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Mary Margaret Kastelberg and Rodney Willett Go Head-To-Head in Virginia’s 73rd House District

Willett and Kastelberg
Candidates Rodney Willett and Mary Margaret Kastelberg. (Photos: Yasmine Jumaa, Crixell Matthews/VPM)

Transcript:

From the VPM Newsroom in Richmond, I’m Yasmine Jumaa. 

We’re profiling some of the closest General Assembly races in this November’s elections. Today we’re looking at the 73rd House District. 

It includes parts of western and northern Henrico County. The historically Republican district was one of 15 to be flipped during the 2017 election, when Democrat Debra Rodman defeated Republican Delegate John O’Bannon. Rodman is now running for state senate, leaving the seat wide open.

Two first-time candidates are vying for Rodman’s seat. One of them is Democrat Rodney Willett. He recently sat for an interview with us at our news studio. Willett told us he’s a small business entrepreneur who aims to tackle some of the social issues that he says have stagnated in the GOP-controlled General Assembly. 

Willett: When I start thinking about the hundreds of thousands of people who are not covered with health insurance right now, the folks who are struggling to pay for rising drug costs, the challenges with schools who are not adequately taking care of their teachers in the classrooms, those are heavier lifts.

Willett’s challenger is Republican Mary-Margaret Kastelberg — a financial advisor. Kastelberg declined several of VPM’s interview requests, but we caught her at a Henrico candidate forum. She says her focus is on what she calls “kitchen table issues” like increasing teachers’ salaries, higher-ed tuition freezes and healthcare.

Kastelberg: We really need to attack the causes — the factors that are driving up healthcare costs. And we need to recognize that not one size fits all when it comes to healthcare. 

To Willett, passing Medicaid expansion in 2018 was a great first step. But he says there are still people who are eligible for the program who haven’t been covered.

Willett: There were 700 plus thousand people who could have come into that program. Only 400,000 were brought in, so there's another 320,000 out there that could be paid for. Again, the federal government takes on the bulk of this cost. The hospital industry has indicated its willingness to help with those costs so we can pay for that and get hundreds of thousands of more Virginians covered. 

Kastelberg says relying on the program will lead to a shortage in doctors. She thinks they’re avoiding the program because it’s not reimbursing them fast enough. 

Kastelberg : I’d like to see us continue to develop other models for access to care, because that’s really what it’s all about. Who's paying the bill is important. But the bottom line is people need to have care and I think we can achieve that without adding on to Medicare down the road. 

Both Kastelberg and Willett see public-private partnerships as a means of lowering the cost of drugs and providing affordable healthcare.

Willett says one focus of his campaign is mental health. He’d like to provide more funding for services and add more beds to state facilities.

Willett: We have absolutely a mental health crisis in Virginia in terms of the inadequacy of facilities, the inadequacy of counseling, the inadequacy of enough professionals to help those in need. I'm particularly focused on adolescent mental health issues. There's, hopefully now, a well known statistic that one in five adolescents suffer from some level of serious mental health concerns. That's a huge number. 

Willett says tackling the state’s mental health crisis will require some work — but providing what he calls “front line support” at schools, and increasing the counselor-to-student ratio would be progress. 

Another focus of Willett’s campaign is early childhood education. He says that starts with raising the wage for teachers. 

Willett: I talk about teacher salaries being too low. They are. We're still in the bottom third in the country. We have amazing schools and amazing teachers despite that fact, but that's through their heroic efforts. 

Kastelberg says she, too, wants to raise teacher salaries to meet the national average. But she also wants to take a more comprehensive look at measuring school outcomes. 

Kastelberg: We often talk about how much we spend on education. And I really think that we need to get away from using what we spend as the metric of whether we're successful or not. And we need to get to the point of measuring the outcomes. We're looking at graduation rates, how many people find employment, how many people move on to two year, four year or directly to employment. That's really where I think we can measure our success.

Willett adds that increasing support staff and aides in classrooms can foster better learning environments for youth — but he also stresses the need to address maintenance needs in schools. 

Willett: We can't expect our kids to excel in dilapidated buildings. You can look not too far away from where we're sitting today, here in the Richmond area, to see schools that, I truly wonder how students can function in those environments. You look at the failing HVAC systems, mold issues, leaks. I mean that's no place to go to school.

A big issue in this race is gun control. Willett says he endorses limiting high-capacity magazines and adding universal background checks. He’d also like to see “red flag” laws, which allow judges to prevent people who present a threat to themselves or others from possessing firearms.

Willett: Folks are absolutely concerned about gun safety. I'm talking conservative voters, more progressive voters, the whole spectrum. Folks want something to be done. Common sense measures. And I absolutely support that. I'm a gun owner. I grew up in the gun culture of Virginia, particularly I lived in rural Virginia. That's just part of what you do. 

At the forum, Willett blamed GOP leaders for putting a halt on gun legislation during a special session in July which lasted about 90 minutes. According to Willett, cities and counties should have more autonomy in implementing gun legislation — but he says there’s more foundational work to be done at the state level. 

Kastelberg has diverged from a common Republican stance to back a couple of the same restrictions as Willett, including “red flag” laws — which she said would need to carefully balance Second Amendment constitutional rights. She got a “D” rating from the National Rifle Association -- the worst rating for any Republican running for the House of Delegates. 

Kastelberg: Hundred-round magazines — [I] don't believe that those are appropriate.

Kastelberg said she’s against universal background checks, except for during gun show sales. She also dismissed the idea of banning assault weapons. 

At the forum, both candidates were asked to highlight the biggest issues facing younger generations.Kastelberg said it’s a shift in workforce needs. 

Kastelberg: Most people that are graduating from college or in high school today really are going to be working in fields and jobs that don't even exist today. And they're facing change at such a rapid pace and I feel like they've gotta be adaptable. They've got to be resilient. And I think that's a real challenge. They also are facing some economic hardships in terms of student debt load that many are coming out of college with.

Willet said he’s concerned about climate change.

Willett: I have three children and I can tell you there are already things that I can envision that they're not going to be able to do that I've been able to, I'm thinking about winter sports. I'm thinking about places I've been near coastlines — they’re going away. 

Kastelberg supports a more limited role in government regulation of environmental standards, and said joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative isn’t an effective approach to reducing carbon emissions. She also touted the idea of incentivising alternative energy firms.

Kastleberg: I do care about the environment. Despite what you hear Republicans, do care about the environment. I am in favor of incentives over mandates and I do think we can use incentives to, to help get the desired outcome, which is cleaner energy. 

Willett says that Republican leadership in the General Assembly has stalled progress on issues like climate change. He says Democrats will do better if they take control of the legislature.

But first they’ll have to hold on to seats like this one. Hillary Clinton won here by 7 points in 2016, but off-year elections usually have lower turnout. That’s generally good news for Republicans like Kastleberg.

You can follow our final weeks of election coverage and hear more of our interviews with the candidates at vpm.org

For VPM News, I’m Yasmine Jumaa

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