Candidates tackle issues in 5th District debate

If who wins a debate is determined by how many words per minute a candidate speaks, count Tom Garrett Jr. the victor of Monday night’s confrontation with Jane Dittmar in Warrenton.

Republican Tom Garrett Jr. and Democrat Jane Dittmar react at Monday night's 5th Congressional District candidates' debate in Warrenton.
Republican Tom Garrett Jr. and Democrat Jane Dittmar react at Monday night’s 5th Congressional District candidates’ debate in Warrenton. By Doug Stroud for the Fauquier Times

The Republican candidate for the 5th District congressional seat gave rapid-fire answers to questions posed to him and Dittmar, ranging from challenges they’ve overcome to committees they’d like to serve on if elected, and their positions on the economy, global warming and the threat from ISIS.

But the Dittmar campaign was quick to send out a news release after the debate at Warrenton Middle School headlined “Dittmar Victorious in 5th District Candidate Forum in Fauquier County.” It cited the Democrat’s comments about protecting the environment and the benefits of land conservation.

The two candidates want the seat now held by Republican Rep. Robert Hurt, who’s not running.

Dittmar is a former Albermarle County supervisor. Garrett represents the 22nd District in the state Senate.

All of Rappahannock County and most of Fauquier County are in the giant 5th District, which includes 21 counties and the cities of Charlottesville and Danville.

The election is Nov. 8.

Dittmar and Garrett traded barbs while answering questions from the audience that numbered about 125, and from Fauquier Times publisher Bailey Dabney and Fauquier Now editor Lou Emerson.

Garrett chided Dittmar for what he described as a lack of specificity in her positions while Dittmar took Garrett to task for what she called his “my way or the highway” approach. She also said he’s “the darling of the Tea Party.”

Dittmar cited her experience as a professional mediator in making the case the 5th District needs someone who can bring people together and take a reasoned approach to solving problems.

Several times Garrett cited his Army service as evidence of his ability to lead and make decisions. He said he’d want to serve on the House Armed Service Committee, if given the choice.

“I think I understand evil,” he said at one point. The threat from ISIS and other groups can’t be defeated by “an aggressive PR (public relations) campaign.”

He said he worked with Democrats in the state Senate and claimed his record of cooperating with members of the other party is better than Dittmar’s in Albermarle County.

Dittmar pledged to open a congressional office in Fauquier County if elected. She noted her career as a small business owner and service as president of the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce. She serves on the governor’s broadband advisory council and has made extension of Internet service to under-served areas of the district a key part of her campaign.

Dittmar said she’d like to serve on the House Commerce Committee if elected and work on issues such as the “new economy,” agribusiness and tourism. Job creation is one of her signature issues.

Dittmar raised $1,032,460 in campaign contributions through Sept. 30 while Garrett raised $473,153, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission.

Garrett is a former prosecuting attorney. He’s served in the state Senate since 2011.

“I have a history of winning elections and doing what I said I’d do,” he told the audience.

He’s promoting what he calls the Student Security Plan, whereby college students can erase some of their student loan debt by putting off the year they’re eligible to receive Social Security benefits.

“It’s real reform that doesn’t make anybody lose anything,” Garrett said of his plan.

He called tuition debt a “black cloud” that’s keeping many from buying cars and houses and taking out small business loans.

Dittmar, however, said his proposal “only delays an issue that needs to be solved sooner.”

She proposed removing the payroll tax ceiling so that more higher-salary earners would pay into Social Security.

“This is a promise to keep,” she said of Social Security. “We have to make sure it remains solvent.”

In dealing with the national debt, Dittmar called for reforming the tax code.

“If we took away all the deductions except for mortgage payments, childcare, and charitable donations, we’d make a huge impact. If we were to simplify the tax code there’d be so much more money,” she said.

She also said, “We need to sit down and make principled compromises” on spending.

She said she wants a strong military and local police, workforce training, infrastructure improvements, health, and protection of water and air. Anything beyond that should be subject to negotiation.

Garrett decried “profligate” spending and cited his vote against a state budget bill as evidence he stands by his convictions.

“I won’t vote in fear of not getting appointed to a silly committee,” he said.

Garrett cited instances of spending on “dog parks, farmers markets and crosswalks” while other spending should receive priority.

“We have plenty of money. It’s just wasted when it goes to Washington,” he said.

Garrett said the U.S. shouldn’t sign trade agreements that do more for foreign nations than the U.S. Other countries should also be held accountable if they don’t abide by cutbacks on emissions that the U.S. follows, he said.

Dittmar replied that removing spending on crosswalks, farmers markets and dog parks would hardly make a dent in the budget.

Both candidates said they opposed the estate tax, with Dittmar saying it taxes those people who have paid tax already and Garrett saying it “destroys family farms and small businesses.”

Regarding government regulations, Dittmar said small companies shouldn’t be treated the same as large corporations.

“We need to have more people in Washington who have worked with small businesses,” she said.

Garrett said Congress needs to assert itself when it comes to its legislative duty. There’s been too much executive branch overreach in that area, he said.

Regarding immigration reform, Dittmar said a Senate-passed immigration reform bill died in the House due to “stalwarts” against the bill, which addressed the issues of the border with Mexico, illegal workers, visas, and children of illegal immigrants.

Garrett said, “We need to close the southern border to get control and then discuss what we need. There is no right to be an American. It’s a privilege to be an American.”

The Republican said he’d be willing to shut down the federal government in a budget dispute — “at some point we need to be ready to say ‘no’ ” — while Dittmar said the last government shutdown hurt the district just as it was emerging from the Great Recession.

By James Ivancic
Fauquier Times

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James Ivancic is a reporter for the Fauquier Times in Warrenton, Va. Contact him at