RICHMOND — More than 1,000 Democratic Party loyalists gathered Saturday night at their annual Jefferson Jackson Dinner to hear Vice President Biden fire up the Virginia party for gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe and his running mates.
The theme of the evening at the Greater Richmond Convention Center was “extreme,” as Biden and other speakers took turns bashing Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II and the GOP ticket for being out of step with Virginia.
“This is about as stark a choice as you could imagine — a choice between the Virginia way and the tea party way,” Biden said in his keynote speech.
McAuliffe also opened his speech with a slap at Republicans.
“The tea party ticket is focused on issues that divide Virginians: attacking voting rights, Planned Parenthood, gay Virginians, the Social Security that you paid into all your life, science and even yoga,” McAuliffe said, referring to a remark made by GOP lieutenant governor nominee E.W. Jackson linking yoga with Satan. “And yes, of course, they’re still questioning President Obama’s place of birth.”
McAuliffe — who has not held elective office but was chairman of the Democratic National Committee — said he would search for bipartisanship if he were elected governor.
“Cuccinelli said this election is about showing that conservatism isn’t dead. Well, I say this election is about creating jobs,” McAuliffe said.
Cuccinelli’s gubernatorial campaign dismissed the criticism. Days after Obama announced that his administration would take steps to reduce carbon dioxide from existing power plants and other sources to combat climate change, Republicans accused McAuliffe and Democrats of taking a position that threatens thousands of jobs in southwest Virginia’s coal country.
“With no economic plan or message to tout, Vice President Biden and Terry McAuliffe doubled down on an empty strategy of division and false attacks,” spokeswoman Anna Nix said in a written statement. “The Commonwealth has a clear choice: Ken Cuccinelli’s plan to keep taxes low, stand up for the middle class and move Virginia forward, or Terry McAuliffe’s embrace of the failed policies that have created significant burdens and uncertainty for families, job creators and workers.”
Polls have shown that Cuccinelli and McAuliffe are in a close race and that many voters find both candidates hard to like. Although several Democrats said they were pleased by the turnout for the $175-a-head annual dinner, remarks by several speakers also belied concerns about whether the coalition that twice gave Virginia to Obama would show up this November.
Before the dinner, according to a media pool report, Biden and McAuliffe dropped by Croaker’s Spot, a local restaurant where Biden snapped cellphone pictures with diners. At the convention center, more than 50 protesters, along with working models of windmills, demonstrated in opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline.
Inside, McAuliffe said he would focus on education, transportation and economic development. He received loud applause when he pledged to protect “women’s access to affordable health care” and work toward ensuring women receive equal pay for equal work.
McAuliffe also said he would require a budget that expands Medicaid as part of the implementation of the federal health-care overhaul and again praised Republican Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s backing of a massive transportation-funding plan.
“Our mainstream ticket views bipartisanship as a necessity,” McAuliffe said. “Their tea party ticket looks at bipartisanship as betrayal.”
State Sen. Mark R. Herring (Loudoun), who is running for attorney general, talked about growing up as the son of a single mother and how education changed his life. He said he would work to provide similar opportunities for others.
“Not everyone knows exactly what the job of attorney general is all about. But if we can thank Ken Cuccinelli for something, we all know just how important the office is,” Herring said. His Republican opponent is Sen. Mark D. Obenshain (Harrisonburg).
Sen. Ralph S. Northam (Norfolk) talked about his military service, his work as a physician and his push for a smoking ban as one of his first pieces of legislation he sponsored after entering the Senate. He reminded Democrats that the role of lieutenant governor is more important than ever because of its tie-breaking power in the evenly divided Senate.
“As your next lieutenant governor, I’m going to make sure that we stop the assault on women’s reproductive health care,” Northam said.
But it was Biden who got people’s blood moving with a speech that roamed from stories about his working-class upbringing in Scranton, Pa., to a rousing call for women’s rights. He said McAuliffe would create jobs and attacked Cuccinelli as an extremist. Biden noted that when state attorneys general from both parties endorsed a letter in support of a strengthened version of the Violence Against Women Act, Cuccinelli declined to sign.
“It’s beyond my comprehension,” Biden said.
Biden also reminded Democrats that Cuccinelli has said sex education in public schools is Planned Parenthood’s way of introducing children to the idea that nothing’s wrong with abortion, and that Cuccinelli has argued that Social Security, Medicare and other such programs foster dependence on government. But after whacking Cuccinelli, Biden got perhaps the loudest round of applause when he said: “Time doesn’t permit me to talk about his running mate,” an apparent reference to Jackson.
“Under Ken’s leadership, the attorney general’s office has made historic progress in the area of violence against women, particularly against the horrors of human trafficking,’’ said Richard Cullen, a Cuccinelli campaign spokesman.