debate in George Washington Hall’s Dodd Auditorium. Joel Griffin (D), Monica Gary (I) and Tara Durant (R) took the stage to discuss various issues pertaining to the district including abortion access, public school funding and the fentanyl crisis, among other topics.
This debate functioned identically to the House of Delegates debate that took place on Sept. 13 in Seacobeck Hall. Each candidate had an opportunity to deliver an opening statement followed by an hour of question and answer that concluded with a closing statement.
Durant, the Republican nominee, addressed the audience first.
“Virginia is not just for lovers, it’s for leaders,” she said. “We need leaders who are willing to stand up and make Virginia more secure so that together we can be the best place to live, work and raise a family.”
Durant defeated an incumbent Democrat in 2021 to win the Virginia House of Delegates seat that represented both Fredericksburg and Stafford. She is a former elementary school teacher and has previously served on the Board of the Fredericksburg Area Service League and PTO Board.
Across the aisle, Joel Griffin, the Democratic candidate, is a Marine Corps veteran and former Chair of the Stafford County Economic Development Authority. He also sits on the Board of Directors for the Fredericksburg Regional Chamber of Commerce and is a member of the Fredericksburg Regional Alliance.
“As a Marine, I took an oath to protect our constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and right now, I see the rights of fellow Virginians under attack,” he said.
The Virginia Senate currently has no independent members, making Monica Gary the outlier in this race. Gary sits on the Stafford Board of Supervisors and has previous experience on the Fredericksburg Area Metropolitan Planning Organization Policy Board.
“Real leaders do not divide the room in half,” she said. “They bring people together and they do the hard work that no one else is willing to do and stand on principles instead of narratives that hurt people and are causing our country to deteriorate.”
Virginia is the sole state in the south where abortion is still legal. Durant is a proponent of a 15-week abortion ban with exceptions for rape, incest or when the mother’s life is in danger. While serving in the House of Delegates, she supported the Born Alive Infant Protection Act and currently backs Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s plans to limit abortion access.
“I’ve always been very honest and transparent that I am pro-life,” said Durant.
In contrast, Gary is a supporter of a pregnant person’s right to choose. She is also candid about the fact that she has had an abortion. Because of her past experience, she vowed to protect abortion and expand access to care.
“It’s incredibly important that we maintain our ability to make decisions about our own bodies, there’s no one on this stage that understands that better than I do,” she said.
Like Gary, Griffin affirmed that he will not tolerate attacks on access to reproductive care—not from the governor and not from the Supreme Court.
“I will ensure that a woman’s right to choose is not only protected in this session, but is enshrined in the Virginia constitution when we vote for it again in the next session,” he said.
Interstate-95 runs directly through District 27 and welcomes over 150,000 vehicles daily through Fredericksburg alone, according to the Fredericksburg Department of Economic Development. A national study from 2017 concluded that Fredericksburg and its surrounding counties have the worst traffic hotspot in the country.
“When I’m in Richmond, I will advocate and get passed, the Regional Transportation Authority that allows us as a community, to decide for ourselves where we want some of those funds to be spent,” said Griffin.
While the candidates differ on specifics for controlling the issue, they all agree that traffic is a major problem.
According to Gary, her work on the Fredericksburg Area Metropolitan Planning Organization Policy Board, Virginia Railway Express Policy Board and Potomac Rappahannock Transportation Commission, makes her the best equipped to handle traffic regulation in the district. Gary supports adding a third rail line for the Virginia Railway Express to help mitigate congestion caused by freight.
“What I have done is make sure that I’m investing in public transit and solutions that work,” said Gary.
Durant also expressed her discontent with traffic. According to her, the focus for legislators should be on improving and updating infrastructure and promoting road construction.
“I think the important part of this conversation is, what are we prioritizing? Because the truth is that radical Democrats in Virginia have made it clear that they really don’t want us to be able to drive our cars,” she said.
Virginia’s 27th Senate district is one of the few in the Commonwealth that has been consistently split on political preferences. In 2021, most voters supported the Republican nominee for governor. One year later, however, the majority of voters flipped to support the Democratic candidate running for the U.S. House of Representatives.
“As a Marine, I worked with people of all races, creeds, colors and religions. I didn’t ask them what the politics were,” said Griffin. “When we’re in a hole together, you’re all pointing in the same direction. When you run a small business, you don’t ask someone what their politics are, you just ask them what mission needs to be accomplished, and you work towards that. That’s what I’ll do in Richmond.”
While on the campaign trail, Durant said that she sat down with constituents across the district to gauge what issues matter.
“What they cared about were non-partisan issues,” said Durant. “These were the kitchen table issues, caring about education and caring about our economy and caring about keeping our community safe.”
Gary, who made a point of wearing purple, is running as an independent in an effort to avoid alienating voters.
“We all know that there is a lot wrong with our government and the way that we do things,” she said. “I don’t think that we would disagree about that across party lines that something has to change. If we keep doing what we’ve done, we’re going to continue to get what we’ve gotten.”
Three days after the debate, the federal government averted a shutdown just hours before the deadline by passing bipartisan legislation that temporarily funds the government until Nov. 17. The candidates used this opportunity to express their thoughts on the situation.
“We should absolutely not have a shutdown,” said Gary. “My family has suffered through this before. We have had to call friends and relatives to help us to put groceries in our refrigerator. So I have lived this. It’s unacceptable. And once again, a reason to look at how the parties are doing business with each other, or failing to, in ways that impact us in our everyday lives.”
All of the candidates on the debate stage agreed that a government shutdown would be harmful and should not happen.
“The government shutdown is really the last thing they need right now, but moving forward, we focus in Virginia on keeping our taxes low, our spending low, so that you have more of your hard earned money so that you can continue to support yourself,” said Durant.
In the event of a shutdown, most benefits received from the Veterans Administration will continue as normal, including medical services, pension and housing benefits, however, career counseling and transition assistance programs will be halted.
“This district will be disproportionately harmed by a government shutdown,” said Griffin. “We have a higher percentage of veterans in this community, and a higher percentage of government contractors in this community than most anywhere else in the Commonwealth.”
According to a government watchdog, Virginia schools are underfunded by approximately $1,900 less per student compared to the national average.
“We are severely underfunded,” said Gary. “When you want something to succeed, you invest in it. We cannot continue to underfund our public education and then expect things to improve.”
The Economic Policy Institute found that Virginia has the third-least competitive teacher pay in the country. All of the candidates concurred that Virginia schools require greater funding in order to remain functional.
“When I’m the next state senator, I will advocate and pass code which allows for a significant salary increase for teachers, but also creates funding for mental health resources, school counselors, resource officers, paraprofessionals and any other teachers that we can get into the classrooms,” said Griffin.
A point of contention, however, is the politicization of public education. Parental rights have been a talking point on both the national and local level. Book bans and critical race theory—referred to as CRT— have come to the forefront of discussions regarding education, as noted by Durant.
“Instead of talking about the ‘ABCs,’ we’re talking about CRT,” she said.
Earlier this year, Governor Youngkin signed into law a bill that reclassifies fentanyl as a “weapon of terrorism” in response to an influx of deaths relating to the drug.
“I think all three of us here on this stage are in agreement about the need to treat those who are suffering from addiction,” said Durant.
Durant’s statement rang true as all three of the candidates found common ground on the topic.
“Fentanyl is a real crisis in our community; it’s something that we have to address,” said Griffin. “I would absolutely work with our local elected officials to address the needs for their location, the needs for their citizens.”
Gary believes in ending the stigma surrounding drug addiction in order to best support those affected by it.
“We need to stop treating people who have addictions and are seeking treatment like they’re less than,” she said.
According to the Economic Research Institute, the cost of living in Fredericksburg is higher than that of the national average.
“They need to stop giving tax breaks to large corporations while people down here, the rest of us, are trying to figure out how to get by,” said Gary. “It’s becoming harder and harder to fill up gas tanks and to feed our children and their schools are not what they should be.”
Gary also spoke about unfair tip wages. The minimum cash wage for tipped employees in Virginia is $2.13, according to the United States Department of Labor. Griffin agreed that the minimum wage for these employees should be raised.
“We also need to make sure that our workers are treated fairly, we need to make sure that the minimum wage is something that is not just going to help people get by, but we need to be addressing workforce housing,” he said. “We need to allow people to have expanded access to medical care, we need to make sure that people can have the opportunity to work from home.”
Regarding affordability in the district, Durant pointed towards lowering taxes and bringing high-paying jobs to the Commonwealth.
“It is essential that we keep our taxes low, our spending low so that people have more of their hard earned money to support themselves and to make our economy secure,” she said.
The debate lasted over an hour and 20 minutes, and the candidates were asked a series of 12 questions. In his closing statement, Griffin focused on his main policy issues and identity as a veteran and business owner.
“I appreciate the opportunity to have a spirited debate on the issues. And I hope that it’s clear tonight that there is absolutely a contrast between my opponents and myself,” said Griffin. “I’m not a politician, I’m a veteran, I’m a small business owner. I’m running to protect abortion rights, defend our public schools and continue our economic growth in the region.”
In her closing statement, Gary reiterated her relatability and willingness to work for every constituent, regardless of political affiliation.
“My life is similar to most people; I am not disconnected. I reap the repercussions of my decisions,” she said. “All my children are in public schools. I’ll continue to do the things that I say, I won’t act one way and tell you something else, like you see up here.”
Durant reaffirmed her support of law enforcement and parental rights. She also emphasized her goal of making Virginia secure across multiple aspects.
“Together, I know that we can do this; we can make Virginia more secure. We cannot have just those who are lovers, we need leaders, we need people who are willing to stand up and fight for these values,” she said.
Early voting in Virginia began on Sept. 22, five days before the debate, and will end Nov. 4. Election day this year will be held on Tuesday, Nov. 7, and polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. Same day registration begins Oct. 17 and will remain open until polls close.