By Brandon Martin
After a multi-day trip through the Shenandoah and Roanoke valleys, U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Alexandria, held a press conference on April 12 to discuss a variety of legislative proposals in which he hopes to see bi-partisan support.
Warner said the largest area of agreement would be actions against China.
“One of the things that I’ve been doing as the chair of the Intelligence Committee is to look at the rise of China,” Warner said. “Let me be clear when I talk about China, my beef is with the Communist Party of China, it’s with President Xi Jinping. It is not with the Chinese people. It is not with Asian-Americans and it is not with Chinese-Americans.”
But he does have some reservations.
“In the emergence of China, we see a nation that is almost as large as what we have. It’s a country that treats horribly many of its minorities. It steals our intellectual property at estimates of about $5 billion a year around the world of intellectual property,” Warner said.
In addition to economics, Warner said China is beginning to surpass American innovations in “5G, artificial intelligence, quantum computing,” and biomedical efforts.
To meet the challenge, Warner said he will propose “a series of bills” which he coined the “China Competition” bills.
‘Those will include trying to create a technology alliance among like-minded democracies around the world to counter China,” he said. “It will include investing upwards of anywhere from $50 billion to make sure that our semiconductor industry remains strong and vibrant throughout the United States and that we are not dependent on foreign nations, particularly China for semiconductors. It builds on my earlier work of next generation telecommunications into 5G and developing the next generation called Open Radio Access Networks.”
Warner said he hopes to see a genuine negotiation from Republicans on infrastructure.
“My only hope is that my Republican friends actually engage. They’ve said they want to support roads, bridges and tunnels,” Warner said. “The time has come. We’ve heard about this in the last administration where every couple of weeks then-President Trump announced Infrastructure Week. It became a joke because there was never any there, there.”
According to Warner, the American Society of Civil Engineers gives the United States a yearly grade on infrastructure that rarely gets above a low C.
“We know that as a nation, we are investing about 50 percent of our GDP on infrastructure what we were investing in the 1970’s,” he said. “In many ways, our infrastructure, which was always our competitive advantage against nations around the world, has unfortunately become a disadvantage.”
Given the gap in investments, Warner said other aspects of American life have been affected.
“This is an area where if we continue to push off needed maintenance, needed improvements then it affects our quality of life, it affects the quality of our commerce because it takes longer to get goods to market, and quite honestly it robs people of their choices,” Warner said.
For example, Warner said that passenger rail for transportation is gaining steam.
“We’ve seen as Virginia has started to expand, some of our rail service and how welcome that is,” Warner said. “I’ve heard recently that some of the trains down to Roanoke are some of the most popular in the state at this point.”
Warner said that “putting sizable, tangible, long-term capital investment into our infrastructure” will help make the country more equitable and competitive.
One of the largest investments will come in the form of broadband, Warner said.
“I would argue that broadband is an absolutely essential piece of infrastructure in the 21st Century. It’s an economic necessity, not a nice-to-have,” he said.
In the most recent stimulus package, Warner said $17 billion was allocated for broadband. Of that, $10 billion will go directly to the states “with a great deal of flexibility.” Warner added that another $7 billion will go to state and local governments that can be used for broadband.
There could be a solution to broadband in the form of rural electrical cooperatives, according to Warner.
“What I saw on my trip was frankly the number of rural electric co-ops that a couple of years back, were not in the broadband business and are now delivering high-speed fiber directly to the home with literally gigabit speeds,” he said.
Rural electrical cooperatives are electricity providers that are owned by the customers who use the utility.
Criminal Justice Reform
Warner also spoke about footage from an incident in Windsor, Va., where an African American Army lieutenant named Caron Nazario was pepper-sprayed by law enforcement officers while he was in uniform.
“I was outraged to see the treatment of Lt. Nazario. Here is an individual, an officer in our armed forces, and someone who is in uniform clearly pulling into a lighted area for what would appear to be a routine traffic stop,” Warner said. “It was amazing to me to see many of the body cams and the complete overreaction from the law enforcement officers. It is a sad commentary that when an African American male who is in uniform is still afraid to exit a car in today’s day and age and police officers come with guns drawn for, what again, was a routine traffic stop.”
In response to the incident, Nazario filed a lawsuit against the two officers━Joe Gutierrez and Daniel Crocker.
According to the Associated Press, Gutierrez was subsequently fired with the Windsor officials claiming he had failed to follow department policy.
“It appears correctly that the Windsor chief fired the officer who was the most egregious and I’m going to be watching to see the results of the state police investigation,” Warner said.
This incident on the back of others, is why Warner proposes the passage of the Justice in Policing Act.
Warner said it will “not only provide additional training to law enforcement officers but it will prohibit some of the most egregious tactics like chokeholds, no-knock warrants, and try to put in place a level of responsibility for those officers who quite honestly don’t follow appropriate practices.”
He added that he values the work of law enforcement but “we are seeing officers who don’t practice those best practices and there needs to be consequences for that.”
Along with those best practices, Warner also expressed the need to reform qualified immunity, which protects state and local officials from individual liability unless the official violated a clearly established constitutional right.
“The Justice in Policing Act does make reforms to qualified immunity because we’ve seen too many times where a law enforcement officer, maybe a bad apple, ends up doing something wrong and oftentimes they receive no sanction,” Warner said. “And if they are sanctioned, they are fired and they drive down the road 30 miles and get rehired by another police department. That’s not right, that’s not good, that’s not fair for the vast majority of law enforcement officers who do follow the law and it’s not good in terms of earning the trust of the public.”
Warner said he has mixed feelings about the Protecting the Right to Organize Act of 2021.
“There’s a lot of things in the so-called PRO Act that I support,” he said. “There are certain components of the legislation that do make me pause.”
The bill makes various labor protections related to employees’ rights to organize and collectively bargain in the workplace. For example, it “revises the definitions of employee, supervisor, and employer to broaden the scope of individuals covered by the fair labor standards; permits labor organizations to encourage participation of union members in strikes initiated by employees represented by a different labor organization (i.e., secondary strikes); and prohibits employers from bringing claims against unions that conduct such secondary strikes.”
The changes would directly impact workforces composed of independent contractors.
“As we’ve seen already when there were efforts in California to turn all independent contractors, so-called gig workers, into traditional W-2 employees, the overwhelming majority of Californians kind of rose up and voted that bill down,” Warner said. “There are some areas where I have concern. It’s why I’ve decided not to co-sponsor the legislation.”
Expecting the PRO Act to make it to Senate floor, Warner said he would push to make alterations “because the overarching goal of having more people have the right to organize, and having more American’s and their voices recognized by a labor union, I think goes a long way in making sure people get the fair pay and benefits they deserve.”