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Greg Werkheiser on Policy Innovation, Beating Dave Albo and Repaying the Debt of a Lifetime

by: kindler

Mon Jun 01, 2009 at 22:31:41 PM EDT

The road to Democratic control of the Virginia House of Delegates runs through the 42nd District.  There, entrenched right winger Dave Albo clings to one of the last Republican-held seats in Northern Virginia.  He's being challenged by Greg Werkheiser, who won 48% of the vote against Albo the first time he ran.  Greg has a compelling personal story, a focus on finding innovative new approaches to pressing social problems, and a refreshing, thoughtful style.  The rest of this piece will be in Greg's words, from an interview I conducted with him a couple days ago.

On why he's running

When you ask what motivates me, one, I care about my family and the state of Virginia; two, I know we can do much, much better, generally in the General Assembly but especially in my District, and third, I think I have a bunch of ideas and approaches that have not been tried, and in the absence of a lot of money to try new things, I think you need to be an innovator.

Personally, I've got some substantial debts to repay that I'm going to be repaying a long time.  I grew up in a very working-class family.  My parents were not in a position to immediately provide access to all the things they wanted to give me, including higher education.  My mom, for as long as I can remember, had three jobs.  

My stepfather had two jobs - he was the lazy one in the family!  He was a plumber/electrician/carpenter/handyman during the day and then during the evenings he was the janitor at our local prison.  Y'know, where I went to high school, not a lot of kids went on to college.  Many of the kids I went to high school with ended up in my stepfather's prison, so he would see more of them on a regular basis than I would.

kindler :: Greg Werkheiser on Policy Innovation, Beating Dave Albo and Repaying the Debt of a Lifetime
So the concept of Higher Ed was something they wanted me to consistently think about, although none of them had gone beyond high school. After I was accepted to William and Mary at the time, then it just became a matter of finances.  

There was one guy in our town I didn't have any real relationship with, he had just watched my brother and I grow up, a guy named Bill Day.  He one day wrote me a check for $10,000 and asked me to do just three things: get good grades, make William and Mary a better place after you've been there, and try to put yourself in a position to do the same thing for other people.  He wrote me the same check my sophomore and junior years.  Then he died unexpectedly my junior year.  

This is largely what's motivated me to do things like organizing to prevent higher education funding cuts, and designing bipartisan civic education programs at the Sorenson Institute.  In short, what I'm trying to bring to this race is a lot more energy and willingness to test out new ideas.  

On his political philosophy

I'm a problem solver, I like to work with people, regardless of their ideology, because of the end of the day, it's really about solutions. I believe in the values of the Democratic party and I believe they represent the best policy, but what's important to me is not who brings the idea to the table, but whether or not the ideas work and whether or not they improve people's lives.  

I understand the convenience of labels, but I tend to shun them.  On some issues, I'm center or center-left, on other issues I'm more conservative than some of my Northern Virginia neighbors.  We can't get enough money through our taxes to address all the challenges that we are facing right now.  On the other hand, it's clear that roads, schools, etc. can't pay for themselves.

So what I've been doing professionally for three years now is trying to get public, private, non-profit leaders around the same table to make Virginia the destination for smart, creative people who want to solve problems in new ways.  There are only two other states thinking about such an approach, and we've been noticed by the Obama administration, which is setting up a White House Office of Social Innovation.  

I just think that there's a creative class of folks out there who are chomping at the bit to try to do things. For example, we're used to having this traditional fight in Virginia over the past couple of sessions whether or not these high interest "payday loans" ought to be available in communities. And the conflict basically has been private enterprise vs. the need of people who live paycheck to paycheck, and whether they're being taken advantage of.  Yet in other places, people have already solved this problem in much more creative ways.  For example, the Nobel Prize winner Mohammed Yunus set up the microfinance system in Bangladesh, where somebody makes money in a bank through low-interest loans that people will pay off.  We've figured out these complex problems elsewhere but so far in Virginia, we haven't figured out how to put these guys out of business with a better business model.  

We can do it for transportation, education, environmental protection, public safety.  If you've got someone who's got a new approach to teaching math/science education, how do you get that idea tested and scaled up?  When you scale those ideas up, at the end of the day what you're doing is promoting what works and you're cutting down on the cost of experimentation.  So one of the things I would suggest is that every state agency be required or encouraged to dedicate, say, 5% of it's budget to pure innovation - research, partnerships, etc. -  and that money will pay significant dividends in reducing the amount of taxpayer dollars in the long run.  

Sometimes, the role of government is to get out of the way, not just to be a facilitator.  For instance, we have all these schools where we want teachers, especially people who have had successful professional careers, to come and to spend a couple of years teaching these kids.  But the amount of regulations we would have to go through on teacher certification, etc. are prohibitive.  Those are all in place for a reason, but if they're keeping a Fortune 500 CEO from spending two years in the classroom, then we've got a serious problem right there.  In those situations, it's identifying ways in which appropriate regulations can be lessened to allow good things to happen.

So, I would like to propose that Virginia have its own state Office of Innovation, the sole job of which would be to find ways to save taxpayer dollars and to solve some of our traditional problems with new approaches that aren't necessarily government-driven.  Folks may say, if you want problems solved that don't necessarily rely on government, then why would you create a new government office?  Everyone talks about NGOs like the Gates Foundation that has done such incredible things in education, for example.  Well, the Federal government spends on education in a single day what the Gates Foundation has spent on education in its entire existence. So, as a matter of scale, you've got to have the public sector involved, even if it's to find ways to have the public sector less involved.

On beating Dave Albo

It's the voters, not me, that are going to kick him out.  The voters are going to kick him out because they have consistently and increasingly expressed frustration that he is not the Dave Albo that they thought he was when they first elected him 15 years ago, that he has become beholden to the right wing of the Republican party, which is controlled by folks who don't live in Northern Virginia and don't necessarily face our challenges every day of sitting in traffic and having to renovate our schools.  I'm not saying that there are "two Virginias", but I'm just saying that Dave has not bridged that - he's decided to represent the interests of his party which in many ways are misaligned with the interests of the people in our District.  So I'm going to help the voters see that with clarity, and they're going to do the job.  They have shown, in the 42nd District, an amazing ability to separate the wheat from the chaff.

In 2005, I was running for the first time ever for public office, Dave had already been there 12 years at that point.  We started almost 30 points down in the polls, and we ended up with 48% of the vote.  Since then, what he's demonstrated is a focus on gimmicks like the abusive driver fees and other techniques to avoid making tough decisions.  And people now recognize that - the district has changed.

We've got a great professional campaign staff on board, better than many House campaigns have.  We're going to stay focused and we're just going to work much harder than he's ever demonstrated he's willing to work.  

On the 42nd District

It's a great district.  It goes from Springfield and covers the whole Southern tip of Fairfax County, so Lorton is the center of it.  It includes Fort Belvoir, so we have a good contingent of military folks.  Last time I ran, I won the absentee ballot, and I attribute that to the fact that I have a lot of pro-military policies.

I love that we're in the shadow of the nation's capitol, sufficiently outside the nation's capitol that it feels like Virginia.  We've got some of the most gorgeous parkland in all of Virginia, overlooking the Potomac - the Mason Neck area is largely unadulterated by sprawl.  We've got great public schools, even though they don't get as much support from the state or our state representative as they should.  The people are smart, they're well-educated, they're professional.  Despite what my opponent has said, they are not wealthy.  He made two comments in recent years that astounded me.  One was that I represent my people and my people are wealthy.  But the people whose doors I'm knocking on now are not that wealthy.  The other comment that he made is that the reason that the district is changing is because all those Democrats are on welfare.  Like, how out of touch could you possibly be?

It certainly has been one of the most rapidly growing areas of Virginia.  The closure of the former federal prison in Lorton freed up a lot of land in that area.  It's a boon in terms of services, but the minute that the South County Secondary School newly opened, it was overcrowded and had trailers in parking lot.  In terms of Fort Belvoir, obviously the road structure can't handle the amount of traffic that the BRAC expansion is going to bring to the area, and we have to start thinking about innovative ways to move people that are not just building more roads and rail.  By the time we get anything built, at great cost, it's not going to be an immediate solution to that problem.  So we've been looking at rapid shuttle service.  It's low environmental impact, you're using existing roadways, it's deployable and portable, so you can move it around if you need to.  We need to start thinking about things that break the mold of the traditional discussion.

On legislative priorities

We've been talking about this concept of putting a moratorium on foreclosures of homes of people who are active duty military.  I think that's the fundamentally right thing to do, and it could impact an increasing number of folks who live in my district.  It's saying that while you're over there putting yourself in harm's way, you should not be losing your house.

Other priorities include setting up a state innovation office, and tackling transportation challenges.  I also think that, in this economy, we should look into lowering taxes for middle class folks, because there are seniors who are fixed income and other people who are working first time jobs in the area - nurses, teachers, others, who at this point are struggling because we have property taxes constantly going up to compensate for the lack of state support for our communities.  So I would be supportive of some tax relief for the middle class.

On the Chesapeake Bay

I think you try to tackle the causes of the degradation of the Bay, not all at once, but in the order of the threats that they pose.  I think that dealing with runoff, whether it's urban or rural, has got to be the first priority.  That means policies that incentivize the best practices for farmers to deal with these issues.  There are a variety of solutions, so it's what works for them and their needs.  At the second conference that my organization hosted in Richmond, the Secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources was there, and we were able to introduce him to a guy who has come up with a fertilizer that they believe has a much lower impact on the environment with the same performance characteristics of other fertilizers on the market.  We were able to sit them purposefully next to each other and make a connection, so government and universities can help test it and scale it up so ultimately you can use the market to solve such problems at lesser cost by working together.  And if somebody can make money off such things, then that's a great deal for the taxpayers too.

On the Dillon Rule

As I taught my civic education students, in almost every other state, they've gone beyond it, but in Virginia, we're still bound by it as a holdover.  The principal reason that people say they want to keep the Dillon Rule is this issue of taxes.  I think you can segregate, and then deal separately, with whatever restraints you want to put on local government vis-à-vis taxes, and at the same time, get rid of all the other handcuffs that local governments have to deal with.  90% of the Dillon Rule is on things that don't have to do with revenue.  So the fear of giving local governments the autonomy to raise their own taxes, of a differential tax system, is something we should deal with, just separately from the other issues.  One of the reasons that we're paying a lot in taxes is because of the inefficiency of the localities having to go down to Richmond.  For much of the past 30 years, as I understand it, there's been a bill introduced to override the Dillon Rule that's not going anywhere.  I think the only way you're going to see any movement is if you elect a Democratic governor and a Democratic majority in the House of Delegates.  I think you'll see us deal with a host of systemic problems in Virginia government that won't get dealt with under the Republicans - whether it's the one-term governor or non-partisan redistricting, there are a lot of good government initiatives that will be on the top ten list of things to do this year if Democrats prevail.

Go Greg!!

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we'll have good reason to assure Dave Albo goes down to defeat on Election Day.  May I add, Go Greg!

"One person, one vote" died at the hands of SCOTUS, January 21, 2010

Credit Where Credit is Due
I am supporting Jody Wagner this year, but I will give kudos to Mike Signer for one thing relevant here:  in 2005 when he was first building his email network, I got on his list as a volunteer in the attorney poll-watcher program he ran for the Dems.  Mike made an appeal to all of us to support Greg in that race, and as you read above Greg nearly knocked off Albo that time.  Hopefully, this will be the year Albo actually goes down, and as a Wagner supporter, I'm thinking that this could be a good model for Mike too -- he can come back and get the job done next time out.

Ken (Not the Teacher)

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