Editor’s note: On Thursday, The Post conducted an email debate between Corey Stewart and Frank Wagner, two of the three major Republican candidates in Virginia’s 2017 gubernatorial election. Stewart is chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, and Wagner represents the 7th District in the Virginia state Senate. The third candidate, Ed Gillespie, declined to participate. The questions were asked by Post editorial board member Lee Hockstader. The transcript has been edited for style and clarity.
Lee Hockstader: I’d like to start with a couple of questions directed at both of you. First, from items in the news Thursday: A noose was found at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture on Wednesday, in an exhibit on segregation — the second noose found on Smithsonian property in a week — and LeBron James’s house in Los Angeles was vandalized by someone who scrawled the N-word on his front gate. Mr. James said that “hate in America, especially for African Americans, is living every day,” and groups that monitor hate crimes agree that incidents are on the rise — especially those targeting minorities. What’s your response and would you like to see tougher penalties for hate crimes?
Frank Wagner: There is no room in America for these types of actions. I find them personally repugnant. When caught, the perpetrators should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Penalties for these types of crimes should be enhanced to ensure the public that these types actions have no place in America. Gillespie must not care at all, since he doesn’t want voters to know how he stands on the issues.
Corey Stewart: All personal crimes are hate crimes. We need to fully enforce the law and find the perpetrators of these crimes. Once found, they should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. [Kathy] Griffin’s “beheading” of Trump is a hate crime and should also be prosecuted.
Hockstader: A follow-up for Chairman Stewart: What crime did Griffin commit, and how could she be prosecuted given First Amendment protections?
Stewart: Threatening the president of the United States. Are you suggesting that crimes of intimidation — such as hanging or beheading them in effigy — are not hate crimes?
Hockstader: I’d wonder where you’d draw the line between satire — even tasteless and offensive satire — and a supposed threat or, as you put it, “intimidation” directed at the president of the United States.
Stewart: I’ll leave that up to the prosecutors, but if I saw someone holding up my severed bloody head, you are damned right that I’d feel intimidated.
Hockstader: Another follow-up: Have there been instances when you’ve focused on and denounced hate crimes specifically against minorities — African Americans — which are on the rise nationally?
Stewart: I denounce all crime. In fact, under my leadership, we have been vigorously fighting crime in Prince William County, which is why the crime rate in Prince William is at a 24-year low.
Hockstader: Another question for both candidates: You’ve each been noticeably silent — not a word on either of your websites — on the nationwide opioid epidemic, which in Virginia causes three overdose deaths every day. That’s about three times the number of murders statewide. Beyond legislation enacted this year in Richmond to address the problem — easing access to naloxone; establishing syringe-service programs; toughening prescription policies — what more can be done?
Stewart: It is a serious and growing problem in Virginia and I’ve been discussing it on the campaign trail and as chairman of Prince William County. We are organizing a conference concerning the epidemic here in Prince William County on June 8 , which will involve the police department, social services, county health department and experts from around the country. There is no silver bullet to this epidemic. Eighty percent of the heroin in this country comes across the porous southern border, which is yet another reason for stronger border security.
Wagner: It requires a multifaceted approach to address this important issue.
1. Better education about the dangers of addictive drugs and better education to patients who are prescribed painkillers about the dangers of becoming addicted to the overuse/abuse of these painkillers.
2. Many of these addictions start from legally prescribed painkillers. We have taken steps in the General Assembly to ensure that prescriptions issued for these painkillers are prescribed in limited doses and require a hand-carried prescription to obtain these drugs. We need to continue to better monitor the prescriptions issued to attempt to identify and prosecute those few doctors who may be participating in drug mills that continue to feed addicts.
3. Once people are addicted, the problems are compounded. There are only three paths an addict can follow: Jail, death or a lifetime recovery program. We need easier access to and better awareness of detox programs. Once an addict is detoxed, he or she needs to immediately enter a recovery program. The state can and will under my leadership assist those transition programs that assist recovering addicts.
4. Virginia’s initial foray into drug courts has shown some very positive results and needs to be expanded. We cannot continue to crowd our prisons with addicts. These programs need to be instituted statewide.
5. Finally, only an addict can decide that he or she wants to recover. Drug courts, family intervention and others can help the addict decide they have hit bottom, but the addict must decide for themselves.
Hockstader: Sen. Wagner, I read the interview you did with The Post’s Greg Schneider, including the section on Confederate statues and symbols, and I’m still not sure where you stand on removing them. Do you support or oppose proposals to remove statues of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, etc. from public places and move them, for instance, to museums or other private spaces? If so, why? If not, why not — and is there anything you’d do to add historical context to the statues?
Wagner: I oppose removing these statutes. History cannot be rewritten. And those who fail to learn from the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them. These statutes serve as a reminder of our historic past. Where would it stop? Should the Jefferson Memorial be removed? How about the Washington Monument? After all, George Washington was a slave owner. Under that logic, perhaps those folks want to change the name of Washington, D.C., and maybe The Washington Post would change its name.
These issues are what the media is focused on. The people I’ve talked to in Northern Virginia want to know what I am going to do about transportation.
Hockstader: Isn’t there a distinction between George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, whose lives’ main achievements were not defined by owning slaves, and Robert E. Lee or Jefferson Davis, whose lives were defined by a cause to which slave ownership was central? And whose defeat meant liberty and the chance of opportunity for millions of enslaved people?
Wagner: History is history! You can’t change it, only learn from it. Let’s talk about what Northern Virginians really care about: a failing Metro system, a Virginia Railway Express with insufficient money and HOT Lanes with tolls exceeding $30 or more so the Washington elite can cruise around while the rest of us sit in traffic.
Stewart: It’s the left that is focused on tearing down historical monuments and sanitizing history. This is not an issue conservatives brought up; it’s an obsession of the left.
The left is doing what it has historically opposed — destroying art that has fallen out of favor. This will not stop with the removal of Confederate generals. Next, they will come after the Founders. This has never happened in America, and it’s very disturbing.
Hockstader: Mr. Stewart, A theme of your campaign has been disparaging the political establishment. But Virginia’s jobless rate is very low — 3.8 percent and falling; its state and local tax burden is 27th in the nation (according to the Tax Foundation); and the Center for Public Integrity ranks the state government 16th cleanest in the country. Plus, violent crime and property crime have each fallen sharply in every region of the state over the past decade. Explain what’s been so terrible about establishment rule in Virginia.
Stewart: If you think Virginia has enough good jobs and is not suffering economically, then you are out of touch. There are tens of thousands of Virginians all over the state, especially in Southside and Southwest Virginia, who cannot find jobs that pay enough to support their families.
The political establishment in Virginia put through the biggest tax increase in Virginia history in 2013, supposedly to address traffic problems. Yet we still have a traffic nightmare, especially in Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia.
The establishment has failed to address the proliferation of MS-13 and illegal-immigrant gang activity around the state.
The establishment has failed to keep up with our neighboring states who are improving their business climate by reducing taxes.
The establishment has failed to control the runaway cost of the Medicaid program, which is crowding out spending on every other state priority.
In short, the establishment, including Terry McAuliffe and Ed Gillespie, have failed Virginia. Richmond ensures that the crony corporatists stay wealthy, and that corrupt relationship is why Ed Gillespie is their man.
Hockstader: Sen. Wagner, You’ve said you’d like up to $200 million in additional annual spending on mental health care, whose deficiencies are a perennial topic in Richmond. How would you pay for that?
Wagner: Both my opponents are talking about dramatic tax cuts at a time when S&P just put Virginia on a negative watch with regard to our AAA bond rating, we have a state retirement system that is $18 billion actuarially unsound, a rainy day fund that is less than $300 million and is supposed to be at $2.4 billion, and we have 6,500 people in our jails who are mentally ill.
The Senate Finance Committee, of which I am a member, worked very hard to appropriate well over $50 million in additional resources to address our mental-health issues, including establishing mental-health triage units at hospitals around the commonwealth to provide law enforcement a place to bring mentally-ill patients picked up on the streets as an alternative to jail. Many other programs have also been put into place, including another $50 million appropriation to provide students with learning disabilities alternatives to the normal classroom setting.
All this despite trimming the budget by $1.5 billion. It is just a question of priorities, and my priorities have in the past and will continue into the future to provide assistance to those Virginians who legitimately cannot take care of themselves. Those who can take care of themselves but choose not to, I have absolutely no use for.
Hockstader: Chairman Stewart, in March you promised to roll out what you called “Corey’s Big Bold Virginia Tax Cut,” which would reduce income taxes to zero.
But there was never any rollout, nor any subsequent mention of a rollout on your website. Was it a publicity stunt?
Subsequently I saw you quoted as wanting a 1-percentage-point cut in the personal income tax.
Scrapping Virginia’s income tax, as you pledged, is taken seriously by no one — it would eliminate two-thirds of general fund revenue, and leave the state virtually bankrupt and unable to pay for schools, colleges, prisons, parks, routine government services, you name it.
Yet the only means you’ve identified to pay for the tax cuts would be by asking government departments to offer up a menu of cuts in their programs ranging from 5 to 15 percent.
If you’re eliminating two-thirds of state revenue but only making cuts up to 15 percent, how do you balance the budget?
Stewart: We are proposing a 17.4 percent cut in Virginia’s personal income tax, bringing down the rate from 5.75 percent to 4.75 percent in the first year.
We’ve repeatedly laid this out. The first year goal is to cut $2.2 billion out of the state’s overall budget of $52 billion, which is a little over a 4-percentage-point cut. I governed the second-largest locality in Virginia during the worst recession since World War II, I know how to cut budgets. Requiring department heads to identify savings is an effective method that we used to dramatically cut our budget in Prince William County in fiscal 2009. It has been tested and will work statewide.
We will also be using a zero-base budgeting process to find additional savings. Under my leadership, our average tax bills in Prince William are on average 30 percent lower than the rest of Northern Virginia, and average tax bills are lower now in real dollars than they were 10 years ago when I was elected chairman. In fact, under my leadership, the county has received a AAA bond rating, a distinction of which only 0.4 percent of localities are able to achieve.
Ed Gillespie, on the other hand, has proposed no cuts to the state budget. After governing the second-largest locality in the state for 10 years, I can assure you that you cannot cut taxes unless you first cut spending.
Finally, you are confusing the state’s general fund with the all funds budget. Eliminating the personal income tax in the long term is doable and remains my goal.
Hockstader: This question is for both candidates: Metro’s current general manager, Paul J. Wiedefeld, has made deep cuts in staffing and in service to commuters. Metro has also raised fares. Despite those moves, it needs an additional $15 billion to $25 billion for capital expenses, including new trains, over the coming decade. If not a regional sales tax, where should those funds come from?
Sen. Wagner, you supported a regional component of the transportation plan in 2013, primarily to build roads in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. Would you support a similar regional tax in Northern Virginia — a sales tax, for instance — to ensure the future health of Metro, which is vital to commuters and the economy in the region?
Chairman Stewart, you’ve signed Grover Norquist’s pledge opposing any new taxes. Without new revenue — meaning taxes — how can Metro find the $15 billion (minimum) it needs to buy new train cars and modernize over the coming decade? And would you support a regional sales tax in Northern Virginia if the local jurisdictions backed it?
Wagner: I have been quite clear during this campaign about the need to provide more funding for transportation. In fact, I have carried legislation and gotten it through the Senate to provide a floor on the sales tax in Northern Virginia, which would have resulted in a $100 million dollar new revenue stream for Northern Virginia transportation. I am the only candidate, Democrat or Republican, willing to talk about the No. 1 issue facing Northern Virginians.
With regard to Metro, I would not be supportive of any more money for Metro until there is a totally rewritten labor agreement. I will not throw good money after bad money (especially taxpayers’ money) until there is systemic change to the entire organization’s labor agreement. The floor on the fuels tax would provide a significant new revenue stream that, if bonded out, will provide for significant capital expenditures. But I would only agree to this if Maryland and D.C. pony up identical amounts and the federal government comes in with a much larger amount. After all, the Metro system exists to move federal government employees to work and home.
Providing these conditions are met, Virginia should and will be an equal partner. However, I would not be supportive of a general sales tax increase across Northern Virginia. I have proposed a statewide gas tax increase and a return to the per-gallon tax for gasoline. Nearly 18 percent of all new money raised for the transportation trust fund is automatically spent on rail and transit services . These new funds, coupled with a floor on gas taxes in Northern Virginia should provide the required revenue as long as labor agreements are rewritten and WMATA can demonstrate it is a well run organization.
Gillespie wouldn’t even know how to answer this question.
Stewart: Metro needs to take care of itself and not rely on state taxpayers to subsidize an inefficient operation that needs to be reformed. I will oppose any and all tax increases, including increases to pay for Metro. Because of the influence of the District and Maryland, labor costs are completely out of control and the operation needs to be reformed. Don’t come to Virginia taxpayers to fix your inefficiency.
Hockstader: Environmentalists have expressed concern about a rollback of federal regulations that have helped make progress in cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay. Is this a concern for you, and what should Virginia do to mitigate any such backsliding by the feds, if it occurs?
Stewart: The Chesapeake Bay regulations have been killing businesses and dampening economic growth in Virginia. I am for common sense environmental protection, but these laws are overly restrictive and do little to protect the environment.
Wagner: I am currently the vice-chair for the Virginia delegation to the Chesapeake Bay Commission. We have worked hard on policies throughout Virginia to improve the quality of the water in the bay. Over the years the state and localities have made massive investments in our sewage treatment plants that have resulted in substantial reductions in nitrogen and other nutrients into the bay (although we wish Alexandria would move faster to clean up their combined sewer overflow system). Presently, we are working on upstream improvements in livestock exclusion and buffers between our farm land and streams through an innovative and highly successful (over-subscribed) volunteer program. These are just a few of the actions we have taken, and the results speak for themselves.
Yes, it does concern me, and I have already expressed my concerns to our federal legislators, particularly with regard to the proposed funding cuts. I do feel the storm water regulations need to be tweaked. We are headed in a direction of way too many dollars being spent with minimal return. These dollars need to be redirected into other cleanup programs that would have a far greater positive impact on Chesapeake Bay cleanup.
Hockstader: The final question is for both candidates: Every recent Virginia governor has grappled with the restoration of voting rights for convicted felons; each has gone further than his predecessor in recent years. How would you approach it?
Republicans in the General Assembly, and in state legislatures elsewhere, have tightened voter-ID and voting access laws in recent years. Would you support more such tightening? If so, on what grounds?
Stewart: We have a serious voter fraud problem in Virginia, where thousands of non-citizens have been voting.
As to restoration of voting rights for felons, I believe one’s voting rights should be restored after they’ve gone through the process of redeeming themselves. In contrast, Gov. McAuliffe’s blanket restoration of voting rights was an unconstitutional and political ploy to buy Democrats votes.
Hockstader: Can you provide readers with credible evidence of such “serious voter fraud” involving “thousands” of fraudulent votes?
Stewart: “More Than 5,500 Illegals Registered to Vote in Virginia in Last Decade; 1,852 Actually Cast Ballots” [Washington Times via FoxNews.com].
Wagner: Gov. McAuliffe’s mass restoration of civil rights was a political maneuver that ignored the fact that many of those who had their rights restored had already been re-arrested, some were dead and others had already been convicted. His actions outraged the vast majority of Virginians, including myself.
I support a policy that automatically restores a felon’s rights once all time has been served, all probation requirements have been met and all restitution has been made to the victims and the government.
Hockstader: Okay, we’re out of time. Many thanks for your participation and good answers. They’re much appreciated.