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EXCLUSIVE: Qarni making a run for Chuck Colgan’s senate seat
Posted by: NoVA Politics! ()
Date: July 23, 2014 03:20PM

EXCLUSIVE: Qarni making a run for Chuck Colgan’s senate seat

Less than a year after losing a close race for a Manassas-area seat in the Virginia House of Delegates, middle school math teacher and former U.S. Marine Atif Qarni is trying again – this time in a run for state Senate.

Qarni, 36, challenged longtime incumbent Del. Bob Marshall, R-13th, last November and lost by fewer than 500 votes. Now he’s vying to replace Chuck Colgan, a fellow Democrat who has held the 29th District Senate seat for more than 40 years. Colgan, 86, recently announced he’ll retire when his term ends in January 2016.

Qarni said likes his chances in November 2015 election. The district cuts across the center of Prince William – starting outside Gainesville, encircling Manassas and Manassas Park, and extending east to neighborhoods along U.S. 1 from Prince William Parkway to Va. 234. In the last two major elections, 29th district voters favored Gov. Terry McAuliffe and President Obama by wide margins over their Republican opponents.

Qarni notes the district also includes his family’s neighborhood as well as Beville Middle School where he teaches 8th grade math.

“It’s more representative of who I am, because I live in Manassas but I teach in Dale City,” he said. “I really feel connected to the issues more with the senate seat because of who I represent: my students, the kids I coach, and their families.”

Colgan’s decision to retire sparked speculation about who would vie to replace him, and whether the seat could be retained by Democrats. The party lost control of the nearly evenly split chamber in June when state Sen. Phil Puckett, D-38th, resigned, giving Republicans a 20-19 majority.

Manassas Mayor Harry Parrish and Prince William County Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart have been named as possible Republican contenders for the seat, but neither have formally signaled their intent to run.

So far, Qarni is the first Democrat to announce, and he’s got a colorful resume. He’s a Pakistani native who immigrated to Baltimore with his family when he was 10, enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserves before graduating from high school in 1996 and worked three jobs to pay his way through George Washington University. During this time at college, he became a U.S. citizen and graduated with degrees in sociology and history.

“I had a scholarship,” Qarni explained. “But it didn’t cover everything.”

Qarni remained a Marine Reservist for eight years and was among the first group of Marines to reach Baghdad during the 2003 Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Qarni worked in a Washington law firm for eight years and earned a master’s degree in history from George Mason University. He considered going to law school to become a military lawyer. But he decided he’d rather be in the classroom and earned a teaching certificate instead. Qarni has taught both middle school math and adult GED classes in Prince William County Schools since 2007.

Teaching led Qarni to run for state office. Fed up with overcrowded classrooms and too few resources, Qarni ran against Marshall, a well-known far-right conservative, promising to steer more state resources to public schools.

Although that bid was unsuccessful, Qarni is still talking about education and large class sizes. Qarni says he’s not pushing to lower state class-size limits but wants schools to have enough resources to staff classrooms more effectively. Higher performing students might be ok in larger classes, he said, but struggling students need more attention.

Qarni says the state needs to rethink what is taught to better match the 21st century job market. In addition to the basics, he said students should be introduced to basic computer coding and, in high school, given more opportunities to learn skills to prepare for high paying trade jobs.

Appointed by McAuliffe to the state’s Small Business Commission in July, Qarni says there are good-paying jobs in auto mechanics and high-tech manufacturing around the state. But training for such positions is not offered in most high schools, leaving young adults with fewer choices.

Qarni is also looking for solutions to traffic congestion and wants to promote wider use of teleworking. He’s also concerned about helping returning veterans and says small businesses should be incentivized to help vets update their job skills.

Qarni supports Medicaid expansion, which he said could help as many as 58,000 uninsured people in Prince William County get health insurance.

He said he understands the struggles of the working poor firsthand. Although his parents earned college degrees in Pakistan, both were forced to take low-paying jobs when they first came to the U.S.

His father, a banker, delivered pizzas. His mom, a teacher, babysat and worked in an ice cream shop. Qarni said his family never had health insurance and bought only second-hand clothes. Still, Qarni says his parents were reluctant to accept help. When both lost their jobs for a time, they refused to file for unemployment benefits until Qarni pressed them to accept help to avoid eviction.

“It was difficult but they’re hard working,” Qarni said of this parents. “That’s where I get a lot of my work ethic – from them.”

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