RICHMOND — Republican Ed Gillespie attacked U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner for discussing the possibility of a federal judgeship for the daughter of a Democrat who was on the verge of quitting the evenly split state Senate and throwing control to the GOP.
In the pair’s third and final campaign debate in Richmond on Monday, the Republican underdog used the very first question as an opportunity to bring up Warner’s recently revealed job talks with the son of former state senator Phillip P. Puckett.
Pivoting from an unrelated question on voting rights, Gillespie said Virginia’s voters deserve answers from Warner if he discussed a judicial appointment in exchange for Puckett — who is from Russell County in southwest Virginia — remaining in his seat.
“This is very serious in terms of the federal bench, [it] has a big impact on our lives, and we need to make sure the qualified people are put on the bench, and I would never play politics with recommending judicial appointments,” Gillespie said.
Warner responded that he simply called Puckett’s son to “brainstorm” potential jobs for the senator’s daughter, Martha Puckett Ketron.
“I’ve been a friend of Senator Phillip Puckett and his family for nearly 20 years. When I heard that Phillip was considering resigning from the Senate, I reached out to his son Joseph to find out what was going on,” he said, adding that “I did not offer her a job nor would I offer her any kind of position.”
The “People’s Debate” was organized by the League of Women Voters and AARP and broadcast on TV stations across Virginia. Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis, who was excluded from all three debates, derided the event as “no people’s debate.”
It came just three days after Warner’s spokesman acknowledged that Warner had suggested several job options for Puckett’s daughter in June, at a time when Democrats were trying to dissuade Puckett from leaving the Senate. The Washington Post reported Friday that Warner called Puckett’s son Joseph and mentioned a job in the private sector and a position on the federal bench as possibilities.
Asked after the debate who requested that he intervene, Warner said, “I was contacted by the Democratic Senate leadership and the governor’s office.” Specifically, Warner said, he heard from Paul Reagan, an aide to Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), and from Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) — but not from McAuliffe himself.
McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy did not dispute that Reagan had asked Warner to intervene. He said he did not immediately know if the governor was aware that Reagan had asked Warner to weigh in, but he said there was nothing wrong — apart from any potential job offers — with anyone calling to urge Puckett to stay in the Senate.
“What’s wrong with these folks asking people to call?” Coy said. “It would be highly expected that we would call everybody.”
Puckett eventually resigned, putting the chamber in control of Republicans and dooming McAuliffe’s top legislative priority — expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. The incident also triggered a federal investigation into Puckett’s surprise exit, which initially brought scrutiny to Republican actions. At the time, Republicans were planning to give Puckett a job on the state tobacco commission and appoint his daughter to a state judgeship that she held temporarily but was barred from assuming on a permanent basis by an anti-nepotism policy in the state Senate regarding judicial appointments.
Now, both parties have been implicated in the controversy, which has overtaken an otherwise staid Senate campaign.
Warner, who is seeking a second term, has styled himself as a pro-business centrist with little zeal for social issues and a soft spot for working across the aisle. Trading on his popularity as governor as well as his national profile, Warner maintained an early lead of up to 25 points in the polls, but Gillespie has shrunk that to as little as 9 points, according to a recent survey.
Gillespie, a strategist and former lobbyist who entered politics as a candidate for the first time this year, often says Warner has voted with President Obama 97 percent of the time. The Republican is using the accusations to try to capitalize on voter dissatisfaction with the Democratic White House.
Beyond the Puckett scandal, the candidates sparred Monday on a string of divisive issues, including the nation’s response to the Ebola epidemic, the federal spending cuts and Gillespie’s past work as a lobbyist for Enron, the failed energy giant.
Warner repeatedly criticized Gillespie for his support for a no-tax pledge promoted by Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, saying that “stupid pledges” have prevented the government from investing in essential areas, such as health research.
Gillespie said that he did not sign the pledge. Even before the debate was over, an aide to Warner came into the press room to hand out copies of a letter Norquist had sent Gillespie in June, thanking him for his “statement and commitment to oppose and vote against any and all tax increases.”
Gillespie’s campaign explained afterward that Norquist issued the thank-you after speaking with the Republican, who had assured him that he opposes new taxes but also does not sign pledges.
Although Americans for Tax Reform’s Web site lists Gillespie as a pledge-signer, Norquist tweeted late Monday that Gillespie did not sign the pledge: “Gillespie told me he would not sign pledges. He didn’t. He told the people of Virginia he wouldn’t raise their taxes. He won’t. Warner did.”
When asked about Ebola, Warner said it was perhaps time to consider restricting flights from Liberia. Gillespie took a stricter line on flights, saying that the time had already passed to “impose a flight ban” to prevent the spread of Ebola.
Asked about their energy policies, the candidates got into a testy exchange.
Warner invited Gillespie to come to Norfolk, where, he said, the Navy is spending millions of dollars to raise piers to accommodate rising sea levels. Yet Warner said the effects of climate change must be balanced with the energy industry because “China and India are going to go ahead and build 800 additional coal plants.”
Chuckling, Gillespie said he has traveled thousands of miles during the campaign. “I put those miles on the road. I don’t charter planes all over the commonwealth,” Gillespie said, referring to a report that Warner charged taxpayers for flights he took around the state.
Speaking over each other, Gillespie said Warner voted against drilling off the coast of Virginia. Warner, saying he voted no only because the bill didn’t give Virginia a cut of the profits, shot back that Gillespie worked against increasing fuel-efficiency standards as a lobbyist for Enron.
Gillespie defended his work for Enron and said he knew nothing of the company’s corruption when it was a client. He also noted that Warner was an investor in Enron.
“And I lost money!” Warner said.
For his part, Gillespie accused Warner of a “very personal attack.”
“This is why good people don’t run for office, and I don’t know what happened to Mark Warner when he went to Washington,” he said.
Even without the Puckett matter, the issue of ethics loomed over the debate, given the September conviction of former governor Robert F. McDonnell (R) and his wife, Maureen, on federal corruption charges.
“Clearly, Virginia’s been a little bit tarnished because of recent scandals,” Warner said. He said stricter ethics laws were needed to “restore trust in the political process.”
Rachel Weiner contributed to this report.