Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-VA-10) and her challenger in the November election, Hung Cao, participated in their first public forum Monday night sharing their experience, plans and promises with hosts the Arc of Northern Virginia, a nonprofit supporting people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families.
They shared the virtual stage with the competitors in the seventh congressional district, incumbent Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-VA-7) and Prince William County Supervisor Yesli Vega (R-Coles), along with live sign language interpretation.
And the candidates were reminded by Conner Cummings, son of Arc Board of Directors member Sharon Cummings, to keep it civil.
“I am a self advocate and proud to be autistic. Please remember that this is a sensory-friendly forum. This is not a debate,” he said. “Talk about what you can do and have done for all individuals and all families with all disabilities. Please do not speak bad about each other, speak good about yourself.”
Wexton pointed to her long experience working with people with disabilities in her legal career and on the Loudoun Community Services Board, and her advocacy the state and federal legislatures since. Cao said the country needs to “push through all this bureaucracy and help those who need it most” and said he would listen to the disability community, as well as pointing to his family’s nonprofit that made beeping Easter eggs for blind children.
Moderator Lucy Beadnell, director of advocacy at Arc of Northern Virginia, put questions to the candidates around the particular challenges faced by people with disabilities, such as the asset limits for Supplemental Security Income, a Social Security program that supports low-income people who are blind or disabled. The program disqualifies people with assets including cash, stocks, land, vehicles and property worth more than $2,000 for a single person or $3,000 for a married couple—a limit Beadnell said hasn’t changed since 1989.
“You can tell a lot about a country by how it treats the most vulnerable, and I think unfortunately in terms of the SSI we have been lacking,” Wexton said. She said she supports raising the limits to $10,000 for an individual and $20,000 for a couple eliminating the marriage “penalty,” and indexing the asset cap to inflation going forward. She also raised her concerns with the Medicaid personal needs allowance for Medicaid-funded people in nursing homes.
“Everybody who is on Medicaid in a facility only gets to keep about $30 a month for their personal needs. This includes everything—having to get adult diapers on your own, having to get a cell phone so you can communicate with your family, having to get a haircut or toiletries,” she said.
Cao said raising the asset limits “seems like a no-brainer, and I honestly don’t see why it’s not done yet.”
“Yes, we will be doing this, and we will get this changed. This is a no-brainer. We should have taken care of this a long time ago,” he said.
Beadnell also asked about the low pay for home caregivers, who she said often have to work multiple jobs to make ends meet. Wexton said “the biggest thing we can do is pay someone a living wage,” pointing to successful Democratic legislation to raise the minimum wage. She said low pay also endangers those people and the people they care for, as they’re forced to choose between missing work or possibly going to work sick.
“This is just a matter of making it a priority to make these investments, and this is one thing congressional Democrats have been trying to do for a long time,” she said.
Cao said during the pandemic, he was not able to reach his ailing father when “the government just arbitrarily shut down our entire country,” and argued “we really need to just get government out of the way and let the free market work itself out.”
“We have a workforce now that’s used to just staying at home and getting stimulus checks not working,” he said. “The work ethic in our community is just gone, and we need to reinvigorate it.”
In response to a question about disproportionate arrests and incarceration of people with disabilities, Cao pointed to Loudoun Sheriff Mike Chapman’s programs to train all deputies in dealing with people with mental health needs, as well as Crisis Intervention Training.
“It’s leaders like this at the lower level, at the community level, that we need to lean on,” Cao said. “… As congressman I want to be able to listen to them and see what they need to give them the support they need. I know some of these sheriffs are yearning to talk to the representatives, they haven’t heard from them in two and a half years.”
Wexton also applauded the widespread adoption of Crisis Intervention Training, hearkening back to her service on the Community Services Board after seeing how the criminal justice system was disproportionately filled with people with disabilities and mental health issues, and pointing to American Rescue Plan Act funding to support programs like it. She also raised the school-to-prison pipeline.
“The worst thing for a kid … that maybe doesn’t communicate the way other kids do is to be placed in handcuffs and thrown in the back of a squad car, which is why we need the training to start a lot earlier for things like [School Resource Officers],” she said. “… It’s a continuum. You can’t just start when the kids are adults. You have to start when they’re young and just make sure that everybody is aware of the issues.”
And Beadnell asked the candidates about their views on the barriers to employment for people with disabilities, and the exception to minimum wage that allows some people with development disabilities to be paid less than minimum wage. Wexton said that minimum wage loophole should be closed, and said supporting implementation of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act will go a long way toward helping. That legislation among other things provides for adult education and literacy programs, job training services, and supports employment and independent living for people with disabilities. That includes
Cao said in Congress he would tackle those issues and providing those jobs “right away.”
“Maybe it’s a mundane task that others don’t want to do, but for certain members of our community maybe that’s what they thrive in,” he said.
Wexton said her first meeting on entering Congress was with the Little Lobbyists, a group advocating for children with medical needs and disabilities, “because that concept of ‘nothing about us without us’ is really important to me.”
“That’s why I ran for Congress, because I wanted to be a voice for the voiceless,” she said, and pledged to “continue to be an advocate for you as I have been before.”
Cao thanked forum organizers and participants for “making me smarter on these issues.”
“You want a voice, right, you want to be heard. And you can’t be heard if government shuts down, Cao said. He said he plans to be available to constituents to listen.
Questions submitted in the Zoom webinar and on Facebook during the live broadcast would be sent to the candidates after the forum, Beadnell said. She reminded viewers of some resources available to them to learn about voting rights and accessibility, including by calling the Election Protection coalition at 866-OUR-VOTE to ask about voting rights, and 800-949-4232 to speak to Americans with Disabilities Act National Network, find a local ADA center and learn about voting accommodations.
This year’s November general election will be Nov. 8. The first day of in-person early voting at the registrar’s office is Sept. 23, and in-person early voting will end Nov. 5 at 5 p.m. The deadline to register to vote in this November’s election is Oct. 17.
In addition to the House of Representatives election, there will elections for mayor and town council in the towns of Hamilton, Leesburg, Purcellville and Lovettsville, a special election for a seat on the Round Hill Town Council, and special elections for the Leesburg and Broad Run district seats on the Loudoun County School Board.
See a recording of the full forum at Facebook.com/TheArcofNoVA.
This article was updated Aug. 25 at 2:27 p.m. to correct some spellings of a name.