Sellinger kicks off campaign for 13th district
© Virginia News GroupIf there's anything Prince William County Democrats are really good at in off-year elections, it's re-electing state Sen. Chuck Colgan (D-29th) and losing against state Del. Bob Marshall (R-13th).
Retired Army reservist and Northern Virginia Community College computer teacher Donna Sellinger is attempting to change the latter part of the equation as the Gainesville resident is the only Democrat running after Patrick Casula abruptly dropped his candidacy at the end of February.
Sellinger, a New York City native who’s also lived in Manassas and Bristow, officially kicked off her campaign this past Sunday at the Virginia Oaks Golf Clubhouse, the same venue Casula was supposed to launch his candidacy on March 3 before canceling it the prior week.
During her speech, she identified education, transportation and women's rights as her chief concerns. During an interview afterward, she spoke mostly in generalities on those issues as opposed to specifics.
For instance, Sellinger said she wants more state spending for expanding pre-kindergarten and for increasing teacher pay.
However, with an increased percentage of the General Fund set to be designated for transportation expenses once Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) signs the recently passed bill into law (assuming he offers few amendments to it), the primary revenue stream for education will be tighter in future years.
She did offer one specific proposal for education as she suggested that localities should consider double sessions for students at overcrowded schools.
The theory goes that some students could go to school during the normal school day hours, while another set start a few hours later in the morning and exit school a few hours later in the afternoon.
Doing so could clear up classroom space.
Of course, that would lead to numerous implementation issues, such as with busing and the start time of after-school programs. It would also likely create some lively town hall meetings.
"You have to look at it from the standpoint of the parents wanting to get the best education for their children," said Sellinger.
Smaller class sizes are also on Sellinger’s agenda.
"The School Boards need to get more money. I'm not sure how you do that; that's something I would explore," she said.
That last statement became a reoccurring theme during her interview.
As a first time candidate who has yet to hire a legislative policy director, Sellinger is admittedly green when it comes to formulating ideas for public policy.
She would like to find more money for universal pre-kindergarten, saying, "We need to make sure that every child is able to go to pre-k regardless" of their economic status.
Though Sellinger said she does not want to raise taxes to fund that, diverting other tax money is an option for her.
"I'm saying that we should possibly find some money that we can put into pre-k," she said.
As for where that would come from, Sellinger wasn't entirely sure, though she did not rule out auditing agencies in the way that Del. Scott Lingamfelter's (R-31st) audit bill, once signed into law by McDonnell, uncovered $1 billion inside the Department of Transportation's coffers.
Regarding oversight of the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, Sellinger explained that she thought "there probably are changes that need to be made," adding that she is "not sure it's being managed properly."
On the hot-button topic of the creation of the Bi-County Parkway in western Prince William County to serve as an alternative route to Route 28 linking the county to Dulles International Airport, Sellinger said, "I'm still formulating an opinion on that."
Marshall attended the recent town hall meeting on the subject at Bull Run Middle School and appeared to be against the project.
Sellinger 's main transportation issue is expanding the Metro orange line westward from Vienna to western Prince William or the City of Manassas. Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-11th) already submitted a bill to Congress asking for a study to determine the feasibility of bringing Metro to Centreville in Fairfax County.
Manassas already has the Virginia Railway Express and an environmental study for a westward expansion from the Broad Run station at Manassas Regional Airport to Gainesville and Haymarket is already underway.
"I don't think it's a bad thing," said Sellinger though she added that "I'm a big fan of Metro" more than VRE.
She said that it makes sense to start looking at an expansion of Metro to western Prince William now "given that it's going to take at least 20 years to get a fund large enough to even start this project."
"There's no solution to mass transit until we have a fund for the expansion for VRE or Metro," Sellinger added.
She proposed that a priority for VRE should be reverse commute routes during rush hours that could bring people from Washington, D.C. to Manassas or Woodbridge in the morning.
Several aspects of Sellinger’s candidacy make her similar and different from the Democrats who have routinely served as the party's sacrificial lambs against Marshall over the last two decades (Marshall wins every two years by double-digit margins).
Like the last three nominees, Sellinger is a military veteran. The former Army recruiter received a medical discharge after 19 years in service due to issues with her knees and back. She explained that forced her into early retirement from the military and so she took up teaching afterward.
Unlike any time in the last decade though, Marshall has not faced a woman on the ballot since 1999.
Also, Sellinger is openly gay and lives with her partner at home in Gainesville.
Typically, media organizations question whether someone's sexuality is at all pertinent to that person's candidacy. In this case, it's a compelling part of the narrative as Marshall is without question the most socially conservative member of the House of Delegates.
In fact, Marshall authored the state constitutional amendment approved in a 2006 referendum that reinforced an already existing ban on same-sex marriages, civil unions and domestic partnerships in Virginia.
For Marshall, that's just a small part of his record on issues related to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.
He led the charge against Gov. Bob McDonnell's appointment of the openly gay former prosecutor Tracy Thorne-Begland to be a judge on the Richmond Manchester General District Court last year and this year. He wanted the Virginia National Guard to have its own version of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" after Congress and Pres. Obama repealed the federal ban on gays serving openly in the military.
Marshall also opposed the Supreme Court's Lawrence vs. Texas decision in 2003 that deemed state laws prohibiting sodomy as unconstitutional. (It's on the books still in Virginia but is not enforced and was just struck down by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last week.)
In short, while some social conservatives vote a certain way on gay rights issues but don't speak about it unless prodded, Marshall is outspoken and an activist.
When asked how the state constitutional ban on same-sex marriage affected her personally, Sellinger replied, "I believe that everyone deserves equality. I don't know how else to put it to you."
It's rare for an openly gay person to run for office in Prince William County, especially on the western half.
The last time that happened at all in the county came during the special election for Occoquan District supervisor in 2007, when Jeff Dion (D) ran against eventual winner Mike May (R) in the race to claim Board of County Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart's (R) vacated seat.
Dion's sexuality made for chatter online but May said pointedly at the time that he didn't care about it and Dion equated it to his eye color and being left-handed.
Sellinger and Marshall are also fundamentally opposed on abortion access, with Marshall opposing abortion rights in all cases except to save the life of the mother and Sellinger supporting abortion rights.
"I'm also 1,000 percent behind women's rights," Sellinger said about her candidacy.
Yet when asked what she is going to tell Marshall's constituents about his record on social issues or anything else that they don't already know after more than 20 years in office, Sellinger replied that she just hopes to bring more of her supporters out to the polls than Marshall while convincing more undecided voters to support her instead of him.
"Bob Marshall's record speaks for itself," said Sellinger. "All I can do is present my side of the argument."