BY AMY POULTER
VIRGINIA BEACH — As co-founder of Trinity Church, a vocalist and percussionist for local band Guava Jam and a businessman, former state Sen. Jeff McWaters may not be the average politician.
McWaters founded and ran successful companies in the healthcare industry before he was elected to the state senate in 2010, and now he is moving on to his next opportunity.
“I don’t use the retired word, I’m just on to other things,” McWaters said during a recent interview. “There’s a little bit of ‘I don’t know’ in that.”
Running for another public office just may be part of the uncertainty. McWaters said he is cautiously considering the idea of running for governor in 2017. He said his decision will be impacted by other candidates who express interest in the position.
“I’ve been watching to see if we have good men and women who would be willing to run for the job,” McWaters said. “It’s kind of a wait-and-see situation.”
Ken Longo, chairperson of the Republican Party of Virginia Beach, said he hopes McWaters does return to politics.
“He served very well when he was in the senate,” Longo said. “He’s a good man, has always been fair and is a great representative for the citizens of Virginia Beach.”
In previous years, McWaters raised money for presidential candidates. This year, he said he is focusing his time and contributions on helping Republican presidential candidates with their healthcare policies, though he declined to name the candidates.
“I’ve been working with them on what the replacement for the Affordable Care Act would be and what the new programs might look like,” McWaters said. “I’m looking at how to fix problems that have ended up hurting people more than they have ended up helping people.”
After graduating from University of Kentucky, McWaters moved from city to city doing startup work in new markets. In 1991, he and his family settled in Virginia Beach while he was working to open Value Options, a company that managed mental health and substance abuse costs for the government and large private companies.
McWaters left Value Options – later renamed Beacon Health Options – in 1994 to start Amerigroup, one of the nation’s largest insurance companies. He drafted the business plans for the now Fortune 500 company at his kitchen table.
“When I started Amerigroup, I always felt like it was something I would do,” McWaters said, “but it was just finding the right product. You never know if it will be successful. That’s America, that’s capitalism, entrepreneurialism and what this country is about.”
McWaters got the idea to run for a state government position while working as the chief executive officer of Amerigroup. His experiences in contracting with the government to control issues of health care opened his eyes to problems that he felt he could help improve upon.
“I saw a lot of inefficiencies and opportunities to help and to bring business ideas to the table,” McWaters said.
McWaters left Amerigroup in 2008 to seek public office. After considering a positions in academia and congress, he decided that serving at the state level would give him the best opportunity to get involved in local government.
“I felt most strongly about helping our state,” McWaters said.
In 2010, McWaters was elected to the 8th District Senate seat in a special election to replace Ken Stolle, who had been elected sheriff of Virginia Beach. He was reelected in 2011.
His focus was initially placed on creating a beneficial health care program for constituents. McWaters became interested in developing better programs for military, education and transportation in Virginia.
During his second year as senator, he focused on securing the eligibility of in-state tuition rates for enlisted military who had applied for Virginia residency. He also established the ability for military who were stationed on a ship or abroad to vote electronically in elections.
“The electronic voting bill was a hard fight,” McWaters said. “I had to fight for that bill every year, and I finally got it passed. There’s always something in my bills to help military families.”
For four years, McWaters served on the Education and Health subcommittee, working to make Virginia colleges and universities affordable and information about their degree programs more easily accessible online.
He also introduced legislation that barred higher education institutions from releasing or selling student’s personal information to third-party vendors.
McWaters said he was ultimately concerned with job growth throughout Hampton Roads, and creating an economy where new businesses could thrive.
“Virginia Beach hasn’t had a lot of big companies that have been able to stay here,” McWaters said. “It makes it hard for the best and the brightest that are coming out of these wonderful Virginia colleges to stay in town. We’re losing a lot of our talent to other states and other companies.”
One issue still remains at the top of McWaters’ list of concerns for area businesses, though.
McWaters said he believes the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel traffic problem poses a threat to Southside businesses and may even prevent new businesses from taking root there.
“The bridge tunnel is a major chokepoint for companies,” McWaters said, “because of the fear that they can’t get their trucks, equipment, and people into other parts of the state.”
Taking the 8th District senate seat is fellow Republican Bill DeSteph, who defeated Dave Belote in the general election.
McWaters said he believes that DeSteph, who has already served on the city council here and in the General Assembly as a delegate, will be an effective leader and continue working on key issues such as transportation.
“I think he’s a talented and thoughtful guy, and he listens to the folks in the community very well,” McWaters said. “Many of his skill sets are very well matched for the job.”
Reflecting on his time in the senate, McWaters said that he is pleased with the work that he completed during his six years in office, and will even miss aspects of the position.
“I didn’t run from the job, that’s for sure,” he said. “I liked the job a lot, but it’s time to do some other things.”
© 2016 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC