NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — The colorful leaders of the Virginia Senate made their cases Monday night for why their party deserves to win control of the powerful chamber next month.
In a debate at Christopher Newport University, Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City County) and Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) — who have a combined nearly 60 years of service in the Senate — spent more than an hour sparring over issues such as Medicaid expansion, gun control and climate change that have sharply divided the two parties during the first 20 months of Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s administration.
But while their parties disagree on many issues, the lawmakers, who said they regarded each other as “good friends,” spent much of the evening defending their voting records and personal histories.
In the first question of the evening, Norment was asked about his relationship with a lobbyist whose firm pushed for legislation that Norment supported without recusing himself.
“I find that opening question to be a supercilious, impertinent question. You know very well I don’t discuss my personal life. So I’m not going to dignify that portion of that question with a response,” Norment said.
Saslaw backed him up and went on to discuss how his former campaign treasurer was charged Monday with embezzling more than $650,000 in campaign funds.
“The FBI and the Justice Department — they’re handling this. They know what to do, and that’s all I’m going to say on that,” he said. “Bottom line, I’m responsible.”
Not unlike the dynamic in Washington, the state Senate has been more open to compromise on McAuliffe’s top priorities, thanks to a few moderates.
But there are stark divisions that will be tested on Election Day next month, with all 40 seats in the chamber up for grabs. The lawmakers saved their sharpest disagreements for their competing views on Medicaid expansion and gun control. McAuliffe (D) has made offering the social program to more poor Virginians through federal health-care subsidies his chief policy goal, but Republican lawmakers have blocked him in both chambers. Democrats hope they are able to win back the Senate next month to help usher the governor’s agenda through the legislature.
Norment said “expansion is a little more complicated” than just extending benefits to the uninsured. Contrary to what Democrats say, Republicans are not “hardhearted, callous individuals; what we are is fiscally responsible,” Norment said.
Saslaw shot back: “You must be reading from a different set of facts than I am.”
Meanwhile, the lawmakers also sharply disagreed on gun control. Saslaw said Republicans in the last session favored a bill that would have authorized a 4-year-old to discharge a weapon.
“A 4-year-old? That’s gun control? You’ve got to be kidding me,” he said.
Norment said the bill was really about “civil liability.”
Republicans have a two-seat majority in the Senate, but just one vote separates the parties because Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) is the tiebreaker.
Challenged about McAuliffe’s record on job creation — which puts Virginia near the bottom of all 50 states — Saslaw said McAuliffe is better at economic development than the 11 governors he has seen come through Richmond.
“We have lost a ton of jobs to sequestration. Terry McAuliffe hasn’t had a damn thing to do with that,” he said.
Norment, an attorney who called himself just a “country boy,” delivered McAuliffe a backhanded compliment, saying the “consummate salesman” could “literally sell snowballs to Eskimos,” but suggested he should delegate governing responsibilities in which he “quite frankly” has little interest.
He went on to tout top scores members of his caucus got from the Virginia Chamber of Commerce on business friendliness.
The jab struck Saslaw, who last session pushed a bill that freed Dominion Virginia Power from regular financial audits.
“Go ask Dominion, go ask any of these companies — beer and wine wholesalers, banks, the development community — every one of them will tell you, they will tell you I’m the most pro-business senator,” he said.
The senators both support capital punishment and said lawsuits seeking to release to the public information used to guide executions go too far. The Supreme Court ruled last week that manuals used to outline execution procedures are exempt from Freedom of Information Act requests and do not have to be redacted and partially released.
“I hate be flippant . . . but I don’t understand why the public needs to know what the execution room looks like. At that point, the guy’s going to die anyway,” Saslaw said.
Asked to defend his vote to preserve the state’s limit on handgun purchases to one a month — which was repealed under former governor Robert F. McDonnell (R) — Norment said that while he has been leader, Republicans don’t quarrel on the Senate floor.
“I found a strain of patience in my system that I did not know existed,” he said. “The members of my caucus appreciate and respect it; they do not resent me for it.”
Each is a showman in his own way. Norment’s genteel yet cutting rhetoric was on display, and Saslaw used plenty of his trademark one-liners.
Both lawmakers face nominal competition in November — Norment from a Democrat and Saslaw from an Independent Green Party candidate — but neither is at risk of losing his seat or his hold on power.
Quentin Kidd, a political scientist and pollster at Christopher Newport University, moderated the debate. There were four panelists, including Robert McCartney of The Washington Post.