The five Democratic candidates for governor met for the first televised debate on Tuesday evening where they discussed issues including the economic crisis, gun violence, marijuana legalization, the Virginia Parole Board, and vaccine hesitancy. For the most part, the candidates stuck to discussing their own policies, but occasionally turned to attack perceived front-runner McAuliffe.
On Addressing Gun Violence
Delegate Lee Carter (D-Manassas) highlighted his knowledge of firearms thanks to his training as a marine.
“I think we’ve got to not fall into the trap of thinking that we have to disarm people and take away their right to self defense, but there are laws that we can put in place to make people safer. I’ve supported things like universal background checks, safe storage requirements,” Carter said.
But he said the root cause of gun violence is despair, causing both suicides and firearms assaults. He said, “We can address that despair, by making sure that we put economic power directly into the hands of working people in this commonwealth so that they dictate their own future.”
Terry McAuliffe said he was proud of receiving an ‘F’ rating on firearms issues from the NRA.
“As a governor, what I’ll do: number one, get rid of assault weapons. Number two, I’ll get rid of these high-capacity magazines,” he said. “Number three, we have to get rid of the ghost guns. Number four, I want to give local authorities, mayors, and others, if they have public events in their jurisdictions, then they can make a decision whether they want to ban firearms if they want to keep their citizens safe.”
Senator Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) touted her work on gun legislation.
She attacked McAuliffe: “We had the opportunity to require all Virginians with a concealed carry permit to comply with our requirements rather than allowing them to have concealed carry permits from states that have looser restrictions than we do. Our attorney general was on the right track to put us there, and Governor McAuliffe gave that away. So the first thing I would do is make sure that every Virginian has to have a concealed carry permit under our restrictions, under our requirements in Virginia.”
Jennifer Carrol Foy said a friend of hers had been a victim of gun violence, and cited a recent shooting near her childhood home.
“When I tell you that gun violence is personal to me, I mean it. The reason we haven’t curbed gun violence isn’t because we don’t know how to do it, it is because we have politicians failing to act. And when Terry McAuliffe had the opportunity as governor to be serious about gun violence, he did a backroom deal with the NRA undermining concealed weapons laws in Virginia, making us all less safe,” Carrol Foy said.
Moderators gave McAuliffe a chance to reply.
“It was the toughest domestic violence bill in the United States of America,” McAuliffe said. “There are thousands of women today who are safe because of that law.”
Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax complained that McAulliffe kept exceeding his time limits. “There appears to be two sets of rules, one where the governor can talk as long as he wants to and do whatever he wants, and one for everybody else,” he said.
On the issue, Fairfax said, “What you see often times is there’s an inverse relationship. We have high rates of gun violence, we have low rates of opportunity in those communities. So, we have got to get to the root causes, create more educational opportunity, more high-paying jobs, and make sure that people do not resort to gun violence because they have no other options in their own lives.”
Later in the debate, Fairfax was criticized on social media for comments he made comparing treatment he received over sexual assault allegations to the treatment given George Floyd.
“I was falsely accused in 2019,” Fairfax said. “Everyone here on the stage called for my immediate resignation, including Terry McAuliffe, three minutes after the press release came out. He treated me like George Floyd, treated me like Emmett Till. No due process. Immediately assumed my guilt.”
The Virginia Parole Board
A moderator asked candidates, “The Virginia Parole Board has been under fire recently for the way that it handled last year several releases of about a half a dozen inmates, with state investigators finding that they did not notify prosecutors in time, or victims, or victims’ family members in time to come to hearings. How would you handle this situation if you were governor?”
Fairfax called for transparency.
“We have to have a thorough, independent investigation to get to the facts, to get to the truth, to be very deliberate in the way that we do that,” he said. “What we’re seeing though, so often, is that people play politics with these kinds of very serious issues. The parole board is a very serious job.”
Fairfax added, “We can’t simply be lobbing charges and allegations against one another to score cheap political points.”
Carrol Foy said she supported Governor Ralph Northam’s call for an independent investigation.
“But let me be clear, as your next governor, I do support reinstating parole in Virginia, because I believe in second chances, and I believe in rehabilitation, and I believe in restorative justice,” she said.
Carrol Foy added there was a need to address the issues causing people to commit crimes, including poverty.
“Poverty is immoral, it is unjust, and it is violent. And we finally need a governor who is going to tackle it head-on,” she said.
McClellan echoed the call for an independent investigation. She said, “We need to make sure that parole board is following the requirements that it must follow. We also have to make sure that the parole board has the resources, the investigators that they need to fully spend the time investigating the backlog of requests that they have, not just for parole, but they also investigate clemency requests.”
She continued, “When Governor McAuliffe had an opportunity to put more money in place for the parole board, unfortunately he didn’t, and I tried to get it in with a budget amendment.”
McAuliffe answered, “I mean really. I mean, I wasn’t there when this was going on, but listen. I’m about giving people parole. When I was Governor, I had to replace the entire parole board because they didn’t believe in doing it. I leaned in hard on these issues because we have a racist criminal justice system.”
He touted his record of restoring felon’s rights. He added, “I also leaned in on pardons. I had more pardons than any governor before me, 227. I leaned in to help people and lift them up.”
Carter said he also supported a parole board investigation and reinstating parole. He added, “I think that this is a symptom of a problem that exists in many executive branch agencies, which is that the executive branch of Virginia’s government has become [resistant] to oversight. There is little to no oversight by the legislature over the executive branch.”
He continued, “They act with impunity far too often, they act outside of the public eye, and there seems to be very, very little appetite within the General Assembly to create more oversight over the executive branch agencies largely because the party that holds the governor’s mansion tends to obstruct any efforts within the General Assembly to bring that oversight to the executive branch. So we definitely have a problem.”
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