by Brandon Jarvis

Gathering on the historic Virginia State University campus Tuesday, the Democratic candidates for governor met for their first of four televised, party-sponsored debates. 

In a socially distanced auditorium scattered with press and a few audience members, Delegate Lee Carter, former Delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy, Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, former Governor Terry McAuliffe and state Senator Jennifer McClellan stood between clear dividers to debate key issues in the race for the Democratic nomination.

Jennifer Carroll Foy

Carroll Foy stuck to her roots while speaking in the auditorium that is just yards from the city she grew up in. “Virginians deserve a governor that has walked in their shoes,” she said Tuesday while also noting that when she was living in Petersburg she had to choose between buying her grandmother’s medication or paying the mortgage.

She continued to humanize herself in an attempt to differentiate her campaign from the other candidates on stage. “I don’t have to empathize, because I understand,” she said before noting that her hours were cut and her husband lost one of his two jobs due to the pandemic.

She also touched a personal note when discussing gun violence by talking about a friend being shot when she was growing up in Petersburg. “I can’t tell you the feelings of pain and helplessness not knowing if he is going to make it through the night,” she said Tuesday. 

As for moving the commonwealth forward out of the pandemic, Carroll Foy wants to help people get their jobs back. “It is about protecting the people who need us the most,” she said when discussing her plans for a post-COVID-19 economy. Her plan includes a ground-up approach with an emphasis on small businesses and people who lost their jobs during the pandemic. During the debate, Carroll Foy claimed to be the first candidate to release this type of plan, but McAuliffe released a recovery plan over a month prior to Carroll Foy. 

As far as mistrust from the community in receiving a vaccine, Carroll Foy said she would use her platform to stress the importance of vaccines in beating the pandemic. “There is mistrust from the African American community. We have not always had the best relationship and understanding of the functions of the government,” she said during the debate. “We can do this only if we do it together.”

Terry McAuliffe

The former governor that is now seeking the spot again spoke to his bold ideas on Tuesday as he repeatedly placed an emphasis on his policy plans that are intended to help minority communities. He also spoke to his experience in governing and his relationship with the Biden administration as key reasons he could help Virginia move forward out of the pandemic. 

 “I’m all about big bold plans, I will take Virginians to the next level,” he said during the debate Tuesday. 

He applauded Governor Northam’s handling of the pandemic, but he believes one of the key factors moving forward should be providing more access to healthcare. He also said he would reach out to faith community leaders for help in convincing people to get a vaccine. “We are not going to be safe until everyone has a vaccine,” he said in the debate. 

McAuliffe also wants to focus on helping workers across Virginia — he reinforced that Tuesday when he said that he wants to see the minimum wage in Virginia at $15 an hour by 2024. “We have got to lift workers up,” he said.

“It is time to get serious about the issue of gun violence.” On the issue of guns, McAuliffe said he wants to “lean in.” That would include banning assault rifles and extended magazines as well as ghost guns, which are basically homemade guns. 

On the topic of George Floyd, McAuliffe said he wants everyone to be treated equally and that he would invest more money into training police officers. He also said he is a big supporter of body cameras in an effort to provide “transparency and accountability.” 

Jennifer McClellan 

Jennifer McClellan reflected on walking by the statue of notorious segregationist Harry Byrd in Capitol Square when explaining her reasoning for running. “A Black woman working to eradicate inequity that he put in place,” she said. 

She also said she wants to put a focus on rebuilding the safety net as the state government tries to move out of the pandemic. “We can rebuild in a way that prepares us for the next crisis while getting us through this one.” The senator stressed the importance of rebuilding the economy in a way that is equitable for all Virginians. “Before COVID our economy was leaving many Virginians behind,” she said during the debate, before noting she would implement a paid family leave program if she were to become governor. 

McClellan touted the work that the General Assembly has done in the last two years on gun control measures like universal background checks and red-flag laws. But during the debate Tuesday, McAuliffe said McClellan supported one of his bills in 2016 that allowed concealed carry reciprocity in Virginia. McClellan responded during the debate, calling out the former governor for that specific bill that she actually voted against. “We had the opportunity to require all Virginians with a conceal 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,” she said Tuesday. “Our Attorney General was on the right track to put us there, and Governor McAuliffe made a deal that gave that away.”

On the topic of George Floyd, McClellan compared it to the trauma her parents felt when Emmett Till died. “Racial justice is about more than criminal justice reform, it is embedded in every system we have in government and I did not need George Floyd’s murder or the Unite the Right rally to teach me that.” 

McClellan also said she wants to have more community outreach to inform people about the vaccine and how they can get access to a shot. She wants to mobilize people, instead of having them sign up on a website. 

Lee Carter 

In an effort to differentiate himself from the other candidates, Carter cited his professional experience compared to theirs. “It’s not a secret that Virginia is divided, it is not between Republicans and Democrats, it’s between the haves and the have nots,” Carter said Tuesday. “I am not a millionaire and not an attorney.”

Carter, a part-time Lyft driver, noted that he is experiencing the same effects as a lot of Virginians in regards to unemployment benefits. “I am right there with the hundreds of thousands of Virginians waiting for answers from the Virginia Employment Commission.” 

While discussing pulling Virginia out of the pandemic, Carter cited his early pleas to get Northam to tighten up COVID-19 restrictions as a reason he could lead. “It is important to look at what candidates have actually done in this crisis to see how we would handle it in the future,” he said in the debate. 

On the issue of gun violence, Carter noted that instead of taking guns away from people, getting to the root cause of gun violence should be the priority. He believes that desperation from hurting Virginians is that root cause. He said in the debate that “making sure we put economic power directly into the hands” of Virginians would be key in addressing that desperation. 

Carter, a Socialist, also talked about bipartisanship in Virginia politics. “I didn’t fall into the trap of wanting bipartisanship for its own sake,” he said while noting that the bills he has worked on were “so inherently good” that both parties want to support it. 

Justin Fairfax

The Lieutenant Governor said he is running for governor because “people are facing extraordinary challenges in their lives, challenges like we have never seen. [People] are looking for someone to fight for them.” 

On most of the topics, he agreed in general with his opponents. But later in the debate, Fairfax compared himself to Emmett Till and George Floyd. “And I think that in the interest of speaking truth to power here, particularly on the campus of Virginia State University, we can’t just talk, theoretically, about what generally happens, but we have a real-world example of where I was falsely accused in 2019 from the Washington Post saying these false accusations,” Fairfax said. He is referencing the rape accusations against him from multiple women that were first reported on in 2019. “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, he treated me like Emmett Till, no due process, immediately assumed my guilt. 

McClellan responded to the comments after the debate. “The murders of Emmett Till and George Floyd were traumatic & triggering for generations of Black people. The lieutenant. governor’s comparison was shocking, unseemly, & insensitive.”

Notable mentions

The candidates were all in agreeance on marijuana legalization, supporting it as quickly and equitably as possible. On the parole board scandal, an issue plaguing Democrats recently as the parole board chair appears to have violated several rules and policies, McAuliffe differed from the rest of the field. While four of the five candidates said they support an independent investigation into the board and the Office of the Inspector General, McAuliffe did not make the same statement. “I wasn’t there when this was going on,” he said during the debate. Instead, he noted the 227 pardons he granted as governor and voiced his overall support for the parole process and giving people a second chance. 

This was the first of four televised debates in the Democratic gubernatorial race for the nomination. Voters will choose the winner on June 8 in a primary election. 

Republican candidates will not be having a debate ahead of their May 8 nominating convention. 

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By vascope