The air was charged with excitement, the crowd was energized and exchanges between the candidates spirited during Thursday night’s 11th Congressional District debate.
Republican Tom Davis, the six-term congressman, squared off against Democratic newcomer Andy Hurst, a Springfield attorney, in the only scheduled debate held in Prince William County. The Independent Green candidate, Ferdinando Greco of Clifton, did not participate.
“There is a great deal of interest in this congressional race,” Keith Scarborough, president of the Prince William Committee of 100, the major sponsor of the debate, told the crowd. “This is the largest gathering we’ve had.”
It wasn’t difficult to find the Old Hickory Country Club, where the debate was held.
The mile-long stretch of road leading from Prince William Parkway to the club was lined with hundreds of campaign signs and dozens of campaign workers from both camps. The troops were definitely rallied for the event and the support for both candidates evident throughout the debate with claps, cheers and some catcalls coming from both sides.
In his opening statement, Hurst, 36, described himself as not being a professional politician. “I’m new to this, but I believe in the causes I believe in,” he said. “I’m dissatisfied with this administration and Congress. [Running for Congress] is something I can do about it. I want to offer the voters something different; in my mind, something better.”
Hurst criticized Davis’ support of the Bush administration, stating that Davis votes with the Republicans 90 percent of the time. He said that Davis should spend more time talking about national issues and less on local projects.
In his opening statement, Davis, 57, did highlight the funding he has garnered for such Northern Virginia projects as the widening of Va. 123, Interstate 66 improvements, the new Woodrow Wilson bridge, the dredging of the Occoquan River and the widening of Va. 28.
“These projects are important,” Davis said.
Davis disputed Hurst’s claim about his record in supporting President Bush, saying the percentage of his votes that align with the administration is much lower.
“I’m my own man,” Davis said. “The people of Prince William County know that.” As an example, Davis said that as chairman of the House Committee on Government Reform, he investigated the Bush administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina and was very critical of it.
The candidates were asked about a variety of issues and differed on most.
On the war in Iraq, Davis said he wants to get the troops home as soon as possible but that setting a specific date for withdrawal is the wrong approach. He said Hurst wants such a deadline.
“We have to look at what we leave behind,” Davis said. “It will affect Jordan, Israel and Egypt.”
Hurst said that Davis was part of the administration that got the country into the war and it is now time to “change the course.” He said that the administration needs to tell its military leaders that it’s time to leave the country and get their advise as to how it can be done.
On transportation, Hurst said that while Davis has gotten funding for a lot of local projects, traffic congestion has gotten worse. The congressional process of “earmarks” is not working, Hurst said.
Earmarks are provisions attached to spending bills that direct federal money to specific projects.
“We have to change the system,” Hurst said. A more objective approach would be for Congress to establish “special needs districts” for transportation and fund the projects within those districts.
Davis disagreed. Earmarks are part of the way Congress does business, Davis said, pointing out that federal money is helping to extend Metro out to the Dulles area and is funding a study to bring the Virginia Railroad Express to Haymarket.
“What’s missing is the state doing its share,” Davis said.
The candidates also differed on immigration issues.
Davis said he supports sealing off the borders and the construction of a fence along portions of the border with Mexico.
“We need to protect our borders first then have an adult discussion about the 11 million people who are in this country today and are undocumented,” Davis said.
Hurst described the fence as “a political sham to fool all of us.” He said he agreed that the border needs to be sealed but that other ways should be found to do so. He also questioned why Congress has not already addressed the immigration issue.
On the federal No Child Left Behind program, Davis disagreed with its characterization as “an unfunded mandate.
“More federal money is going into the system than before we had No Child Left Behind,” Davis said. “It’s been a 40 percent boost in funding.”
Hurst described the mandate as “bad legislation” that causes teachers to spend more time preparing students for tests.
“We have to make a change in how we invest in education and No Child Left Behind doesn’t do it,” Hurst said.
As the debate was drawing to a close, the candidates were asked what it takes to be a successful congressman for the 11th District.
Davis pointed out that he had been involved in his community long before he ran for Congress, including serving as the chairman of the Fairfax Board of County Supervisors.
“I knew my community and I’ve been active in my community and that is a very important factor,” Davis said, while pointing out the lack of community involvement of his opponent aside from working within the county Democratic Party.
“The community has invested 12 years in my seniority and my ability to get things done, and we have produced,” Davis said.
Hurst said that Congress is too partisan and unproductive. “I’m here today because I am not happy with Congress,” he said.
“The most important thing for someone in Congress to do is stand up for yourself. I think it’s the ball game,” Hurst said. He pointed out that, unlike Davis, he has not taken any political action money.
“I’m about reforming Congress,” Hurst said.
The 11th Congressional District includes the central and eastern Prince William County areas of Woodbridge, Lake Ridge, Occoquan and parts of Dale City and central Fairfax County.