Virginia’s first televised gubernatorial debate was a largely cordial affair free of personal attacks, but there was no shortage of heated sparring about policy.
Here are some illuminating moments from Tuesday’s evening debate between Democrat Ralph Northam and Republican Ed Gillespie:
The Trump factor
Northam garnered national attention during the primary for a commercial in which he called the president a "narcissistic maniac", a message he frequently repeated when asked about it by interviewers. But he hasn't used the phrase much in the general election, and didn't employ it Tuesday even when reminded by a debate moderator.
Asked how Northam could work with the White House after denouncing Trump, Northam said that while he disagreed with the president’s on several matters — his withdrawal from the Paris climate accords, attempts to overhaul Obamacare and decision to end deportation protection for immigrants who came to the U.S. as minors — he could find common ground.
Investment in the military — an industry important to the Virginia economy — was one area of agreement, Northam said.
“I’m a big believer in carrying a big stick,” said Northam, an Army doctor who treated wounded soldiers. “And if we can build up the military in this country, then I will do everything that I can to work with our president.”
Gillespie, asked what his message is for Republicans dismayed by Trump, pointed to his policy prescriptions for Virginia.
A statue to the first black governor?
Confederate monuments have been a vexing issue this campaign cycle.
Gillespie, after a primary scare against an opponent who attacked him as weak on protecting monuments, says they should stay with added context to inspire "healthy" discussion about history. Northam, who vowed in the wake of deadly unrest in Charlottesville to be a "vocal advocate" for localities to move statues to museums, has dialed back his rhetoric and tries to redirect the issue to addressing racism more broadly.
On Tuesday, Gillespie said the money spent to remove statues would be better directed toward education and other more urgent needs. But then he offered a new suggestion in the statue debate: erect a State House monument to L. Douglas Wilder, who in 1989 became the first African American elected governor in Virginia and the nation since Reconstruction.
“There are other Virginians we ought to be celebrating — and extolling — as opposed to just talking about the ones that we’ve got now,” said Gillespie.
Wilder, 86, could not be reached for comment Wednesday morning.
Virginians got something of a crash course in parliamentary procedure — and politics — as the candidates sparred over “sanctuary cities,” or localities that refuse to help federal officials detain and deport people who are in the country illegally.
The Republican-controlled General Assembly considered legislation in February to ban sanctuary cities, even though no Virginia community has yet to claim that status.
Northam, the lieutenant governor, presides over the 40-member state Senate, and only votes when there’s a tie.
Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment (R-James City) initially voted against the ban. It was an odd move for the GOP leader to break from his party, but it set up a tie that forced Northam to go on record on a contentious issue.
At the debate, Gillespie dinged Northam for voting against a sanctuary city ban. Northam countered that he was set up.
“I wasn’t just born yesterday, but it seemed like a little political ploy,” said Northam.
Gillespie said the issue boiled down to him supporting a ban on sanctuary cities, and Northam opposing such a ban.
Gillespie accentuated his point by highlighting the undocumented immigrant who is suspected of murdering a Loudoun County teenager.
“When someone commits a violent crime like we saw the heinous crime here in northern Virginia over Ramadan with a young 17-year-old woman beaten to death by a baseball bat, by an — someone who was here illegally, we need to cooperate with authorities,” Gillespie said. “And that person needs to be deported.”
Asked by a debate panelist whether the violent protests in Charlottesville was a “race relations scab that reopens with every generation of Virginians” and whether the state needs a “long, hard public look at race relations,” Gillespie said he believes that conversations about the historical context of Confederate statues would be healthy and that in addition to a Wilder statue, the state should think about erecting statues to Booker T. Washington and Dred Scott.
Northam said Charlottesville showed the country that there is “a tremendous amount of still hate and bigotry”and that it was important for leaders to stand up to it. “We live in a diverse society,” he said. “And it shouldn’t matter the color of your skin, the country that you come from, the religion that you practice — we need to be open. We need to be inclusive in the Commonwealth of Virginia.”
Among the sharpest barbs traded in the debate concerned taxes.
Northam called Gillespie’s proposal to reduce every income tax rate by 10 percent a “tax cut for the rich at the expense of the working class” and compared his plan to the steep tax cuts enacted in Kansas that were supposed to deliver growth and prosperity but instead created huge budget shortfalls that resulted in downgraded credit ratings and brutal cuts to state government.
Gillespie said his approach is far more responsible: It would be contingent on future economic growth to balance out revenue loss, and it would be slowly phased in.
He said Northam’s claims were tantamount to calling people making $17,000 rich because the top tax rate applies to income over that level. Republicans have been echoing that point on social media.
But Northam’s point is that a tax cut that is equal across all income levels will save the wealthiest Virginians far more money than the middle class and poor people because of the state’s regressive income tax structure.
A recent analysis by the left-leaning Center for American Progress found that Virginians living in poverty — a family of four with an annual income of $24,300 or less — would not receive a tax cut under Gillespie’s plan because they earn less than the threshold for state income taxes, although they still face sales and property taxes.