The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A question about candidate’s Muslim faith roils Democrats’ debate for Virginia lieutenant governor

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The six Democrats vying to become Virginia’s lieutenant governor might have expected fireworks during their first and only debate before next month’s primary election.

But they probably didn't expect them to come from one of the two moderators, who asked the only Muslim candidate in the race whether he could guarantee voters that his faith wouldn't get in the way if he were elected.

ABC7 anchor Dave Lucas cited a Washington Post article that noted Del. Sam Rasoul’s heavy reliance on out-of-state Muslim donors in his campaign — adding “there’s nothing wrong with that, but that was the case” — then questioned Rasoul about his allegiances.

“Can you assure Virginians, if you’re elected, that you’ll represent all of them, regardless of faith or beliefs?” Lucas asked Rasoul.

Rasoul (Roanoke) did not directly acknowledge the question at Tuesday’s event, which was co-hosted by the Virginia Democratic Party and George Mason University. Instead he reiterated a campaign pledge to rely on individual donors instead of lobbyists and corporate interests.

Later in the debate he added, looking into the TV camera: “Yes, we’ve excited a lot of people with our grass-roots campaign, across the country, and I am interested and ready to be your next lieutenant governor and to be able to fight for every single Virginian.”

Among the other candidates onstage, only Xavier Warren immediately addressed the implications of the question that, as he put it, suggested “it was going to be a stain if Muslims donated to Sam.”

“Muslims, the Asian community and Black Lives Matter, you have a presence, you have an opportunity to get a good job and achieve your dreams here in Virginia,” Warren said, turning to Rasoul to add, “You and your family have my support.”

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After the debate, the state Democratic Party’s chair and several of the candidates called the question inappropriate, with some social media commenters demanding an apology from ­Lucas.

“Who else would be asked this? Didn’t we do this last 60 years ago w/JFK?” Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax’s spokeswoman, Lauren Burke, said Tuesday night on Twitter, referring to John F. Kennedy having to answer a question about his Catholic faith in the 1960 presidential debate.

Lucas did not respond to request for comment Wednesday. But during a Wednesday evening broadcast, another ABC7 anchor apologized on his behalf.

“During a relevant exchange in that debate related to campaign finance, our anchor Dave Lucas asked an inappropriate and disrespectful question to Del. Sam Rasoul,” the anchor, Alison Starling, said on the air. “We have reached out to Del. Rasoul’s campaign to sincerely apologize for this question and for the impact of these words.”

Rasoul, who became the legislature’s first Muslim member when he won his state delegate’s seat in 2014 and would be the first Muslim to hold statewide office if elected, said he was taken aback at first by the question. But, he added in an interview before the apology, he wasn’t too surprised.

“I’ve been campaigning for 14 years and I’ve had some subtle and not-so-subtle comments made, and so we’re always ready for any kind of nonsense that rears its ugly head,” he said.

The debate itself had some other moments of tension despite a 30-second limitation for answers and few rebuttal opportunities that made exchanges difficult.

Some of the candidates focused their attacks on Rasoul, who has raised nearly $1.3 million for his campaign so far, and Del. Hala S. Ayala (Prince William), whose candidacy has been boosted by endorsements from Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and other Democratic leaders.

Sean Perryman, the former leader of the NAACP’s chapter in Fairfax County, called Rasoul’s claim that his campaign is grass-roots-funded disingenuous since one donor — Manal Fakhoury, the head of a private equity investment firm — has contributed nearly $75,000. Another contributor, private equity fund owner Mohannad S. Malas, has donated nearly $70,000 to Rasoul’s campaign.

“This is why we need campaign finance reform,” said Perryman, who also highlighted a $360,000 loan that Del. Mark H. Levine (Alexandria) made to his own campaign. “Because it locks regular people out of the process.”

Rasoul, who as a delegate seeking reelection once promised he would not accept more than $5,000 from any individual, said the demands of running for a statewide office called for accepting larger donations. But, he added, he still has not received funding from a corporation or a political action committee.

“Until we have public financing in campaigns, there really is no great pledge,” he said.

Levine said his loan, plus the absence of any corporate donations, means “I’m in the pocket of no one.”

Andria McClellan, a Norfolk City Council member, questioned Ayala’s claim that all of her campaign contributions came from Virginia.

McClellan — whose campaign has relied in part on donations from current and former executives at the Norfolk Southern railroad company, where her husband is a vice president — highlighted $182,000 of in-kind donations Ayala’s campaign received from an entertainment company based in Fort Washington, Md.

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Ayala’s campaign said Wednesday that she misspoke at the debate and meant to say that most of her donations come from Virginia.

“We should be focused on the voters and not be on the phones for 10, 15 hours a day fundraising,” Ayala said at the debate about the need for campaign finance reform.

The candidates mostly agreed on core Democratic issues such as gun control and law enforcement changes aimed at stopping cases of police abuse.

All also slammed the state’s employment commission for a continuing lag on delivering unemployment insurance benefits to Virginians who’ve lost jobs because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Ayala, Levine and Rasoul touted their experience as state delegates. The other three candidates complained that the Democratic-controlled General Assembly has too often fallen short in pursuing needed changes.

Brittany Mayes contributed to this report.