The first debate between Virginia’s gubernatorial candidates took place at the Virginia Bar Association’s summer meeting on Sat., July 22. RVA Mag was on the scene to bring a blow by blow account of the sparring match between Democrat Ralph Northam and Republican Ed Gillespie.
The Opening Salvo: Pipelines and Guns
The first attack on Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam did not come from Republicans, but the progressive base of his own party.
Northam had barely started his opening statement when a protester interrupted him with cries of “No pipeline!” The project he was referencing, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP), has become an internal flashpoint between establishment party members and the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.
Northam, Gillespie, and Dominion Power all support the ACP.
The audience laughed as the activist shouted, “This stage is owned by Dominion Power!” before being escorted away, but the incident highlighted the extent to which both candidates have distanced themselves from the more vocal elements of their own parties.
Unfazed, Northam immediately linked his opponent Ed Gillespie to President Donald Trump.
“I believe the president is a dangerous man,” said Northam, adding that Trump “lies like a rug.” This was a familiar refrain, as his campaign has dedicated much of its energy to linking Gillespie with the deeply unpopular president.
On that issue – as well as on issues like the Second Amendment – Gillespie stuck to his proverbial guns, saying that he would work with the Trump administration, but that the gubernatorial race should be about Virginia, not Washington.
“I don’t agree with everything the president says or tweets,” said Gillespie. “But my focus is on Virginia.”
The Chase: Immigration, Healthcare, Weed, and Guns
Gillespie cautiously sidestepped his personal opinion of the president. Instead, he pivoted instantly to defense spending when asked if he would continue to support Trump in the event he fired Robert Mueller – special counsel for the investigation into the president’s ties with Russia.
Northam then attacked Gillespie on reproductive rights and gun control. This earned him applause for the assertion that “legislators, most of whom are men, continue to tell women what to do with their bodies.”
Early and often, Gillespie argued that Virginia had fallen behind economically during Northam’s tenure as lieutenant governor.
Gillespie also mentioned several times that he is the son of an immigrant, claiming he “can relate” to those who are here “through no fault of their own.” Yet in the same breath, he echoed the president’s harsh stance on immigration.
When pressed by the moderator, Judy Woodruff of PBS NewsHour, he eventually revealed he would not challenge the Trump administration’s deportation policies.
Northam seized on this opportunity to draw a contrast between himself and Gillespie.
“Virginia has to be inclusive, our lights have to be on. Our doors have to be open,” Northam said. Not long after his message of inclusivity, he seemed to double back by adding, “ICE should be allowed to do their job.” It was a sentiment he shared with Gillespie, but clearly not with the more progressive wing of his own party.
As the two went back and forth over relatively minor points on immigration, Woodruff bluntly asked both to explain where they differed on the issue. Gillespie stated that he was opposed to allowing undocumented immigrants to attend state universities, likening Northam’s education plans to those of Bernie Sanders who called for undocumented immigrants to qualify for in-state tuition – a common Republican tactic.
When it was time to debate healthcare, Northam leaned on his experiences as a doctor and the unpopularity of Trump’s recently failed healthcare initiatives, as he has for most of the campaign. Northam repeatedly emphasized how many Virginians are in imminent danger of losing medial coverage.
Gillespie, of course, decried Obamacare as being costly and inefficient. Noticeably omitted was any answer to one of the major questions hanging over the debate: should Republicans repeal Obamacare without having a replacement ready?
Northam, usually a firm centrist, every now and then did go full progressive. This was especially true when it came to criminal justice reform and one of the more sweeping elements of this platform – decriminalizing marijuana.
It is no secret that Northam wants to end the prohibition of marijuana, however, it still felt like a watershed moment to hear a major-party candidate (with a calm Eastern Shore voice) say, “We need to sit down at the table and talk about decriminalizing marijuana.” More than once during the primary he spoke about the disproportionate rate of incarceration for African American communities over marijuana usage.
Gillespie made no comment about marijuana decriminalization, but there’s little doubt where he stands. Republican Attorney General Jeff Sessions has already started taking steps to re-enforce mandatory minimum sentencing over non-violent drug offenses.
Northam also noted that he differed from Gillespie and, for that matter, Governor Terry McAuliffe in his opposition to the death penalty – referencing the high-profile execution of William Morva on July 6.
One of the most jarring moments came as the conversation turned to the Second Amendment.
Northam described the flow of guns into Virginia as another “pipeline” that needs to be shut down. As the audience reacted to his sobering reminder about the Virginia Tech massacre and the importance of keeping guns off campus, Gillespie responded by proudly referencing his A rating from the National Rifle Association.
The Grand Finale: Establishment, Establishment
Much of the first gubernatorial debate boiled down to a checklist of establishment viewpoints on various issues important to both parties in the Commonwealth.
In fact, the furthest either candidate strayed from the base of their own party was Northam’s support of the natural gas pipelines, something many Virginia Democrats, liberals, activists, and progressives actively oppose.
“It was exactly what we expected, and excruciatingly disappointing,” said Richard Averitt, an anti-pipeline activist who also attended the debate – in reference to Northam’s stance on the ACP. “He’s lieutenant governor, and a huge percentage of his down-ticket candidates have all taken the right position on this, which is a no-pipeline position, and he is staying the course.”
“We’ll write in ‘No Pipeline,’” said his wife, Jill Averitt, when asked if either candidate had won their support.
After the debate, Northam reiterated that he did oppose fracking, but would allow fracked oil to enter the state via the ACP if it could be done responsibly. A short time later, he left to join his opponent and their respective entourages at a reception sponsored by Dominion Power.
A neutral observer would have a hard time deciding who won, a predictable outcome for a debate between two establishment candidates. While Northam hit his predetermined talking points and fired off a few memorable quotes, he came off stiff next to Gillespie, whose conversational tone provided cover for his refusal to give straight answers on some fairly important questions. Nor does it bode well for Northam that the pipeline protest – which he inexplicably referred to several times throughout the later stages of the debate – was the most memorable event of the afternoon, highlighting the internal schism between the different wings of the Democratic Party of Virginia.