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Democrats vying to challenge Comstock debate liberal values in NAACP debate

Six Democratic candidates and one Republican vying for Virginia's 10th Congressional District seat take part in a candidate forum sponsored by the Fairfax NAACP in Chantilly, Va. (Pete Marovich/For The Washington Post)

Democrats vying for the nomination to run against Rep. Barbara Comstock got a chance to sound off on the Trump administration and defend their liberal values during a Saturday event sponsored by the Fairfax NAACP.

With the primary just over two weeks away, candidates focused on racial equality, decriminalization of marijuana, and protections for the elderly and low-income residents of Virginia’s 10th District.

All six Democrats were there: State Sen. Jennifer Wexton (D-Loudoun), Army veteran Dan Helmer, strategist Lindsey Davis Stover, anti-human-trafficking activist Alison Friedman, former federal prosecutor Paul Pelletier and scientist Julia Biggins.

Republicans were represented by Shak Hill, a former fighter pilot and self-described motivational speaker, who is challenging Comstock (R-Va.) from the right and provided a conservative counterpoint to the group.

Comstock was invited but attended other events in the district instead, her spokesman said.

Both national parties are closely watching the Democratic primary in the district — one of 23 seats held by Republicans that Democrats must win to take control of the House.

Message, turnout and luck: Six Democrats try to make their marks in the race to face Comstock

The district includes vote-rich Washington suburbs in Loudoun County and parts of Fairfax and Prince William counties, as well as a rural swath bordering West Virginia.

Democrats hope to re-create Gov. Ralph Northam’s decisive win in the district last year, but will face in Comstock a seasoned political operative who has won previous campaigns, partly based on her knowledge of local problems, from traffic to the MS-13 gang.

Neither issue came up Saturday in a brightly lit room at Chantilly Baptist Church.

Asked about criminal justice reform, all candidates called for the decriminalization of marijuana, except Helmer, who would outright legalize it, as long as it’s regulated and kept away from children.

Wexton, the most well-known candidate in the field, touted her support in the legislature for expanded access to medicinal oils derived from marijuana.

Pelletier noted the discrepancy between prosecuting white-collar criminals, as he did for decades, and street crimes, and denounced the death of Eric Garner, who died after a New York City Police Department officer put him in a headlock while arresting him in Staten Island.

“They’re arresting people that don’t need to be arrested,” he said.

Stover said the Trump administration should declare opioid addiction a national crisis.

Hill said each state should decide whether to decriminalize marijuana within their borders.

When it came to overall crime, he said it would decrease if the government could help keep families intact and “incentivize the dad to live with the mom.”

Friedman offered a rebuttal to Hill. “I have to say, as a single mom,” she said, “I think there are more important things we can do related to criminal justice reform.”

She also called for implicit bias training for law enforcement and community policing, and echoed other candidates’ calls for bail and sentencing overhauls.

Turning to immigration, Democrats all denounced Trump’s plan for a border wall and said they would work to reverse his decision to end protections for “dreamers,” children brought to the United States illegally as children.

“The wall’s just plain stupid, stupid,” Stover said. “We have no room in this country for symbols of hate.”

On health care, Wexton wants to modernize Medicaid and Medicare systems so people can grow old in their homes instead of having to move into institutional care, and said she would support programs like Meals on Wheels.

Friedman said Congress can make decisions that are kind and “smarter fiscally,” such as reworking Social Security disability insurance.

“If you look at the tax structure,” she said, “we reward asset creation at the upper end of the spectrum, miss the middle entirely and penalize the poor.”

Helmer, Pelletier and Stover said the government should be able to negotiate drug prices, while Biggins is the only Democrat calling for a single-payer health-care system like what Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has proposed.

Democrats denounced Trump’s Friday evening executive order that would roll back civil-service protections, making it easier to fire poor performers, curtailing time employees can be paid for union work and directing agencies to negotiate tougher union contracts. Many residents of the 10th District depend on the federal government for their livelihoods.

Candidates were asked if they would support a bill that former congressman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) repeatedly introduced to study slavery reparations and former congressman Tom Perriello’s call for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission on race.

“If we’re going to move forward as a country, we can’t necessarily hold on to the evils of the past,” Hill said.

Wexton spoke next. “While I agree we shouldn’t hold on to the wrongs of the past, we need to at least acknowledge them, and that has not been happening,” she said.

She pointed to a bill she carried in the General Assembly that would have allowed localities to move or alter historic monuments. It failed and “was viciously attacked,” she said. The government has for years funded the upkeep of Confederate graves, and just last year did the state begin doing it for historic African American gravesites, she said.

“We need to have this discussion,” she said.

Friedman added that Congress must address the modern ramifications of institutional discrimination that plays out in disproportionate school suspension rates and access to honors classes.

Hill had some supporters in the room, a dynamic that led to a sharp exchange at the start of the forum.

“It’s really impossible to ignore the fact that the White House is really eroding a lot of the things that we worked really hard over the years to accomplish in a very short time,” said Kofi Annan, president of the Fairfax County NAACP.

From the back of the audience, a man yelled: “You’re supposed to be nonpartisan but you’re being partisan. It’s hypocritical.”

The forum began and the man left after a few minutes.