2023 State House and Senate Primary Candidate Forum

Fifteen Minute Fredericksburg is a group of Fredericksburg citizens who are committed to a vision of our city as a place where all residents can conveniently live their daily lives on foot or by bike.  As a group, we broadly support the development of high-quality bike and pedestrian infrastructure; streets that are safe for all users young and old; affordable and accessible housing for all Fredericksburg residents; and healthy small and neighborhood businesses.  We want our city and all of its neighborhoods to be open, accessible, affordable, convenient, and pleasant places to live.

To that end, we developed a short list of four questions about Fredericksburg and its future and posed them to all the candidates currently running in the Democratic and Republican primaries (as well as independent candidates) for State House District 65 and State Senate District 27.  We are publishing all the candidates’ answers that we received, unedited, below.  If a candidate does not appear on this forum, it is because we did not receive a response from them (see list of candidates at the bottom of the page).  We make no endorsements in this primary; rather, we want to share information related to our vision with our supporters that will help them make their own decisions.

Question 1: How can the state ensure that we grow smart in the Fredericksburg region?

Joshua Cole, Democrat, Candidate for State House District 65:
We need to take a holistic approach to the Fredericksburg region’s growth. We know that people want to live here and that our area is rapidly expanding but if we don’t take key items – like housing, transportation, and jobs – into account, we will be left behind. In order to grow smartly, we should preserve our greenspaces, increase walkability with pedestrian and bike paths, create a range of housing options, and expand our schools.

Monica Gary, Independent, Candidate for State Senate District 27: We need to establish a regional transportation authority, particularly one that would be funded from sources other than the localities. Senator McPike filed a bill last session that did just that and I would support it coming back with some adjustments. This is key to funding a few key projects to provide more of a grid for the region and prevent spawl. Funding public transit is a major component. On the VRE Operations Board, PRTC, and FAMPO I’ve supported millions to be dedicated to public transit including the continued efforts to build out the third rail so that VRE can have a dedicated passenger line with more flexibility for commuters. Residential development must be incentivized near public transit and different transportation options must be connected. I will advocate and fund “complete streets” that work for drivers, pedestrians, bicyclists, and public transportation riders.

Regarding residential growth, our region has a lack of affordable and variety of housing that must be addressed. As Chair of Stafford County’s first ad hoc Affordable and Workforce Housing Committee, which I fought to establish, I am working with my colleagues to identify barriers to attainable housing for our most vulnerable. The Virginia Health Department identified both housing and recreation as major factors in mental health, depending on socioeconomic status, so not only is attainable housing needed but it will also help pour community be healthier and thrive. I have lived in both Section 8 and mixed income communities. Studies support what I have experienced, that mixed income developments are ideal for stable communities. Housing should not concentrate poverty and struggle as this results in heavy burdens on our social services, first responders and the psychological health of our community.

During my time on the Stafford County Board of Supervisors, I have seen that inability to fund basic needs and infrastructure is a common concern when considering residential developments. As such, the state must provide increased funds to localities for public education and transportation projects, much of which can be allocated from setting up an equitable cannabis market as soon as possible.

Ben Litchfield, Democrat, Candidate for State Senate District 27: The most effective way that the General Assembly can ensure that the Fredericksburg region grows smart would be to repeal the Dillon Rule which prohibits localities like Fredericksburg from adopting innovative approaches to development and land use to address sprawl, lack of affordable housing, and lack of public transit infrastructure. I am a firm believer that these kinds of land use decisions should be made by localities and not by lawmakers in Richmond.

The Dillon Rule is a common law principle that local governments only have the powers expressly granted to them by state legislatures, powers necessary or implied from such grants of authority, and powers crucial to the existence of local government. In close cases, there is a presumption against a locality having a power that is not expressly granted to it. This rule hamstrings localities like Fredericksburg who are in the best position to make land use decisions.

Apart from repealing the Dillon Rule, some policies that the General Assembly could adopt to prioritize smart growth include:

    • Targeting state infrastructure funds to compact, walkable, transit-oriented places and prioritize state funding to jurisdictions that plan housing for all levels of the workforce;
    • Linking economic development funds and Opportunity Zones to mixed-use, walkable, and transit-oriented localities; Increasing state funding for the affordable housing trust;
    • Authorizing inclusionary zoning for all localities; Encouraging and incentivizing multi-family housing and the elimination of parking minimums and within half mile of all bus rapid transit and light rail;
    • Encouraging and incentivizing accessory dwelling units where appropriate; and
    • Providing community land trusts and land banks a statewide right of first refusal on all abandoned and/or blighted properties up for auction if they commit to using those properties for affordable housing.


Question 2: What is your approach to addressing congestion?


Joshua Cole, Democrat, Candidate for State House District 65: Congestion is a serious problem in the Fredericksburg region and unfortunately, we are well known across the nation for it. To combat this, we need to expand public transit infrastructure. As a Delegate, I supported a JLARC study in 2020 to see the feasibility of extending the Blue line to woodbridge, carried legislation to create a Regional Transportation Authority in our area (with regulations for emissions), and want to increase accessibility to rail transportation. I also want to boost our economy and bring high paying jobs to our region, so we can keep people here, rather than having to commute up I-95.

Monica Gary, Independent, Candidate for State Senate District 27: The last resort for addressing congestion should be adding more asphalt, however there are some key projects that may be helpful including a potential river crossing west of I95. This crossing has been discussed for many years, with no resolve. Approximately 79% of respondents to a recent FAMPO survey support an additional crossing. As a Member of FAMPO Policy Committee I voted to support the funding of a NEPA study to determine the feasibility of this project.

As an elected official, I have always supported funding for public transportation and will continue to do so in the Senate. It remains key to resolving many of our issues including congestion. The volume of freight on the Interstate is much higher than necessary considering that much of it could be moved to rail and use the CSX lines. This high volume of freight on I95 often affects our local roads as travelers seek alternate routes during congestion. As the third rail is completed along with the long bridge in Northern Virginia, this freight will no longer have to share lines with VRE, which would then have a dedicated commuter line. Complete streets, with multiuse paths and bike lanes are imperative to provide safe, alternative commuting options around the region. I would also work to incentivize and allocate funding for more rural areas to develop proactive comprehensive plans for public transit sites and complete streets, if they so choose.

As a Commissioner on the Potomac Rappahannock Transportation Commission, I am currently working to ensure regional synergy across various legislative agendas for localities and PRTC to advocate for public transit friendly policy from the Commonwealth. One of the funding issues for Omniride (PRTC) is Virginia does not allow for advertising at the bus shelters. Changing this could result in significant additional revenue and relieve some of the burden from local taxpayer, as well as increased economic development opportunities for local businesses. Well-built and well-funded public transportation systems are directly linked to a stronger local economy. I am proud to say that during my time on the Commission, I have supported resolutions and various efforts that helped Omniride return to and surpass pre-COVID ridership numbers.

Ben Litchfield, Democrat, Candidate for State Senate District 27: We will not solve congestion in the Fredericksburg region unless we provide residents with affordable and reliable public transportation.

Our current approach to addressing congestion is to widen roads which creates a perverse incentive for more development and more cars on the road. While I recognize that we do need to improve our infrastructure, and I am a strong supporter of infrastructure improvements, I believe that we should create incentives for residents to use more public transportation including FXBGO!, Virginia Railway Express, and Amtrak.

In the General Assembly, I will champion legislation to bring money to the Fredericksburg region to allow FXBGO! to purchase an entirely new fleet of electric buses and establish new, high-frequency routes so that our residents have alternatives to getting into their cars when they need to go to work or want to visit downtown Fredericksburg to do their shopping or dining.

Several Northern Virginia localities have high-frequency transit options including the Fairfax City-University-Energysaver (“CUE”) buses that run on permanent loops between George Mason University and the Vienna Metro station. The CUE buses have a daily ridership of 2,800 people during the week and an annual ridership of 579,500.

I would like to build on the CUE template to create dedicated high-frequency transit in the Fredericksburg region.

Question 3: In an era of rising rents and rising property values, how do you propose to address housing affordability issues in the Fredericksburg region?

Joshua Cole, Democrat, State Candidate for House District 65: Creating affordable housing for low and middle income families is important. I’m ready to carry legislation to invest more funds into the Virginia Housing Trust Fund and to enable non-profit organizations to have automatic rezoning to allow affordable housing on said property.

Monica Gary, Independent, Candidate for State Senate District 27: Micah Ministries is planning to build a “Jeremiah” community in our region, which has been described as a “tiny home village for the chronically homeless”. I was glad to provide a letter of support as a local elected official for their recent federal grant application. When I was very young, my family lived in motels prior to finding suitable county-maintained housing. This is the lived experience of too many families in our region. Beyond the unhoused population, we have many people who cannot afford housing due to low wages and lack of availability of housing. I hear stories from constituents and my children about the challenges for working class folks, including and especially our educators. This is why I pushed for and was able to establish Stafford County’s first committee on Affordable and Workforce Housing, which I now Chair.

We are working to maintain low-income housing stock and identify barriers to attaining workforce housing. One thing that can be done is to provide suitable senior living communities which can help free up some of the smaller, more affordable homes in the area as people transition to those communities. We are listening to industry professionals and stakeholders to understand the challenges better and what we can do to remove barriers that prevent needed development. Again, much of this comes back to funding basic needs for the localities. Taxpayers don’t want more housing if the existing infrastructure is insufficient.

As Senator, I would work to correct unfunded mandates to free up vital resources for localities. Stafford alone has exonerated approximately 50 million dollars since the constitutional amendment was passed to provide certain real estate and car tax benefits to one hundred percent disabled Veterans. I am encouraged that we care for our veterans enough to do such a thing; my husband is a disabled USMC veteran and we have two adult children in the USMC and Army. Maintaining housing has been a common struggle for veterans. However, the localities are suffering under the lost revenue and the state must replace these funds to affected localities as losing it has given elected officials reason not to approve much needed housing. I also believe that the required number of affordable units is too low units within developments that seek federal funding, and would advocate to change this as well as working to make multi-income developments more common.

Nearly forty percent of Americans cannot afford a four-hundred-dollar financial emergency, which makes it difficult to keep a rental unit or buy a home. I have continued my volunteer work after being elected and expanded it to include training people to advocated for higher wages and to ultimately change the federal tax code for the ultra-wealthy and large corporations. Working class wages remain too low while corporations reap huge profits. In the Senate, I would support the State minimum wage increases scheduled for January 1, 2024, 25, and 26 as well as annual indexing to begin in 2027 and fight for increased tip minimum wages.

Ben Litchfield, Democrat, Candidate for State Senate District 27: We need to significantly increase the housing supply in the Fredericksburg region to address the lack of affordable housing. According to the Fredericksburg Area Association of Realtors, the “months of supply,” which is a measure of the housing supply in our area, continues to plummet which is only going to cause housing prices to skyrocket as supply dwindles and demand continues to increase.

One approach is to grant localities the authority to require developers to set aside portions of new units for rent or sale below-market or pay a fee to the locality. While that approach has some merit, I do not believe it is enough to address the significant lack of housing supply in our region. We also need to ensure the Virginia Housing Trust Fund is capitalized to meet the housing needs of organizations like Habitat for Humanity, who use trust funds to finance the purchase and/or construction of affordable homes for lower income residents, and expand the trust fund’s authorities to provide housing stabilization services particularly for disabled veterans and those experiencing chronic homelessness.

Moreover, the Commonwealth should create incentives for localities to create, on their own or in conjunction with a non-profit housing provider such as Habitat for Humanity, land banks and community land trusts to purchase abandoned and/or blighted properties up for auction and redevelop those properties for sale as affordable housing. Furthermore, I believe that the Commonwealth should grant localities greater authority to encourage and incentivize multi-family housing where appropriate.

In 2020, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (“JLARC”) conducted a study of the problem of affordable housing in the Commonwealth of Virginia and made the following additional recommendations:

    • Amending the Virginia Code to require publicly funded rental units set aside for low-income households to charge rents that are affordable to households earning 80 percent and below the area median income;
    • Directing the Department of Housing and Community Development to evaluate how a grant program could be structured, funded, and administered to incentivize localities to adopt zoning policies that facilitate the development of affordable housing; and
    • Directing the Department of Housing and Community Development to study housing needs every five years, develop a statewide housing plan with measurable goals, and provide annual updates to the General Assembly.

I support these JLARC proposals.

Question 4: How can state policy accelerate Fredericksburg’s and Virginia’s transition to a carbon-neutral future?

Joshua Cole, Democrat, Candidate for State House District 65: I am a proud to be Clean Virginia endorsed candidate, which fights back against money corruption on politics for cleaner governing and clean energy regulation. As Delegate, I carried the fossil fuel moratorium bill that would have stopped fossil fuel projects at the state level. We also need to reimagine our communities and make it easier for people to walk, bike, and utilize public transportation to get to where they need to.

Monica Gary, Independent, Candidate for State Senate District 27: Here is an area where my Independent political nature is vital to progress in the Senate. The argument for cleaner energy has evolved into an all-or-nothing approach by many legislators. In reality, the industry professionals advocating for clean energy within the Commonwealth understand that it is a flight path that is needed and a combination of both fossil fuels and clean energy as we progress to a goal of becoming carbon neutral. I would support the work already being done by staff and professionals to quicken this timeline.

We also need to re-evaluate the way that carbon credits are handled. Companies claiming carbon neutrality depend on other factors making up for their damaging practices and it is misleading to label some as actually being carbon neutral despite the negative environmental impacts.

Again, we come back to tax structures and tax benefits for large corporations. I have not supported such benefits to corporations at a local level, nor would I do so as a Senator. For example, private jets owned by corporate executives are approximately one percent of aircraft and yet account for nearly fifty percent of the fossil fuel usage in the industry. Greed and excessive wealth are destroying our economy as well as our environment. The revenues generated from taxing these corporations and the excessively wealthy could be reinvested into programs that mitigate environmental impacts, fund education, and expand public transportation which also reduces carbon emissions.

Ben Litchfield, Democrat, Candidate for State Senate District 27: The General Assembly can accelerate our transition to a carbon-neutral future by significantly increasing the deployment of solar energy facilities, creating incentives for localities to replace their public transit fleets (including school buses) with electric vehicles, and adopting carbon fees and dividends.

We could expand the use of shared solar facilities to allow individuals who do not have access to their own solar energy facilities, especially people living in apartments, to purchase energy from renewable resources.  In addition, we could adopt tax incentives and grant programs to ensure that lower-income individuals are able to obtain solar panels if they want them and provide economic incentives for localities to adopt zoning requirements that mandate solar panels on any new developments.  Furthermore, we could create similar tax incentives and grant programs for localities to put solar panels on government buildings.

The General Assembly has created pilot programs to allow localities to purchase electric school buses.  Those programs were widely successful and hugely popular.  We can significantly expand those programs to ensure that localities can replace their public transit fleets, including school buses and commuter buses like FXBGO!, with electric buses as soon as possible.

As a stop-gap measure, we can also adopt carbon fees and dividends.  A carbon fee and dividend policy create a tax on corporate polluters based on how much carbon dioxide they emit. Tax revenue from increased carbon prices would then be distributed among Virginians through tax refunds.  A student at the College of William and Mary, Emily O’Keefe, is spearheading a movement to adopt such a policy in the Commonwealth.

The underlying idea is that if we raise the price of pollution, this will create a strong economic incentive for companies to reduce their carbon footprint.  Although this does not solve the problem – by a mile – putting a cost on pollution could encourage more companies to be conscious of the carbon that they emit at least in the short-term while we implement some of the more ambitious plans to transition Virginia to a carbon-neutral future.

Here is the list of candidates that we attempted to send the questionnaire to:

State House District 65

    • Joshua Cole (Democrat)
    • Michael Kasey (Republican)
    • Lee Peters (Republican)
State Senate District 27
    • Tara Durant (Republican)
    • Monica Gary (Independent)
    • Joel Griffin (Democrat)
    • Ben Litchfield (Democrat)
    • Matt Strickland (Republican)
    • Luke Wright (Democrat)

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