Durant talks “kitchen table issues” for 27th Senate District race

by | Aug 21, 2023 | Politics & Elections

Fredericksburg Today

Tara Durant is the Republican candidate for Virginia’s redrawn 27th Senate District, which includes Fredericksburg City, most of Stafford County, and northeast portion of Spotsylvania. She has represented the former 28th House District in the 2022 and 2023 sessions.

Quotes are lightly edited for clarity and concision.

Can you start by walking me through your background, so your childhood, your education, and your career before you decided to run for the General Assembly?

So I’m from Iowa originally, and I got my undergraduate degree from college, and then I moved east to the D.C. area first for an internship on the Hill—I think it was my senior year of school. I came back and worked. I went to the University of Baltimore, where I met my husband, and we got married going on 26 years ago now. He was active duty in the Marine Corps, and eventually he went into the Reserves, and we moved to the Fredericksburg area. I guess it’s been 20 years now.

I had a background professionally in nonprofit. I worked for various nonprofits, both professionally and also as a volunteer. I can’t remember exactly what year I made a career change into education. It was at Holy Cross [Elementary], and eventually I became a second grade teacher. I ran for office 2 years ago, and was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates in ‘21.

And you seem to have lived a private life up until then. So can you tell me why you decided to run for Delegate back in 2021?

Sometimes for people there could be one thing, it can be an impetus, and that was certainly true for me. I didn’t have a plan to run for office, but it was an incident with my daughter and me in Fredericksburg in 2020, when we were caught up in a protest. Now we know that was the beginning of the Defund the Police movement when the City Council had ordered the police to stand down. When I called to get help, they said, “We’re not allowed, the City Council has ordered the police to stand down.” So I started to speak out against that and eventually ended up giving a speech in Richmond, and that’s when I was asked if I would consider running for the House of Delegates.

It took me a little while, some discernment and a lot of discussions with my family, et cetera, and I think eventually I came to the conclusion that I would regret it if I did not run. It wasn’t just because of what happened with my daughter and me, it was also seeing a lot of what was happening — the direction in Virginia, where we were headed.

As a teacher, I was in the middle of COVID I could see what was happening with our kids, particularly in learning loss. I was very concerned about how schools had been shut down, and I knew that kids were not getting full curriculum delivered and I was very concerned about what I could see heading down into the future. We were having a lot more conversations in Virginia at that point too, with parents becoming a lot more aware of what was happening in their child’s education, and what was being taught.

I think in our economy too, we were starting to get a lot more concerned about the direction of where we were heading in Virginia. So it was kind of the those 3 issues — kitchen table issues, if you will, that compelled me to say, “Yes, I want to stand up and run for office.”

So that’s what happened, and here I am now, two years later.

And why did you decide to try running for the Senate in this election cycle?

So right after I was elected, we had redistricting, which has got to happen every 10 years. My district was split up into two. That’s just a reflection of how this area is growing quite a bit.

And so a lot of people started to reach out to me right after the lines were drawn and we saw how my my seat was now being split up into two House of Delegates seats. I had a lot of conversations with folks who said, “This [the Senate] is where we’re going to need you.” It’s an open seat, and the Virginia Senate is still controlled by Democrats. We had taken a Republican control in the House of Delegates and so this is where our focus now is in Virginia.

I think what was really important to me taking a look at that is that it was giving me an opportunity to continue to represent the people that just elected me, because my delegate seat, the 28th, is fully, within the [27th] Senate seat. And that was important to me, to be able to continue to represent the people. We’re really still striving to fulfill on those promises that we made when they elected me, when they elected Governor Youngkin 2 years ago. So that’s why I said yes, I will run for the Senate seat.

And you’re running for a much larger constituency this time than you did last time, obviously including all of your old voters, but have you had to change your platform or your campaign strategy at all to attract this larger base of voters, particularly in Spotsylvania?

What we have found is that it’s very much still those kitchen table issues that are first and foremost on people’s minds.

We hear a lot about people concerned about what’s happening in education and learning loss. Now, of course, we know there’s a lot more layers to the learning loss. After Governor Youngkin was elected and we started to kind of peel back the layers and standards of learning, we saw that the standards had been lowered pretty significantly pre-COVID, so it almost made for a perfect storm.

There was what we call an “honesty gap” in how Virginia parents thought their children were excelling, how they were performing on standardized tests, and realizing that’s not quite the performance…where we are now. So that’s a huge focus in Virginia is restoring excellence in Virginia. This is what we’re known for.

We hear a lot, of course, about the economy. I’m continuing to hear reports about the looming recession. And there’s indicators that’s already starting to happen in some areas of the economy and it’s getting a lot tougher to be able to support your family. I was just having a conversation with someone this morning about how the cost for a payment on a new vehicle is just astronomical. It’s getting a lot more difficult to even get a loan for our vehicle too. The interest rates are a lot higher. So it’s just getting a lot more challenging to be able to support your family, and we hear about that quite a bit, as well as public safety, that’s still also a big issue. So we know crime rates getting worse, I hear about that quite a bit.

So I would say you know the issues are very much still the same, and we’re still fighting to deliver on those promises that we made. Getting ourselves introduced to the new folks in the district as well has been, of course, really important, and we continue to work on that every day.

I’d also like to talk to you a bit about some of your discrete policy positions, what policies you would pursue in office. So if you’re elected, what will be your first priority legislation in this coming session?

Oh, that’s exciting. We’re working on our legislative priorities right now, and I think probably one of the most important things I’ve learned is that my best legislation comes from listening to folks in the community. We had a great event yesterday with the governor, a “parents matter” conversation, if you will. These listening sessions are really important to shape what’s important to best represent the people in my district.

I think that as we move forward and are taking a look at some of the legislation that we carried last year that we’d like to continue to champion, one that’s important to me is the math bill that really will tackle some learning loss, particularly with math. There is a lot of priorities from last year and the year before that probably will come again in the next session.

Making sure that we listen to our veterans and their community, we were able to pass a really important bill two years ago that lowers the state income tax on military retirement. But we weren’t able to get that to 100% so I know. But this is a big priority for our veteran community, which represents quite a good portion of the district.

To continue to support law enforcement as well. They’re on the front lines right now, particularly with, there’s some serious challenges that we have with the fentanyl crisis. The amount of drugs that are coming across the border right now, is really making every town a border town and our law enforcement, they’re on the front lines of this fight. And so it’s really important, probably more now than ever, that we make sure that we are supporting law enforcement. They’ve got the tools they need to do their job, and resources to be able to hire and train law enforcement so they can continue to keep us safe in the community.

So I’d say those three areas are really going to be a top priority.

One of your campaign’s main issues is stronger schools. We’ve talked about that a little bit and it’s a very relevant issue right now in this Senate district. So what do you see as the problems that are facing our school systems right now, and what solutions would you pursue from the Senate?

The new Senate District reflects Spotsylvania now as well as the City of Fredericksburg and Stafford, and I represent 2 of them right now, and it’s been a real pleasure to work with the school districts and I’m very excited to work with Spotsylvania as well.

I think, again, as I said before, it’s quite important as we move into prioritizing our legislation that we have ongoing conversations with the superintendents and the School Boards, and listening how they identify their legislative priorities, and work with them forward on how we’re able to bring that into the legislature this coming year. Making sure that teachers and school districts are having the resources they need, that’s a global effort in the General Assembly for the entire state. Absolutely, it remains a priority.

So you’re talking about diverting funding to the school districts?

Diverting funding from what source?

Sorry, I didn’t mean to imply anywhere in particular. I just mean to clarify; do you want to add funding to the school systems?

Well, I wouldn’t say add, but listening to the priorities that they have and advocating to make sure that their voice is heard, their priorities are heard in the General Assembly. There’s a whole gamut of what that could mean. Last year, the Stafford County Superintendent put together a legislative summit, if you will. There were eleven different priorities that were outlined. Some of them were in legislation, and there are limits in the off year, so in some of those pieces of legislation we triaged together what was the priority. So as we go back to the table to all of the school districts and listen to see what is most important to them, we’ll take that and move forward.

You’ve also pointed to transportation and local gridlock as an issue of yours. So what actions would you try to take from the Senate to try and relieve congestion in this area?

Yeah, I think there’s a difference in worldview, if you will, between what Republicans and Democrats prioritize in terms of supporting our infrastructure. I think there’s a difference in terms of the green energy and how that’s kind of become a priority, and how we will focus and prioritize how we’re going to support our infrastructure.

I want to be able to tackle our transportation needs, and I think that that’s reflected in fixing the potholes and making sure that our roads are getting the resources they need. And there’s, I think a real difference between what Democrats see as supporting their green energy and having bike lanes and mass transit instead. Those type of parties, the Democrats, are a real barrier to prioritizing how we’re going to tackle our infrastructure needs and make sure people can have their commutes reduced and be able to get home.

You’ve talked a little bit about what you wouldn’t want to do, but what does that look like to you in order to shorten people’s commutes? How would you approach that?

I think that Republicans really want to support our infrastructure needs and that means supporting roads, that means supporting the transportation projects that we have throughout the state.

Two years ago, one of the issues that came up more specifically was in Stafford County. The county had their recordation funds diverted from our county to a different part of the state, to Hampton Roads. That was a direct result of legislation passed in Richmond that our current incumbent delegate had supported and that holed, I think it was $20 million away. That money was directly allocated in the Stafford County budget for transportation projects. In fact, the bond that had been passed by Stafford County voters with the mission to tackle our transportation projects, the debt service was earmarked to be paid by the recordation funds tax funds.

So that’s kind of an example of where our party should stand in terms of prioritizing funding at the state level. You need to fulfill the promises you made. This is money that we are allocating to tackle transportation projects directly in our area and your representatives should not be diverting that type of focus away in another part of the state.

So those are kind of what should shape us as we continue moving forward. That was a bill that I had carried last year, and with a divided General Assembly, that did not pass in the Senate so with the Democrats. So hopefully as we move forward in the next year, we have a General Assembly that the governor can work with, we can come back to the table and say, “How are we going to ensure that our transportation projects in the state are appropriately allocated?”

Let’s go ahead and talk about public safety. This was something you mentioned earlier as a kitchen table issue. So can you tell me about your legislative priorities, what you would like to do in office to try to improve public safety?

Sure. So, I think there’s a couple of different parts to this. We hear quite a bit from our law enforcement community, from our service departments, our police departments.

One is that they need the tools in the toolbox to be able to do their job and to keep us safe. They’ve identified that there are what used to be primary offenses where you’d be able to pull somebody over if they had unsafe equipment, or a whole slew of different things that two years ago became what they call secondary offences, and they’re not able to pull people over for those types of offenses any longer.

We’ve heard from the community, the Sheriff’s Department, they’ve said over and over again, “We really need to be able to continue to be able to do our Job in order to keep people safe.”

That’s legislation, and I carried that bill along with a few other of my colleagues this year and that failed on party lines. It passed in the House but failed in the Senate. I think that supporting them means listening to how they need to be able to do their job.

There’s still a reflection of how we support our law enforcement that’s especially coming out of 2020 with the Defund the Police movement, and they’ve not been getting the resources they need to do their jobs. I really think that supporting them is supporting that they are the heroes that they are and that they deserve to have that support in getting the resources so they can hire and train officers to keep our community safe.

And particularly our school resource officers too, that’s become unfortunately more partisan. I think that’s an important piece of keeping our community safe, is our children in schools.

So yeah, there’s a whole gamut of things in terms of resources and legislation that I think we can do that is a reflection of what they have said they need.

And briefly, you did mention defunding or the Defund the Police movement, and I just want to clarify. My understanding is that police have not lost funding on the state level. Has that happened in any of the localities that you’re representing?

Well, there’s a certain amount that comes from the state and then localities often will offset, in order to get their salaries current. So it really can depend on localities and it’s a challenge for them because often you see — and this is not just true for in law enforcement, you see it in a lot of public servant arenas — that they will live and work in different parts of the Commonwealth because of pay. So there is that locality difference that you will, and that’s something that we hear a lot from localities is that is a challenge.

I’m going back to school resource officers, that has become a real challenge. I carried a bill this year that would allow for Sheriff’s Office police departments to be able to hire a retired law enforcement officer to work as a part-time school protection officer that unfortunately was defeated. Some of the feedback we heard in committee is that we should not be using financial resources, that it should be going to mental health instead of school protection officers.

Not necessarily creating that classification that necessarily was a fiscal impact in the bill, but it’s giving them [law enforcement], again, the resources they need to do their job and to keep our community safe so.

I think these are some of the examples that we see of what is a reflection from that [Defund the Police] movement and what our Commonwealth needs to go in order to be able to keep everyone safe.

When people think of the Durant campaign for Senate 2023, what issue or policy would you want them to most associate you with? What do you want to emphasize them most?

That’s a great question. You know, I think we began from the very beginning as a grassroots campaign, it’s knowing who I am is Tara.

Tara is a wife, a Marine wife, which a lot of people can relate to that because there’s so many veterans that are in our community. I’m a mom of three kids that we’ve raised here in this community and as a teacher, now a former teacher.

The grassroots campaign is now still a reflection of how I’m moving forward: maintaining those priorities that are most important to the community and I’m fighting for, as I say often, for the security of the Commonwealth: financially secure, secure for our kids in schools, for their education and future, and secure for us in the community.

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