HOT SPRINGS – Democrat Ralph Northam stood by his sharp critiques of President Donald Trump Saturday during the first debate of Virginia’s gubernatorial election, while Republican Ed Gillespie suggested that having a governor who insults the president would hurt the state’s ability to secure federal dollars.
The candidates drew sharp contrasts on several state policy issues over the course of the 90-minute debate in a ballroom at the Omni Homestead Resort. But moderator Judy Woodruff of “PBS Newshour” led by asking about Trump, saying she wanted to “address him first.”
Asked if he supports impeachment, Northam, Virginia’s lieutenant governor, didn’t back down from labeling Trump a “narcissistic maniac” and said he’s confident Virginia’s congressional delegation will “be able to handle” impeachment proceedings should they occur.
“I believe that our president is a dangerous man,” Northam said to a room full of lawyers and political observers gathered for the debate hosted by the Virginia Bar Association. “I believe that he lacks empathy. You need to look no further than his mocking of the journalist. That’s all that I needed to see. And he also has difficulty telling the truth. And it happens again and again. As we say on the Eastern Shore, he lies like a rug.”
Noting that Trump was in Norfolk Saturday for the commissioning of a newly completed aircraft carrier, Gillespie, a political consultant and former chairman of the Republican National Committee, said Virginia needs a governor who will work with Trump and other D.C. Republicans to protect the naval base there and keep federal transportation dollars flowing to the state.
“When you hear the lieutenant governor, he calls his campaign the resistance. Resistance 2017,” Gillespie said. “What are you going to do as our governor? Call the White House and say please put me through to the narcissistic maniac?”
The debate, which was not televised but was streamed live online, was the first of three agreed to by both candidates before the Nov. 7 election. Northam begins the general-election phase in a strong position, with a convincing primary win over former U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello. Gillespie barely fended off Trump-style primary opponent Corey Stewart, chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, in a race that also included state Sen. Frank W. Wagner, R-Virginia Beach.
Trying to break a Republican losing streak in statewide races in a state Democrat Hillary Clinton carried last year, Gillespie is wrestling with how to handle Trump in a way that can build support among both diehard Trump fans and more moderate Republicans turned off by the president’s unorthodox style.
Both candidates fine-tuned their Trump answers Saturday. Northam said he’d look for ways to work with Washington to help Virginia, but said he’ll adamantly oppose Trump on issues like health care and the travel ban on people from certain countries.
“You’ve really been missing in action on all of these issues,” Northam said to Gillespie.
Gillespie, who insisted that he too will speak up when he disagrees with Trump, saying he’d work specifically to preserve funding for Chesapeake Bay cleanup and the Appalachian Regional Commission, both of which have been on the chopping block in Trump budget plans.
“I don’t agree with everything the president says or tweets,” Gillespie said.
Libertarian gubernatorial hopeful Cliff Hyra, a patent and intellectual property attorney who lives in Mechanicsville, was not invited to the debate. In a letter to Hyra, the bar association noted its longstanding debate policy of inviting only candidates who have shown at least 30 days prior to the debate that they have a reasonable chance to win. The letter noted that Hyra was only certified to appear on the ballot on July 7.
The event was briefly disrupted by an anti-pipeline protester who approached the stage during Northam’s opening statement. The backpack-wearing man, who said he was from Loudoun County, shouted at Northam to oppose pipelines and said “this stage is owned by Dominion power,” the energy utility behind the pending Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Dominion was sponsoring a bar association meet-and-greet with both candidates after the debate. The protester was escorted out of the ballroom.
Each candidate was given the opportunity to question his opponent directly. Gillespie used his question to probe Northam’s pipeline stance, asking how Northam could favor the natural-gas pipelines while opposing fracking.
“What’s the point of building an empty pipeline?,” Gillespie asked.
After pushing Gillespie, a pipeline supporter, to acknowledge he favors fracking in Virginia, Northam noted that the gas that would flow through the Atlantic Coast Pipeline comes from outside Virginia.
“They can do what they want to do in Pennsylvania,” said Northam, who repeated his position that the pipelines should be built in an environmentally safe manner but did not say directly whether he supports or opposes them.
When it came time for Northam to ask his question, the former state senator asked Gillespie if he would support $6 million in state funding to make IUDs, or intrauterine devices, more accessible to women seeking long-term forms of contraception. Gillespie said he would look at it and noted that he supports making oral contraceptives available without a prescription, but Northam used the moment to make a broader call for women’s rights and abortion access.
“Reproductive freedom really equates to economic freedom,” Northam said.
Throughout the debate, Gillespie pitched himself as a tax-cutter who could jolt the state economy and create private-sector jobs, while Northam said he’d build on Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe economy-focused agenda while making Virginia “inclusive and welcoming.”
Northam called Gillespie’s proposed tax cut “irresponsible” and said it would leave a $1.3 billion hole in the state’s budget. Gillespie said he can cut taxes in a fiscally responsible manner and that it would spur job growth.
On gun rights, Northam touted his “F” rating from the National Rifle Association and Gillespie talked up his “A.” On immigration, Gillespie said he’ll oppose sanctuary cities and in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants. Northam said sanctuary cities don’t exist and said he supports lower tuition rates for the so-called “Dreamers.”
On health care, Gillespie said he supports repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act in some form. Northam said he’ll continue to push for Medicaid expansion in Virginia while acknowledging he doesn’t support the ACA “100 percent” and saying the law needs tweaks.
Both men declined to second-guess McAuliffe on the recent execution of William Charles Morva, a mentally ill man who was jailed for attempted robbery and killed two people during a 2006 escape attempt in Blacksburg. Activists had pleaded with McAuliffe to spare Morva’s life due to his illness, but the governor said the evidence in the case did not support stopping the July 6 execution. Northam said he opposed the death penalty and Gillespie said he supports it.
The state’s next governor will preside over the redrawing of legislative and congressional district boundaries after the 2020 census. Northam said he will not sign off on a plan unless it is produced by a nonpartisan panel. Gillespie said the experience in many states has shown it is hard to take the politics out of redistricting.
Gillespie has called for 10 debates, but Northam has committed to a more limited schedule of three.
Republicans leapt to spin the debate as a convincing win for Gillespie. Pete Snyder, Gillespie’s campaign chairman, called it a “rout” and said it shows why Northam isn’t eager to share a stage with his opponent.
Del. Mark D. Sickles, a Fairfax County Democrat who was in the audience for the debate, took a different view.
“The side that’s asking for more debates is the side that’s losing,” Sickles said.
The next debate, hosted by the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce, is scheduled for Sept. 19.