Randy Forbes has faced only nominal opposition for his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives since he won a special election in 2001. But on Nov. 6, voters in the 4th Congressional District will find a challenger with a familiar name - Chesapeake City Council member Ella Ward.
Ward, a Democrat who joined the council in 2006 after six years on the School Board, served on the state Board of Education during the Warner and Kaine administrations.
Not surprisingly, Ward has made education, particularly early childhood education, the centerpiece of her campaign. She favors an overhaul of No Child Left Behind, criticizing it as "a cookie-cutter kind of thing for every child." She says she wants to allow more local experimentation in education, with states and the federal government tasked with promoting initiatives that succeed.
But as an advocate for those causes and others, Ward falls short on substantive details and plans. Her grasp of the federal budget is weak, and she leans on generalities - cutting waste, eliminating Blackwater-like defense contracts, generating revenue through job creation - to explain how she'd pay for the federal programs she'd like to see added.
Although her spotlight on pre-K education is welcome, Ward fails to convince that she would be an effective leader for the district, which includes Chesapeake, most of Suffolk and stretches through Petersburg to the western suburbs of Richmond.
Forbes, a Republican, has the incumbent's advantage - a breadth of knowledge, particularly on defense, garnered from 20 years of service on Capitol Hill.
There are issues on which he wastes too much energy and attention, including his frequent forays into hot-button topics, such as defending the motto "In God We Trust" against nonexistent threats, or his advocacy for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, or for legislation to push constitutional protections to the moment of fertilization.
But as the Congress belatedly gets down to the business of dealing with our nation's fiscal crisis, it's critical for Hampton Roads to have Forbes in its congressional delegation.
Forbes, who serves on the Armed Services Committee, is best positioned to argue effectively for protecting the military's presence in our region - both for the sake of national security and for the sake of the local economy.
No program is untouchable, but each program needs a vigorous defense - and Forbes is more capable to provide it.
He would be an effective advocate for economic development initiatives to replace whatever the region may lose in upcoming defense cuts. He's helped expand the focus on modeling and simulation programs following the closure of the Joint Forces Command, and he is showing similar initiative in fostering growth at one of the region's most valuable assets, the Port of Virginia.
To increase his effectiveness, Forbes would be wise to focus less on ideological battles and more on building connections with lawmakers outside of his party. Regardless of who wins the White House and controls the Senate, he and the other 434 members of the House will need to build coalitions to break gridlock.
A vulnerable Hampton Roads, in particular, needs leaders who can set aside partisanship for the region's greater good.
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