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68th District Candidate Interview: Dawn Adams

Del. Dawn Adams
Del. Dawn Adams at the VPM News studio. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM)

Ben Paviour sits down with Dawn Adams, the incumbent Democratic candidate for Delegate in Virginia's 68th District.


Adams: My name is Dawn Adams. I am the delegate in the District 68 for the House of Delegates in the General Assembly. That territory represents parts of Richmond City, parts of Northern Chesterfield and two and a half precincts of Henrico County.

Paviour: Could you tell us something about yourself that most people don't know?

Adams: When I was 10 years old, I was the Alabama state swimming champion.

Paviour: That's pretty cool. What book or movie had a significant impact on you? Are there any that come to mind?

Adams: You know, I read so many books and I'm trying to think if there's one that sort of really speaks to me and it's probably a spiritual book that I'd rather keep to myself. I read a lot and I love movies and I don't watch anything with violence or gore or horror.

Paviour: Okay. I'll jump into some of the more policy-related questions. So one is, should Virginia change any of its gun laws and should cities and counties have more control over regulating guns?

Adams: I think that we are in a time where we have to have this conversation around guns and gun safety, particularly the perception of public threat and the need to ensure that everyone feels safe, especially our students and teachers. It's definitely time to have a real conversation, not this mirage kind of set up of a no-conversation. I think that there are reasonable changes that we can make that if it wasn't so politicized, most people would agree on and that those changes don't affect second amendment rights. There's probably a fairly significant list, but I think universal background checks, one gun a month, limiting the purchase of high capacity magazines... I mean, these are just sort of reasonable proposals that I think most Americans, at least from everything I've read, people agree on those things, even gun owners.

Paviour: Completely unrelated question: Virginia is known for having lax campaign finance laws compared to other states. Do you think there should be more limits in place?

Adams: I think we need to reevaluate the entire campaign finance system. I like that we have to specifically state what it is that we take in and every single thing that we use the money for. There could definitely be more precision in that. It's uncomfortable to me to see that sometimes payouts are large sums, but they have no accounting for what that is. So if I were to make a change just on that issue, I think that would be a reasonable change, but in terms of campaign finance in general, I would like to see the structure change so that we're not spending millions of dollars on a campaign at a state level. I think it's crazy and a wasteful use of people's money.

Paviour: So, say more on that. "Let's change the structure"... What does that exactly entail?

Adams: Well, like everything, there is a business around it, and so I'm not a person that would know how to reconstruct that because my area of expertise is in healthcare, but I would like to see some kind of limitation. For example, if you're running in a state race at the house level, this is how much money you can spend on this race, and so some kind of structure where it limits and sort of levels the playing field so that it really takes money almost out of it, and then you're able to really focus on messaging and focus on the issues that people care about. I think that's really important.

Paviour: Okay. Let's talk healthcare. What can be done at the state level to lower the cost of healthcare?

Adams: I really think a lot can be done. People like myself who is sort of a new voice in the General Assembly, we need people who can look at this through a different lens or have a really diverse experience. Up until now that diversity has been limited by the fact that most decisions are made at the physician level. I think that there is really clear evidence that many healthcare practitioners contribute to the best healthcare. The same is true with policy.

I have a very extensive background. I've been in healthcare 35 years. I have a bachelor's degree in nursing, a master's degree in nursing, a doctorate in nursing. I've worked in nearly every clinical environment, meaning acute care, long term care, home care. I've worked in the private sector, I've worked in the public sector, I've had a huge budget.

I think it all starts with understanding that we have to decrease the cost of services and we have to start thinking about, well how do we do that? Is there a structure where we can reduce the administrative costs or even maybe restructure how we're coming at insuring our health. For example, what if we thought about having a conversation with one of the larger healthcare organizations and just test out whether or not you could buy a plan directly from them so that you could use all their preventative services? And then that you paid out some prescribed costs of what it would cost if you had to have a surgery? What would that look like? Would we be able to actually run without going into a deficit for that agency?

I think we have to start looking at some of these things because there's so much money spent on the negotiation with insurance companies. Insurance companies are great, right? But when it comes to healthcare, it's not worked out to be a good infrastructure and it's very complicated. I don't want to get too in the weeds, but I think that what I'm saying is I think people can buy a plan where they can get health services in a much more affordable structure if we took out some of the middle people.

I think we can reduce costs on drugs at the state level. I think we can look at areas to streamline, put more regulations in place around. There's a lot of money that goes into the spending, for example, at the state level for Medicaid and DMAS, and so really looking at making sure that we have outcome structures and that the reimbursement is consistent with what the work is actually being done. I mean, there's a lot. It's very complicated, but I love thinking about them all, and I like talking and I think it's more important for somebody like me who has this background to be able to listen to people with ideas and talk about, what are the pros and cons? What are the unintended consequences of this great idea? And how do we afford that?

Because we spend most of our money in state government on three things: healthcare, education, transportation, and there's a lot of money, but we have to prioritize what we care about and then we have to make sure the structure is such that it's working maximally with the least amount of waste. A lot of people think that that means we have to get more money from other sources, and I think it's highly possible that we need to restructure how we're using some of the money, so issues around the budget, issues around healthcare, issues around education... All of these things are really interrelated and really important. I find that the more I study the policies and the process, the more I really see that the budget is driving policy rather than policy driving the budget. That's why I've put in for two years a bill that would form a commission of public and private stakeholders along with members of the assembly to make policy recommendations on what should the priorities be toward the end of having a healthy Virginia, because I think at the end of the day, we all want to live our fullest life, our healthiest life with the most possible opportunities, with the least possible obstacles, and at the same time, recognize that we're doing it in a fair way so that you succeed in a fair way, but you also allow opportunities for people to have the best quality education, for example. Education is a great opportunity resource and so it should be a priority that the education standards are universal amongst the entire state. Sometimes it's really good to have state oversight or the coordination of something that is statewide because it allows for fairness in places where the opportunity is less available to them without that.

Paviour: I'm trying to pull specific ideas out of that. You mentioned maybe piloting a program, if I'm understanding this correctly... So if for instance I needed surgery or if I wanted to go buy a plan, maybe I don't do that through an insurance company, maybe I do it through some other hospital group or medical group and buy services from them directly. Is that kind of it?

Adams: Yeah, I would like to see that. I would like to see us try that because at the end of the day, what we've really been offered as an affordable approach to healthcare insurance that's separate from what we're offered in the work environment is really catastrophic insurance. It's a horrible approach to getting insurance because it doesn't really cover preventative care, which prevents a lot of things from happening. But if you have a true catastrophe, medical care is so costly that you're still going to end up with a huge amount of debt, so it's a bad investment. A lot of these catastrophic plans, they have limitations. The most I've seen is about a million dollars. You can run up a million dollar bill in a catastrophe pretty quickly, and people who buy catastrophic insurance are usually younger people because you're assuming that they'll be healthy. The problem with that is it is the younger people, I've cared for so many of these kids that, they have a skiing accident or they dive into the water and they have a spinal cord injury because they've broken their neck. When they have a catastrophe, it's real, so yes, sometimes it's just a surgery and that's great and you have it covered, but do you want to take the chance with your child or yourself to have this insurance plan that doesn't cover you in the true catastrophe?

Paviour: You talked a little bit about education. Our education reporter wants to know, would you support state funded financing of school construction in Virginia?

Adams: Yeah, I think it's something that we should be talking about. I mean, again, I really feel like if we had different conversations and really got rid of some of the politics, in the worst sense of the word, of these issues and focused on the issues at hand and the purpose, we could cut through the noise and really understand that if we want the best for Virginia, it starts with education. It starts really in learning environments that are conducive to kids taking and retaining the information. It also is an environment where people feel like they're safe and they feel like they can talk. I mean, kids today, I think they have a lot more to handle than I did when I was a kid, and so we need the wraparound services of people like social workers or stress management practitioners to help guide kids with how to deal with the stress of being a student. I think that's important to learning because when you're stressed out, you can't learn.

I think that having an environment that's structurally sound where you're not sweating or freezing, or you can't go to the bathroom because the plumbing is broken, these things all interfere with learning, so it makes sense to me that we would ensure that universally our kids can learn in an environment that's acceptable to all kids as a minimum standard. I think that we should really look at the fact that success rates for all people and especially in underserved areas are much higher for kids that have some kind of education before kindergarten, so looking at things like universal pre-k is really an investment in our future.

I would like to see us having conversations and changes in the way we come at policy from a place of where do we want to go as a state? What is our vision? What is the priority that drives us going forward? How do we want to see Virginia evolve over time? Because we are living in an extremely high stress society. We get poor quality food. We get very little sleep. We have way too much screen time. We have too little time to play and enjoy life. Is this the future that we want?

I think it's time to have that conversation. It's time to have that conversation around policy. I think we have seen recently in the paper over and over again that we're doing really well in the business arena. Employees are doing pretty well, but we really should be considering what is it that we want besides more money as a society? It's great to have money, but we need to be looking at, who do we want to be as souls? I think we should be thinking about that even in policy. I think it's really important.

Paviour: Okay. That's pretty broad. So what specifically?

Adams: Well, I always get a lot of feedback that I'm too in the weeds, so I'm trying to be less in the weeds for you here, but what specifically would you like me to comment on?

Paviour: Well, we were talking about state funded school constructions.

Adams: I think it's something that we need... The problem with media right now is that everything has to be a soundbite of yes or no. The truth is is that we have to really look at this stuff deeply and we have to look at all the pros and cons, and since I'm not sitting here with a budget and three experts, I don't know the most complete answer, but I think we should have that conversation. Absolutely. I think we should have the conversation of restructuring how we're paying our teachers. There are many conversations I would like to see us have as we go into making laws.

Paviour: Next question is, should the General Assembly hold hearings into allegations of sexual assault against Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax?

Adams: In everything that I have read, it doesn't seem like that's within the purview of the rules and so I don't see any value in that.

Paviour: Should localities be given the ability to take down or modify confederate monuments?

Adams: That's a super tough question. I can tell you that I don't have a firm answer on that is what I can tell you. I've really gone back and forth about that.

Paviour: Can you unpack your thinking a little bit? Like what you're weighing as you think about that?

Adams: Sure. I mean, what is represented by a lot of the confederate specific monuments is hurtful. It represents two pasts that now have been increasingly polarized. The past of the African American citizen and the past of the white citizen. This is really what it gets down to. I guess the issue for me is it's completely hurtful, and would it be better to remember and put context around it and to make these change the meaning of the monuments basically, but make them there and available for people to see that this was the problem? Or is it better to remove them? And I honestly don't know the answer, but it's stuff that I think about a lot. I think it's a particularly unique problem for Richmond because a big part of the culture here in Monument Avenue, and the states, they own some of those structures. It's a complicated question and I think the right thing to do as a legislator is to really listen to your constituents. Really, it's their voice that matters as a collective,

Paviour: I guess from the sound of it, you're saying the argument for keeping them is that it's a reminder of this chapter in history?

Adams: I mean it's part of the culture of Richmond. I don't think that we take all of history and put it away. Even to put things in museums sometimes, I think if it's out of sight, it's out of mind. I think it's really important that we remember that there is an extraordinary history within Richmond around slavery, and all the horrible and horrific things that have happened in Virginia's past. I think sometimes the only way to heal is to really confront things head on, and so that's why I'm not sure what the right answer is and it's just really important to listen to people and to figure it out together.

Paviour: Home prices and rents are up across the state. What role should state lawmakers play in fixing the problem? There's been ideas about giving more protection to tenants. There's other ideas around maybe increasing the amount of money in housing trust fund. Those are just a few things that have come up in the past.

Adams: Well, what I can tell you is that there's a lot of conversation on building vertically, because we're landlocked in Richmond in particular. There's no more land to develop, and so as we have more people coming to the Richmond area who see all the benefits of Richmond, it is becoming a problem, and that's because in Northern Virginia, it's very crowded and chaotic and expensive, and so now it's coming down here. It's kind of driving all that up.

I think that as law makers, our job is to pay attention to get all the information from all the different stakeholders, to listen to the constituents and to sort of collectively look at what are the solutions and what's the role of the state. I think it's not one part of government's job. It's collectively local government, state government, the private sector, the realtors. You have to collectively come at these problems. You can't just say so-and-so fix a problem. It's like saying, I hear a lot of times, oh we need to give it to the millennials so they can fix the problem. I mean, you just can't toss it off. You have to talk about things collectively and figure out what the best decision is. That doesn't make for good soundbites, but it does make for good policy.

Paviour: So let's talk a little bit about your race. There's a couple months ahead of the election. You're running against Garrison Coward. He seems to be running a campaign sort of casting himself as a moderate. He's a millennial. I could see his argument that he can have some appeal for some maybe moderate Democrats or some people who might have voted for you last time. Could you talk a little bit about how you feel going into the last couple of months here?

Adams: I don't really know that much about Mr. Coward. He moved into the district recently and I really don't know his background other than he's always been in politics for, from what I know, until recently, so I don't really pay attention to what he's doing. I pay attention to what I'm doing.

I am a new voice in the general assembly. I'm a seasoned public servant. I have a lot of expertise in education that I try to bring when asked or when needed. I have spent the last two years communicating a lot more than I think was communicated in the past with constituents. As a delegate in this role, I think that I have built really good relationships across the aisle and passed 57% of my legislation this past year as a freshman. That's a pretty good track record.

I think that, sadly, it doesn't matter what people say around whether or not they're a moderate Republican. That just doesn't exist. And all you need to do is look at the sessions in the General Assembly and you'll see that on issues of consequence, the only voice that matters is the leadership, and you can just review the session. If you want to really be represented, if you have a diversity of opinion and you want somebody who's thinking through all of these issues and the implications for both the district and the state, if you want somebody who actually will stand up to party leadership and vote maybe against the majority of your party, that would be me, and you can't do that as a Republican. You just can't.

Paviour: And so you think Democratic leadership won't have that effect on its caucus if it were to take power?

Adams: I can tell you that it won't have that effect on me, and it hasn't. You can just look at my record to see that.

Paviour: I also want to briefly touch not on the specifics of this lawsuit, but the fact that it made headlines. Do you see that impacting the next couple of months at all?

Adams: I think of course people are interested, especially when it's brought up, but I'm running my race and I've had a really good response to the work I've done over the last two years. My lawyers are vigorously at work, doing their job and I'm doing my job. I'm out there. I'm knocking doors. I'm talking to people. I'm doing my best to continue to get people to see why we have so much opportunity in Virginia and many good things that can be done, and we just need to capitalize on the new leadership that's been elected. There are so many of us that have a new voice, irrespective of age, and it's really about being public servants and looking at being a public servant as being more important and representing people more importantly than just some kind of more political gamesmanship.

Paviour: And is it fair to say that your top issue going into this campaign is healthcare?

Adams: For sure. I mean, it really is because I feel like we are really not talking about some critical things that are going to bankrupt us both financially, and I think personally. We are living longer. We are not necessarily healthier. We do not have an infrastructure to support the long term care of us as a society. We have millennials taking care of their parents already, my generation taking care of their parents, and then they're taking care of their kids, so you may have a child with autism, you may have diabetes and you're taking care of your mother who has Alzheimer's. There's no structure for that.

I have ideas. Other people have ideas, but we have to come together and say, we have to look at this. We don't like to talk about death, but I think we like to talk about aging and disability even less, but we have to because this is a hugely significant issue and it's right here, and I want to be somebody that helps solve this problem and work towards cost effective solutions.

Paviour: Anything else you wanted to add?

Adams: No, I appreciate the interview.

Paviour: All right. Well, thanks for coming.

Adams: You Bet.

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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