Providing Internet access to rural Virginia today is as important as running electricity to those same areas was in the ’30s and ’40s, according to Democratic Fifth District Congressional candidate Jane Dittmar.
“Even though we’re considered a wealthy county, [Albemarle County] could not afford to deploy Internet out to our rural area,” Dittmar said, noting that in the 16 years she lived in Scottsville before becoming a county supervisor, she had no idea there were areas without internet, since she had good connectivity at her home in the more urban part of the district. “And [Scottsville] is sort of a microcosm of what the Fifth is: We have wealthy conservative voters in the northern part; we have sort of a Democratic base in the central part; and then we have people that are living in the rural areas that also need better jobs, need more services in terms of Internet and cell.”
Earlier this month, Dittmar, the chairman of the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors, visited the Rappahannock News office, stopping in before a campaign party hosted by the Rappahannock Democrats at the library. The candidate talked internet and cell phone reception, guns for rural Virginians, gentrification, and the void of job opportunities and workforce training that she says spans the region.
Dittmar was first approached in the fall of 2014 to consider running for Rep. Robert Hurt’s seat. “And I was slow to grow in enthusiasm about it,” she said. “Only because I really enjoyed being on the local legislature, where you can see first-hand how your decisions are impacting people.”
Hurt announced that he will not run for reelection. Four Republicans, including Washington resident Joe Whited, are vying to represent the GOP in the fall election.
Though currently Dittmar is campaigning unopposed for the Democratic nomination, candidates still have until Feb. 26 to file the paperwork to run. Regardless, the Democrats will have a convention May 7, in Nelson County.
Broadband in a big district
It’s a five-hour drive north from Danville to Fauquier, which spans the Fifth district. Danville borders North Carolina, marking the southernmost extent of the district, and Fauquier the northernmost. The Fifth includes Rappahannock and 20 other counties and two cities, predominantly rural territory east of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
“The day of the announcement, we wanted to make sure that the areas of the district felt like we wanted to represent them,” Dittmar said, recounting a road trip with her deputy campaign manager Joel Schechtman last fall, to declare her intention to run for Congress. “So we started at 8 a.m. in Danville, and then drove to Warrenton by midday. And then we drove back to Charlottesville to make the announcement there. I mean we put 500 miles on the car in one day.”
“People love living in the rural area,” she said. “But it was just like when people living in the rural area didn’t have electricity: There was a role where we all had to come together and provide electricity; that was something that HAD to be deployed to businesses and homes. So that’s when I started taking a stronger look at what I wanted that seat to be used for.”
Dittmar was appointed to the governor’s Broadband Advisory Council last August. Gov. Terry McAuliffe established the Council to advise on policy and funding priorities to speed deployment and reduce the cost of broadband access in the state.
Joined by Albemarle’s information technology director and another county supervisor, Dittmar said she met with Rep. Hurt last year, asking for assistance from federal agencies in pursuing rural connectivity for parts of the county.
“And when that wasn’t forthcoming, I thought, ‘Well wait a minute, we need to use that [Fifth District] seat to help us do this be able to provide that critical infrastructure,’” Dittmar said. “And in the meeting with our Congressman, I said, ‘Isn’t this a problem for the whole district?’ I mean we are the most urban-suburban county, and only five percent of our landmass is urban-suburban; the rest is rural, but still, 50 percent of our population is in that area.
“It was an eye-opening experience for me to realize that there was a very much disjointed relationship between local, state and federal,” Dittmar continued, noting that her experience on the county board really helped her understand the relationship of the three legislatures, what their various authorities are and how they can work together. She also believes her background in mediation with the court system will come in handy, in conflict resolution and finding solutions.
In describing methods of improving Internet access to rural areas, Dittmar said it’s not as easy as putting up some poles and stringing some wire.
“The fix is what we call a network of networks. Some of it’s fiber, so you’re going to want to use right-of-ways that VDOT and others can provide,” Dittmar said, noting that the state will deploy another satellite this spring. “Some of it — and I don’t want to be too technical, but: Think of it as large routers, a router that you might have in your home, to provide wireless technology to the home. These are called WISPs — they’re wireless internet service providers. Some of them just look like pizza boxes on the side of electrical poles, and others could be put on railroad tracks.”
And so she said there are going to be a combination of ways to increase connectivity.
“We’ve got A LOT of counties like Albemarle, where we have some flat area with roads and railroad tracks, so that’s one network; but then you have these mountainous things, so you can’t be shooting beams, or signals, so that’s where you have some of the other possibilities,” she said. “And we’ve got different agencies that provide help to different types of networks. And then you’ve got your providers, which are private sector. And what you want to do is work with them to make sure the impediments that may be in their way are either worked through, or we are giving them the resources they need to deliver — like we did with rural electrification . . . I’m not a single-issue candidate, but that’s THE issue that keeps me going with all the energy that I have.”
Dittmar was born in Illinois farm county, the daughter of Daniel DeSimone. She moved to Northern Virginia at age 6 when her father came to work for President John F. Kennedy’s administration as a science and policy advisor. He remained at the White House until the Nixon administration. Then he founded the Office of Technology Assessment on Capitol Hill. The New York Times dubbed DeSimon “Mr. Metric” for writing legislation on Capitol Hill to move American industry toward using metric weights and measurements.
A 1978 graduate of the University of Virginia, Dittmar was among the first classes of women to attend the public university that had formerly only allowed white males. Her freshman year, Dittmar lived in Bonniecastle, which had long been a men’s dormitory before it was repurposed for girls. The bathrooms in her dorm still had urinals.
During the past 40 years, Dittmar has lived in Nelson, Fluvanna, and Albemarle counties, and the City of Charlottesville. She and her husband, Frank Squillace, have raised six children (Will, Mary, Virginia, Leia, Jed and Joe).
Workforce training, needed
In the southern end of the district, Dittmar said workforce training is needed.
“People have to sustain themselves financially,” she said, adding that if we don’t want a completely aging rural area, we need to make sure there’s an environment that allows such areas to stay beautiful but retain young people. “When you go down to Southside, which is our district down along the North Carolina border, they are exporting their kids. Their kids aren’t staying there. There are no jobs, partly because businesses can’t be where internet isn’t [and there’s a] lack of workforce training.”
There is a strong need to train post-high school adults entering the job hunt, college dropouts returning home, and for middle-aged adults who lost full-time jobs during the recession.
“And now they’re patching together, often, part time jobs — and their skills need retooling,” she said. “And so there’s kind of a lifelong workforce re-training need. And I think as a country we need to take a look at that in terms of our economic model.”
Guns in the country
Dittmar said that the personal safety issue is important to the gun debate.
“I learned much more about it after I was elected supervisor than I knew before, because: We have a police force in Albemarle County,” she said. “But there are places in the rural county, especially if there’s a domestic [assault] going on somewhere else that ties up resources, where you cannot get a squad car to somebody for 20 minutes at best, sometimes 40 to an hour.”
“You can’t say that someone can’t have a gun for personal safety, you can’t.”