Jackson said the move away from the institutionalization of the mentally ill in recent decades has gone too far in some cases. He pushed for some patients to be institutionalized.
Northam acknowledged Jackson’s family experience but drew a contrast on policy.
“I’m sorry that you have people in your family who are mentally ill, but how sad to think that you would go visit them in an institution, Mr. Jackson. We can do better than that in the commonwealth,” Northam said. “The answer is not to put them back in an institution. If you want to talk about ringing the cash register, that’s the way to do it, my friend.”
The two candidates were hungry for the opportunity to introduce themselves. In Virginia’s off-year elections, getting attention on down-ballot races is tough, and the campaigns hoped communicating even the most basic biographical outlines could boost their candidate.
Jackson touched on his narrative of personal redemption, describing a childhood that included stints under foster care and an eventual reconnection with his father that taught him the value of self-reliance and set him on a path toward Harvard Law School and, eventually, a life in the ministry.
Northam, the son of a judge and a nurse who grew up on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, attended the Virginia Military Institute. He went to medical school on an Army scholarship before serving in the military for eight years. He was stationed in Germany during Operation Desert Storm, helping triage and treat injured service members. He then returned home to work as a pediatric neurologist.
Jackson’s years as a minister shined through in the careful pacing and bursts of energy that animated his responses. Northam, influenced in part by his years as a physician, offered a lower-key but precise presence.
The two candidates expressed the most disagreement on education, with Jackson advocating the idea of using money normally reserved for public education to help parents home-school their children or use public vouchers for private school.
“If the focus of education is the children, not the protection of the system, but the children, then it seems to me that the parents who choose to home-school their children should be given every opportunity to share in the resources that it takes to educate those kids,” he said. “Home-school parents are being treated as second-class citizens.”
Northam said that position would lead to further erosion of public schools and massive teacher layoffs.
“You’re looking at $110 million per year that would come out of our public education budget,” Northam said, saying he has reviewed Jackson’s education plan and did some rough number-crunching.
“It means the loss of 1,700 teachers, and I haven’t heard any way to make up that difference,” Northam said. “If you are going to take away from public education, at least give us another source of income so that we don’t have to lay off 1,700 teachers.”
Jackson talked up his plan to eliminate the state’s corporate income tax to boost job creation. He has not outlined how he would address any resulting budget shortfall, predicting instead that the cut itself would dramatically increase economic growth.
Northam responded that such a policy “would literally bankrupt the commonwealth of Virginia. We don’t need to go there.”
Northam repeatedly cast himself as the more fiscally responsible candidate, emphasizing his experience running his own medical practice, while hammering Jackson for past financial difficulties.
“One of the two of us is going to be overseeing approximately an $80 billion budget,” Northam said.
“I have run a successful business. I have never been in bankruptcy. I have never had liens placed against my property. I have been responsible, and I have never been sued by my home town for not paying my taxes. It is a tremendous responsibility running an $80 billion budget.”
Some of those legal actions against Jackson were later dismissed.
In Virginia’s General Assembly, Northam’s highest-profile fights have been influenced by his medical background. During the debate he touted a successful bipartisan effort to ban smoking in Virginia restaurants and noted his vigorous opposition to a Republican bill last year that would have required a transvaginal ultrasound before some abortions.
The requirement was eventually removed.
Jackson gave no ground on the issue of abortion.
“I am unabashedly pro-life,” he said. I don’t make any apologies for that, and I will always do everything in my power to persuade others that it is the right thing to do to protect the lives of unborn children.”