Pork politics: Warner says a mouthful in Scottsville

Warner at Pee Wee's Pit Bar B Que

If the most recent numbers are to be believed, the next U.S. senator from the Commonwealth of Virginia came to Scottsville today. According to the latest poll from WDBJ-TV in Roanoke and WJLA-TV in Washington, likely voters favor former Gov. Mark Warner (D) over his opponent, former Gov. Jim Gilmore (R) by a margin of 57 percent to 34 percent, with eight weeks to go until Election Day.

Not that Warner is taking anything for granted.

"Politics," he says, "is full of people who counted their eggs before they hatched." So, with that in mind, the former governor canvassed tiny Scottsville today, stopping in for lunch at Pee Wee's Pit Bar B Que and then going door-to-door to businesses along Valley Street. While eating his lunch of pork barbecue, mashed potatoes, fried chicken and sweet tea, Warner sat down with the Hook to discuss the campaign.

The Hook: In a recent debate between Rep. Virgil Goode (R-Rocky Mount) and his challenger Tom Perriello (D-Ivy), Congressman Goode said that our biggest national security threat was the lack of a fence along the Mexican border, while Mr. Perriello has emphasized "climate change and energy independence." What do you think is the biggest threat facing our national security today?
Mark Warner: The greatest threat to our national security is an America that is not prepared to defend itself militarily and economically. We need a plan on how we can win in a global economy. A lot of that protection is in our energy policy in many cases. Whether it's terrorism in the Middle East, China, Venezuela, taking on our energy policy is critical.

The Hook: One of the hot buttons in this election cycle has been immigration. Recently, that's hit home with the story of a local man, Gennady Denisenko. He came to the United States in 1991 as a defector from the Soviet Union, having already served five years in a Siberian prison camp for being outspoken about the need for democracy there. When he came 17 years ago, he began applying for political asylum. Six years ago, he married a woman here in Charlottesville, and began applying to be recognized as her legal spouse. Neither of those was ever resolved, and presently Denisenko is in prison in Texas awaiting deportation. What do you propose to do about a system in which this can happen?
Mark Warner: It's crazy that it takes this long to get a resolution. We've got to enforce our immigration laws, but you should be able to get a firm resolution on something like that. It's hypocritical of those who say they want immigration reform not to put the resources into improving the process.

The Hook: So what specific policy initiatives would you propose to implement to fix this broken system?
Mark Warner: Immigration reform has to be federal. It can't be done piecemeal state-by-state. I don't know all the particulars of this case, but there needs to be a rational process. People who come here undocumented should go to the back of the line, they should pay a fine, they should learn English, but I don't think this country can deport 12 million people. This is a prime example of why the system is broken. You need to have strong border security, but you also need a system that places a value on legal immigration. In Northern Virginia, 15 to 20 percent of the people working for the technology firms there are immigrants. We also need to put tougher sanctions on employers who hire undocumented workers, but we also need to have a review of how we document legal workers. The question is how can we more easily check the legal status of somebody? There needs to be some level of identification validation. We need to put more people in immigration services, so these cases don't happen. Cases like this are a tragedy and it makes a mockery of the rule of law when it takes this long. But even if you get the system fixed, there still needs to be a guest worker program. What I don't want is for employers to keep finding ways to hire cheap foreign labor than American labor.

The Hook:
If you look at any poll right now, you're leading this race by a big margin right now. Yet, Sen. Barack Obama (D) is neck-and-neck with Sen. John McCain (R) for Virginia's electoral votes, and Rep. Goode is beating Mr. Perriello by a little more than a two-to-one margin in the Fifth District congressional race. Why haven't you been able to sell a large portion of your supporters on the rest of the Democratic ticket?
Mark Warner: Yeah, and when did I stop beating my wife? (laughs) I think that Sen. Obama is making great progress, and Tom Perriello is running a strong campaign against a tough incumbent. Part of it is that people need to get more familiar with them. I remember when I ran for governor and I went to Southside, people wondered if I was ever going to come back again. Well, while you can't come back as frequently when you're running for president, Senator Obama has been to Bristol, and Martinsville, and Lebanon. And in the last 10 days, I think you're starting to see things turn back a little. Everywhere I go, I try to make the case for both of them. As for Tom Perriello, it's always challenging to take on an incumbent, and in the congressional race, I think people just haven't focused on it yet. I feel pretty happy with the response we've gotten.

The Hook: But why do you think so many Virginians are splitting the ticket?
Mark Warner: I'm proud that I've got a lot of Republican support, but part of it is that my big goal is once I get to Washington, I want to form a group of bipartisan radical centrists. I think we have to work toward a common cause. But mostly I think it's that they don't trust either party enough to give them a blank check. I think they saw that when I was governor. I've gotten some grief for the idea that when I see a good idea, it doesn't matter if it has a 'D' or an 'R' attached to it. I said that in Denver [as the keynote at this year's Democratic National Convention], and it got booed down. I think people want a senator interested in getting things done. More than gas prices, the number one question I hear from people is "When will you stop fighting and put the country's interests first?"

The Hook: Speaking of Denver, you got some pretty harsh reviews for that speech. Time gave it a 'D' and said it was the worst of the convention. Jon Stewart said it "sucked." Is that hard to take?
Mark Warner: It was funny because CNN gave it a good review and MSNBC panned it. I would rather take praise from [former Nixon, Ford, and Clinton advisor] David Gergen and [presidential historian] Doris Kearns Goodwin, who had more to say about the substance of the speech than they were concerned about who could say the nastiest thing about John McCain. The Obama campaign knew where I was coming from, and there were plenty of people who served up nothing but red meat. I was there to lay out the issues. This campaign is about the future versus the past, and Senator Obama represents the future. I was talking more to the people at home than I was to the 15,000 people in the hall. I wouldn't say something in Denver that I wouldn't say here.