Thursday, August 23, 2012
My Interview with State Senator Mark Obenshain
Mark Obenshain represents the 26th senate district, which includes the City of Harrisonburg and the counties of Rockingham (part), Shenandoah, Page, Warren, and Rappahannock.
Virginia Gentleman: Your Father was one of the legends of Virginia politics. How would you describe his influence on your philosophy of government, and your decision to run for office?
Mark Obenshain: My father was a key part of the emergence of a two party system in Virginia. He was a reader, a thinker and a student of history. He had a deep appreciation for the foundations upon which this nation was built and he understood that liberty can be fleeting and that the paramount responsibility of our elected leaders is to serve as guardians of our freedom. He believed in the greatness of America and in the capacity of Americans to achieve when unburdened by the yoke of oppressive government regulation. He also understood that it is necessary to stand up to other Republicans when they are wrong or deviate from the core principles that are supposed to bind us together. He did that with Governor Holton when he ran for chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia in 1972 in order to ensure that the Party continued on a conservative course. He did it again in 1976 when he met with Gerald Ford to deliver his resignation as co-chairman of the Republican National Committee in order to help lead Ronald Reagan’s campaign in Virginia.
I hope that I have modeled those same qualities. I have a firmly fixed philosophical compass that I endeavor to apply to every decision I make. I go back to something my father wrote, something that truly defined him, and I hope will define me: “The most important goal in my life is to have a meaningful impact on preserving – and expanding – the realm of personal freedom in the life of this nation.” I have adopted that goal and striven to reach it throughout my tenure in public life. Much to the chagrin of some of my Republican Senate colleagues, I have done battle with some of them over issues like raising taxes on Virginia’s individuals and businesses and when I felt that their actions would limit or lessen personal freedom in the Commonwealth.
Virginia Gentleman: You were elected to the state senate in 2003. Where is your district? How would you describe the district politically?
Mark Obenshain: I represent the Central Shenandoah Valley in the Senate of Virginia. The 26th District includes the Counties of Rockingham, Shenandoah, Page, Rappahannock, and Warren as well as the City of Harrisonburg. The district is growing, especially as Northern Virginia continues to expand to the west and as JMU grows. Traditionally one of Virginia’s most conservative regions, that has changed slightly as Harrisonburg has become a larger college town. I have long said that Valley Values are the essence of the political philosophy of the District. They are the values of hard work and individual responsibility, personal freedom, and a deep and abiding faith in God.
Virginia Gentleman: One of the areas that you have been passionate about is the need for a Virginia property rights amendment, which thanks to your tireless effort will be on the ballot for Virginians to vote on. What will the amendment do, and why is it needed?
Mark Obenshain: The Virginia Property Rights Amendment that is on the ballot this November will do two things. Firstly, it will prevent the condemnation, or the taking of private property from one owner to convey it to another private party for private financial gain. Secondly, it will ensure that if property is properly taken, the owner is compensated fairly.
Now a bit of history – not much, I promise. In 2005, the Supreme Court hand down one of the most controversial opinions in decades – Kelo v. New London Connecticut. There, the Court approved the condemnation of a home in order to convey it to the private developer of a waterfront restaurant and business complex over the objection of the homeowner. The Constitution allows the taking of private property by the government for a “public use,” but most Americans thought that was confined to things like schools or roads. The Supreme Court, on the other hand, said a taking that was calculated to increase tax revenue or create jobs is also an adequate “public use” to justify a taking.
This ruling outraged a broad cross section of Americans – liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats. It also highlighted the deplorable condemnation practices that were in place across the country, even in Virginia. Indeed, in Virginia, our condemnation laws had been amended and rewritten so many times over the years that there were few condemnations and takings that could not be statutorily justified. In fact, we had entire neighborhoods being condemned for shopping centers and farmland being condemned for box stores. Our laws did not deteriorate to that point overnight. Property rights in Virginia had died a death of a thousand cuts through amendment and expansion of our eminent domain laws.
Following Kelo, we in Virginia performed major surgery to those laws, eliminating most potential for abuse. The problem is, those changes can be incrementally undone with a votes of 51% of future legislatures – after memories of Kelo have faded. We owe it to our children to make sure that will not take place. This Amendment will guarantee that these changes cannot be undone without the consent of the people. The Property Rights Amendment will guarantee that no governmental body will be able to arrogantly tell property owners that “we know better how to use your property better than you do.” It will preserve the ability of government to take property for real public uses – like roads or schools – but only with the payment of fair compensation.
Virginia Gentleman: This November’s Presidential election may come down to Virginia. Do you think Romney will win Virginia? And do you have any advice on how he can do it?
Mark Obenshain: I do believe Romney can – and will -- win Virginia. We are behind right now. It will be tough. It will require a lot of hard work. It will require Mitt Romney to confront the difficult issues facing America. The selection of Congressman Ryan is a strong signal to Virginians that Mitt Romney may really have the backbone to stop the runaway spending of the federal government. To win, Romney needs to focus on his plan to unleash the power of the free market, to roll back government regulation (including the repeal of Obamacare), to cut taxes and to control government spending. He can then contrast the Romney-Ryan Plan with the Obama record, one of 42 consecutive months with unemployment over 8%, spending that is accelerating at a breakneck pace, and a national debt that has doubled in just four years, adding as much to the national debt as all prior Presidents, from George Washington to George W. Bush, combined. Beyond presenting Virginians with a clear choice, Governor Romney needs us to do our part. This election will be close, and close elections are won by the work of grassroots activists in their local Victory Center. I have been traveling visiting these centers, making calls with activists, and generally doing my part to help the effort across the commonwealth. My wife Suzanne, and my children Tucker and Sam have been regular volunteers at the Harrisonburg Victory Office. If I could ask one thing of every conservative it would be to visit www.vavictory2012.com and locate the victory center nearest you. Call your local director, or just stop in when you can spare half an hour. Every minute spent identifying voters brings us closer to victory this fall. If the ticket is going cross the finish line a winner, it will ride to victory on the shoulders of the great volunteers of this state.
Virginia Gentleman: What will be some of your top priorities when the General Assembly reconvenes in January?
Mark Obenshain: In the 2013 session of the General Assembly, my priorities will include education, public safety, economic freedom, and property rights.
In education, I have long been an advocate of broad reform. I subscribe to the “all of the above” approach to education reform. I believe in educational choice. I believe it will strengthen schools, – public and private – and most importantly, it will yield better outcomes for kids. I led the effort to pass the first meaningful school choice measure to ever pass in Virginia, but there is more to do. We need to allow charter schools to succeed in Virginia, and I believe that teacher tenure is a failed experiment that needs to end. It protects a small number of bad teachers at the expense of many good teachers and more importantly at the expense of our kids. I carried a tenure reform bill last year that was opposed by the VEA, which was able to muster all of the Democrats and one Republican in the Senate to defeat it.
In public safety, I have worked, and will continue to work with, our law enforcement community to keep our communities safe. I have long fought the meth trade that has been a special challenge in central and western Virginia. After a decline in the number of meth labs over the past several years, there has been a recent resurgence. I am working with the law enforcement community to develop strategies to help them effectively combat the methamphetamine trade.
On economic freedom, we need to defend our Right to Work laws from efforts by organized labor and their allies in the federal government to undermine them. Last year, I carried legislation to prohibit the use of state funds on public construction projects that are subject to mandatory project labor agreements, and going forward, I would like to see the right to work enshrined in the state constitution.
Finally, on property rights, we are on the cusp of passing the Virginia Property Rights Amendment, but there are other challenges to the property rights of Virginians as well. Consider for example the case of Greg Garrett in York County, who obtained every permit necessary to harvest oysters off his pier in the York River only to run into a buzz saw erected by the county, which decided – after the fact – that even though zoned for agriculture, since it did not expressly permit aquaculture, it would be prohibited. Elsewhere, property owners find themselves without recourse when local governments make arbitrary decisions. I continue to work with property rights advocates on these and other issues.
In short, my priority in the 2013 legislative session will be what it always has been.