No barbs as Va. GOP can­di­dates hold de­bate

Two gu­ber­na­to­rial hope­fuls sup­port de­crim­i­nal­iz­ing pot; all four say lit­tle about Trump

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY FENIT NIRAPPIL

char­lottes­ville — The Repub­li­can Vir­ginia gu­ber­na­to­rial can­di­dates who gath­ered Satur­day for their first pri­mary de­bate talked about re­vis­ing the crim­i­nal-jus­tice sys­tem — and two said mar­i­juana should be de­crim­i­nal­ized.

The event, hosted by mil­len­nial GOP groups and mod­er­ated by the chair­man of the state Repub­li­can Party, fea­tured brief dis­cus­sions about the cost of higher ed­u­ca­tion, crim­i­nal jus­tice and the fu­ture of health care in the state.

The four men seek­ing the GOP nom­i­na­tion in the June pri­mary said lit­tle about Pres­i­dent Trump, whose ap­proval rat­ing in Vir­ginia is be­low 40 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to a poll re­leased last week by Quin­nip­iac Univer­sity.

The event was pre­sented as a de­bate, but it high­lighted few pol­icy dif­fer­ences among the can­di­dates, who re­mained cor­dial and re­frained from crit­i­ciz­ing one an­other.

Prince Wil­liam Board of County Su­per­vi­sors Chair­man Corey A. Ste­wart, who has fash­ioned him­self as a can­di­date in the mold of Trump, didn’t take the op­por­tu­nity to crit­i­cize front-run­ner Ed Gille­spie to his face, af­ter months of bash­ing him on­line as a Wash­ing­ton in­sider. Ste­wart later told re­porters that

would ratchet up at­tacks at fu­ture events.

The Repub­li­cans said they were in­ter­ested in re­lax­ing crim­i­nal penal­ties for drug pos­ses­sion.

Den­ver Rig­gle­man, a dis­tillery owner and for­mer Air Force in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer who is po­si­tion­ing him­self as a pop­ulist can­di­date, de­scribed how his brother strug­gled to rein­te­grate into so­ci­ety af­ter spend­ing nine months in prison on mar­i­juana-re­lated charges. He said the state should give ex-of­fend­ers fi­nan­cial help to ease their re­turn to so­ci­ety.

“If they do screw up like my brother did, they are go­ing to get help tran­si­tion­ing back into the com­mu­nity,” Rig­gle­man said.

In re­sponse, Ste­wart said Rig­gle­man’s brother never should have gone to jail. He joined Rig­gle­man in call­ing for the re­moval of crim­i­nal penal­ties for sim­ple mar­i­juana pos­ses­sion.

“It’s ab­so­lutely atro­cious that we are jail­ing peo­ple sim­ply be­cause they are in pos­ses­sion of mar­i­juana,” Ste­wart said. “We need to be fo­cus­ing our re­sources on the real crimes and the real prob­lems.”

Gille­spie, who has led in cam­paign fundrais­ing and polls, said the state should do more to keep peo­ple out of jail, not­ing that the av­er­age an­nual cost of in­car­cer­a­tion is $29,000 per per­son.

“That can save us a lot of money but also save a lot of lives,” said Gille­spie, a for­mer chair­man of the Repub­li­can Na­tional Com­mit­tee who nearly un­seated Sen. Mark R. Warner (D) in 2014. “I be­lieve in re­demp­tion and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion.”

Gille­spie later told re­porters that he isn’t in fa­vor of le­gal­iz­ing mar­i­juana but sup­ports leg­isla­tive ef­forts to have a state com­mis­sion re­view whether the pen- al­ties for mar­i­juana of­fenses are in line with the sever­ity of the crime.

State Sen. Frank W. Wag­ner (Vir­ginia Beach) said that he sup­ports the drug court model to steer of­fend­ers to ther­apy in­stead of in­car­cer­a­tion but that vi­o­lent crim­i­nals should be pun­ished harshly.

“Let’s get them into a treat­ment pro­gram rather than pros­e­cute these peo­ple and make them crim­i­nals for the rest of their lives and can’t find them jobs,” Wag­ner said.

Both Democrats com­pet­ing in that gu­ber­na­to­rial pri­mary, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and for­mer con­gress­man Tom Per­riello, want to de­crim­i­nal­ize mar­i­juana use. Last week, Northam cited it as a racial equal­ity is­sue, not­ing that com­pared with whites, African Amer­i­cans are dis­pro­por­tion­ately pros­e­cuted for us­ing the drug.

The can­di­dates praised Trump and con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans’ in­ten­tion to re­peal and re­place the Af­ford­able Care Act. Ste­wart and Wag­ner said they want to see the fed­eral Med­i­caid pro­gram con­verted into block grants to the states.

The Satur­day de­bate fea­tured lit­tle dis­cus­sion of con­tentious so­cial is­sues such as gun rights and abor­tion.

But Ste­wart high­lighted his ef­fort to pre­vent Char­lottes­ville of­fi­cials from mov­ing a statue of Con­fed­er­ate Gen. Robert E. Lee from a down­town park, not­ing how dozens of pro­test­ers shouted him down when he showed up to de­fend the statue last week­end.

“They are try­ing to de­feat us cul­tur­ally, and this is not go­ing to stand in a Ste­wart ad­min­is­tra­tion,” said the can­di­date, who calls Lee a hero and plans to ad­dress the Char­lottes­ville City Coun­cil about the is­sue Tues­day and has been pro­mot­ing that ap­pear­ance pear­ance in fundrais­ing emails.

Gille­spie and Rig­gle­man in their clos­ing re­marks stressed the im­por­tance of Repub­li­cans win­ning statewide elec­tions af­ter a long drought.

“We have got to stop the lib­eral gov­er­nance in the gov­er­nor’s man­sion,” Gille­spie said. “We can­not have Ralph Northam or Tom Per­riello con­tinue Terry McAuliffe’s failed poli­cies.”

The Quin­nip­iac poll showed ei­ther Demo­crat beat­ing any of the four Repub­li­cans in head-to­head matchups. McAuliffe, the Demo­cratic in­cum­bent, is barred from seek­ing con­sec­u­tive terms.

The gu­ber­na­to­rial can­di­dates shared the de­bate stage with the Repub­li­can can­di­dates for at­tor­ney gen­eral and two of the can­di­dates for lieu­tenant gov­er­nor.

State Sen. Bryce E. Reeves (Spot­syl­va­nia) and Del. Glenn R. Davis Jr. (Vir­ginia Beach), vy­ing for the lieu­tenant gov­er­nor nom­i­na­tion, made cases for less gov­ern­ment and more com­pas­sion, par­tic­u­larly for peo­ple af­fected by the heroin epi­demic. In Novem­ber, McAuliffe an­nounced that opi­oid ad­dic­tion in Vir­ginia had been de­clared a pub­lic health emer­gency.

A third GOP can­di­date for lieu­tenant gov­er­nor, state Sen. Jill Holtz­man Vogel (Fauquier), did not par­tic­i­pate, cit­ing a sched­ul­ing con­flict. That race took an ugly turn af­ter Reeves ac­cused Vogel or some­one close to her of send­ing emails falsely al­leg­ing that he had an af­fair with a staffer.

John Adams and Chuck Smith, lawyers run­ning for the Repub­li­can nom­i­na­tion for at­tor­ney gen­eral, blasted in­cum­bent Mark R. Her­ring (D) for what they saw as politi­ciz­ing his of­fice.

Smith drew some ap­plause for say­ing Vir­ginia shouldn’t have more Mus­lims, mosques or refugees un­til the coun­try’s se­cu­rity is strength­ened. Af­ter the de­bate, he said he meant that Mus­lims — or any­one — should be barred from im­mi­grat­ing to the United States if they pose a dan­ger.

Some in the au­di­ence of about 100 said they want a stan­dard­bearer in the Novem­ber elec­tion who em­braces Trump.

“I want to see our nom­i­nee em­brac­ing Trump, be­cause if not, he is go­ing to lose vot­ers,” said Holli Foster, a 17-year-old stu­dent from Or­ange who plans to cast her first vote in the pri­mary.

Sup­port­ers of Gille­spie de­fended him against crit­i­cism from Ste­wart that he is the kind of es­tab­lish­ment fig­ure that Trump spent his cam­paign rail­ing against.

“He’s worked at the cen­ter of the Repub­li­can Party for a num­ber of years, but he has al­ways been pro-free­dom and pro­lib­erty,” said Erich Reimer, a 26year-old Univer­sity of Vir­ginia law stu­dent.

FENIT NIRAPPIL/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

The GOP can­di­dates for gov­er­nor — from left, Frank W. Wag­ner, Corey A. Ste­wart, Den­ver Rig­gle­man and Ed Gille­spie — ap­peared at a Char­lottes­ville event hosted by mil­len­nial Repub­li­can groups.

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