The Fifth District, which stretches from the North Carolina line to the outskirts of Northern Virginia, has one of the most interesting congressional races anywhere in the country this year. For the Democrats, Cameron Webb, a Black doctor from Charlottesville running in a district where Confederate statues prompted the violent march by white supremacists three years ago. For the Republicans, Bob Good, who calls himself a “bright red Biblical and constitutional conservative.”
It’s easy to predict the national issues that both candidates will run on. Just because those are the issues they’re talking about, though, doesn’t mean there aren’t others. Here are some questions unique to the 5th District we’d like to see the candidates address:
1. What role, if any, do you see yourself playing in building a new economy for Southside Virginia? There’s a lot packed into that single question. The northern part of the district is very different, economically speaking, from the southern part. Southside is one of those rural parts of the country that’s been left behind by an economy in transition. What role, if any, should a congressman play in addressing its economic challenges? On the one hand, congressional representatives are national legislators, they’re not regional executives — so it’s perfectly legitimate to say the next 5th District congressman isn’t really responsible for the 5th District’s economy. On the other hand, there’s a power vacuum here. Local governments are too small and poorly equipped to deal with the economic trends they’re trying to turn around. The governor in Richmond has a whole state to deal with. So who’s looking out for Southside regionally? From time to time we’ve seen members of Congress take on that role — Rick Boucher, D-Abingdon, was famous for trying to leverage his congressional role into economic development for his district. Will either of you aspire to that informal role as a regional economic developer? If so, what’s your plan?
2. Have either of you read the report on the Southside economy from the GO Virginia economic development board? Since the easy answer here is “yes,” let’s make the candidates prove it by making them discuss that report. Here’s a quick refresher: One of the big problems identified was “a perception that the school systems are not producing good talent” and that “vestiges of Massive Resistance and other racially-divisive actions are still evident, particularly as seen in lack of support for public schools.” Keep in mind that those observations came from business leaders, who tend to be pretty right of center. How would you address the problems identified in that report?
3. Is there anything you’re proposing that would dramatically raise educational levels in Southside Virginia? Here’s why that matters. The new economy offers few opportunities for unskilled workers. Instead, the new economy demands workers with skills – either in the form of a college degree or an associate’s degree from a community college or some other sort of special skills. By some accounts, 70% or more of the jobs today require more than a simple high school diploma, and that percentage is rising each year. The problem is that writes out a lot of Southside from the new economy. A college education isn’t the only measure of new economy skills, but it is the easiest one to find statistics for, and these statistics should alarm the next representative from the 5th District: Southside is tied with Southwest Virginia for the least-educated part of the state. Only 15.5% of working-age adults in those two regions have a college degree. Keep in mind that’s an average. In Charlotte County, the figure is 11.9%. In Buckingham County, 11.4%. In Lunenburg County, 10.6%. Only three other localities in the state — Galax (10.3%), Dickenson County (9.3%) and Greensville County (7.5%) rank lower. That’s why, shortly before his death, former Gov. Gerald Baliles called for a “Marshall Plan” to dramatically raise educational levels in Southside and Southwest Virginia. Do you support such a plan? How would you see it funded and structured? One way that some states —even, sometimes especially, conservative ones — have sought to address these educational disparities is making community college free or close to it. How do you feel about that? If that’s not your preferred solution, what is?
4. How would you reverse the region’s population decline? Fifteen of the 23 localities in the district are losing population, almost all of them in Southside. Most are losing population for two reasons — more people are moving out than moving in, and among those who remain, deaths outnumber births. They’re also seeing their median ages get older. Translation: Young adults are moving out. The deaths-over-birth imbalance is particularly large in Southside. Of the places in Virginia where deaths outnumber births by the widest margins, three of the top four are in Southside — Henry County (which is split between the 5th and 9th districts), Danville and Pittsylvania County. Add in Mecklenburg County and the figure becomes four of the top seven. These places are literally dying. A shrinking population — especially a shrinking working-age population — not only hurts the local economy, it makes it harder for that locality to attract new employers. What would the next 5th District congressman do to try to reverse those demographic trends? Or, as with the first question, do you see that as part of the congressman’s role?
None of these questions — and whatever answers the candidates might have — fit easily on a bumper sticker. Nor are they likely to energize voters the way that certain other issues might. And yet these are the trends that are shaping and re-shaping the 5th District in ways that make it less and less economically competitive. In a more perfect world, voters would be demanding candidates address these kind of big-picture structural issues — rather than get excited by whatever hot-button issue has been concocted by political consultants and TV talking heads. Alas, we don’t live in that perfect world. But that still doesn’t absolve the candidates of responsibility. So here’s an invite: If either Webb or Good care to address these questions, we’ll happily run their answers. If they do, you can judge for yourself who has the best understanding of the district’s economic challenges. And if they don’t, well, you can draw your own conclusions from that, too.
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