Can­di­dates spar in first de­bate for Vir­ginia gov­er­nor

EVENT HIGHLIGHTS VAST DIF­FER­ENCES Gille­spie, Northam trade a few words about Trump

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY LAURA VOZZELLA

hot springs, va. — Repub­li­can Ed Gille­spie and Demo­crat Ralph Northam staked out sharply dif­fer­ent po­si­tions on im­mi­gra­tion, health care, Vir­ginia’s econ­omy and Pres­i­dent Trump on Satur­day in their first de­bate since win­ning their re­spec­tive party pri­maries for gov­er­nor on June 13.

Their dif­fer­ences started with Trump. Northam, Vir­ginia’s lieu­tenant gov­er­nor and a pe­di­a­tri­cian, said he had no re­grets about a TV ad in which he called the pres­i­dent a “nar­cis­sis­tic ma­niac.”

“I stand by what I said,” he said. “I be­lieve our pres­i­dent is a dan­ger­ous man. I think he lacks em­pa­thy . . . . And he also has dif­fi­culty telling the truth.”

Gille­spie, a for­mer Repub­li­can Na­tional Com­mit­tee chair­man, lob­by­ist and coun­selor to Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush, is an es­tab­lish­ment fig­ure who has largely tried to keep Trump at arm’s length. But in re­cent days, he has touted his abil­ity to work with the pres­i­dent and on Satur­day ques­tioned whether Northam could do the same.

“What are you go­ing to do — call the White House, ‘Please put me through to the nar­cis­sis­tic ma­niac’?” Gille­spie said.

Gille­spie and Northam are vy­ing to suc­ceed Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), who is pro­hib­ited by the state con­sti­tu­tion from serv­ing con­sec­u­tive terms.

Lib­er­tar­ian Cliff Hyra will also be on the bal­lot in Novem­ber but was not in­vited to the de­bate at the Omni Home­stead Re­sort.

There were no ob­vi­ous mis­steps dur­ing the de­bate, though it opened with un­scripted drama. A man protest­ing the con­struc­tion of two pro­posed nat­u­ral gas pipe­lines rushed to the front of the room and yelled “No pipe­lines!” and in­ter­rupted Northam’s open­ing state­ment un­til he was es­corted out of the room.

Gille­spie sup­ports con­struc­tion. Northam said he will sup­port it only if reg­u­la­tors say the pipe­lines can be built safely with­out harm­ing the en­vi­ron­ment and that the de­ci­sion ul­ti­mately is a fed­eral one.

As one of just two states with a gu­ber­na­to­rial con­test this year (the other, in New Jersey, is not con­sid­ered com­pet­i­tive), the Vir­ginia con­test is widely seen as an early ref­er­en­dum on Trump. Both na­tional par­ties are in­vested in the out­come and will lav­ish re­sources and at­ten­tion on the race.

But em­pha­sis on na­tional pol­i­tics in this first de­bate led to some crit­i­cism from Repub­li­cans. State GOP Chair­man John Whit­beck com­plained that mod­er­a­tor Judy Woodruff of “PBS NewsHour” kicked off the 90minute event with what he con­sid­ered “anti-Don­ald Trump” ques­tions.

She opened by ask­ing Northam if he thought the pres­i­dent was un­fit for of­fice. She then noted Gille­spie’s re­luc­tance to talk about Trump and in­vited him to weigh in on sev­eral top­ics, in­clud­ing the fir­ing of FBI Direc­tor James B. Comey and re­ports that the pres­i­dent was ex­plor­ing whether he can par­don him­self — although Gille­spie de­clined to say.

Woodruff also asked Gille­spie whether he would sup­port the pres­i­dent if he were to fire Robert S. Mueller III, the spe­cial coun­sel prob­ing Rus­sian med­dling in the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

“Judy, I un­der­stand and I ap­pre­ci­ate and I re­spect and I’ve seen your show, and I know that it’s very fo­cused on what’s go­ing on Wash­ing­ton, D.C., but the fact is, I’m very fo­cused on what’s go­ing on in Vir­ginia,” he said. “I think the peo­ple who are here, Vir­gini­ans, want to know what are we do­ing in our state gov­ern­ment to make things bet­ter for all Vir­gini­ans.”

That line drew ap­plause, and Gille­spie’s cam­paign quickly cir­cu­lated a video clip of what it called the “key mo­ment” of the day — “Ed Gille­spie: Let’s Fo­cus on Vir­ginia.”

But Northam ar­gued that Trump’s poli­cies have an ef­fect on Vir­gini­ans, par­tic­u­larly im­mi­grants who fear de­por­ta­tion and those con­cerned about los­ing health care pro­vided by the Af­ford­able Care Act.

“You’ve re­ally been miss­ing in ac­tion on all these is­sues,” Northam said to Gille­spie.

Whit­beck called Woodruff an “ex­tremely bi­ased mod­er­a­tor.” Northam’s cam­paign scoffed at that sug­ges­tion.

“If you’re com­plain­ing, you’re los­ing,” Northam spokesman David Turner said.

Asked about Whit­beck’s crit­i­cism, Woodruff said she posed the Trump ques­tions at the sug­ges­tion of sev­eral mem­bers of the Vir­ginia Bar As­so­ci­a­tion, which hosted the de­bate.

“It’s the ele­phant in the room,” she said. “Let’s talk about it and move past it. It comes up in ev­ery con­ver­sa­tion I’ve had with vot­ers.”

Dur­ing the de­bate, the can­di­dates of­fered starkly dif­fer­ent views of the state’s econ­omy. Gille­spie noted that Vir­ginia had slipped in busi­ness rank­ings and said the low un­em­ploy­ment rate — 3.7 per­cent — masked that fact that many Vir­gini­ans were work­ing part time or at low-pay­ing jobs.

Northam touted ro­bust job cre­ation un­der McAuliffe and noted that Gille­spie, when he was a se­nior ad­viser to for­mer Mas­sachusetts gov­er­nor Mitt Rom­ney’s 2012 pres­i­den­tial bid, cel­e­brated that state’s 4.7 per­cent un­em­ploy­ment rate.

On health care, Northam con­ceded that there was “a lot to im­prove upon” in fed­eral law. But he also called it “just im­moral” that so many Vir­gini­ans go with­out med­i­cal care. He sup­ports ex­pand­ing Med­i­caid un­der Oba­macare to pro­vide in­sur­ance to 400,000 Vir­gini­ans. He headed from the de­bate to far South­west Vir­ginia to vol­un­teer at a free health clinic at a county fair­grounds where peo­ple camp out ev­ery year for the chance to see a doc­tor or den­tist.

Gille­spie said a bet­ter so­lu­tion is to en­act poli­cies — his pro­posed 10 per­cent in­come tax cut among them — to stim­u­late the econ­omy and pro­vide peo­ple with the “dig­nity of work” and em­ployer-based in­sur­ance. He said states that had ex­panded Med­i­caid were find­ing that its costs were crowd­ing out other pri­or­i­ties such as ed­u­ca­tion.

“Ralph’s an­swer for ev­ery­thing is to have the fed­eral gov­ern­ment do some­thing,” Gille­spie said.

The can­di­dates dis­agreed on off­shore drilling and frack­ing. Northam is op­posed to both, Gille­spie in fa­vor. Northam, who has an F rat­ing from the Na­tional Ri­fle As­so­ci­a­tion, called for uni­ver­sal back­ground checks and re­in­stat­ing the state’s one-per­month limit on gun pur­chases. Gille­spie, who has an A from the NRA, said stud­ies have shown that crime goes down when more peo­ple carry con­cealed weapons. He also said that he would roll back McAuliffe’s ex­ec­u­tive or­der ban­ning guns from cer­tain state build­ings.

Northam spoke in fa­vor of al­low­ing im­mi­grants il­le­gally brought to the United States as chil­dren — known as “dream­ers” — to re­ceive in-state tu­ition at Vir­ginia col­leges. Gille­spie said scarce university slots should go to le­gal Vir­ginia res­i­dents.

De­spite their dif­fer­ences, the tone was re­spect­ful. Northam some­times cast crit­i­cisms in the folksy id­ioms of his na­tive East­ern Shore. “As we say on the East­ern Shore, he lies like a rug,” Northam said of Trump.

Gille­spie and Northam emerged from their pri­mary con­tests on vastly dif­fer­ent foot­ing — Northam with a greatly de­pleted war chest but en­er­gized Democrats seem­ingly united be­hind him, Gille­spie with nearly twice as much cash but a bit­terly di­vided party on his hands.

Northam fought off an ag­gres­sive chal­lenge from for­mer con­gress­man Tom Per­riello. While polls and pun­dits pre­dicted a nail-biter, Northam beat Per­riello by 12 points.

That stronger-than-ex­pected fin­ish and Per­riello’s whole­hearted en­dorse­ment of Northam af­ter the pri­mary seemed to al­lay fears of a di­vided Demo­cratic Party, de­spite con­tin­ued protest from some pipe­line foes.

The pri­mary pushed Northam, whose mod­er­ate im­age as a state se­na­tor once had the GOP court­ing him to switch par­ties, to the left — some­thing that could com­pli­cate his ef­forts to pick up swing vot­ers. He em­braced a $15-an-hour min­i­mum wage and sup­ported is­su­ing driver’s li­censes to il­le­gal im­mi­grants. And the con­test took a huge fi­nan­cial toll, as he spent all but $1.75 mil­lion of his $9.4 mil­lion haul by June 30.

On the Repub­li­can side, Gille­spie had been ex­pected to coast to an easy vic­tory in a three-way con­test. But he barely squeaked by, nearly los­ing to Trump-like provo­ca­teur Corey Ste­wart, chair­man of the Prince Wil­liam Board of County Su­per­vi­sors.

The close call raised fears that Gille­spie can­not con­nect with Trump vot­ers — at the mo­ment, the most en­er­gized slice of the Repub­li­can base. Repub­li­cans from the White House down have been ques­tion­ing his cam­paign team and strat­egy. Adding to Gille­spie’s woes: Ste­wart de­clined to en­dorse Gille­spie and promised to keep over­shad­ow­ing him by launch­ing a bid against Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) in 2018.

Gille­spie spent far less than Northam on the pri­mary. Gille­spie had raised $6.7 mil­lion through June 30 and still had $3.2 mil­lion go­ing into July.

The can­di­dates have two more for­mal de­bates and seven ad­di­tional joint ap­pear­ances be­fore Novem­ber.

“I stand by what I said. I be­lieve our pres­i­dent is a dan­ger­ous man. I think he lacks em­pa­thy . . . . And he also has dif­fi­culty telling the truth.” Ralph Northam, say­ing he has no re­grets about a TV ad in which he calls Pres­i­dent Trump a “nar­cis­sis­tic ma­niac” “I think the peo­ple who are here, Vir­gini­ans, want to know what are we do­ing in our state gov­ern­ment to make things bet­ter for all Vir­gini­ans.” Ed Gille­spie, turn­ing away the de­bate mod­er­a­tor’s ques­tions about na­tional pol­i­tics

BOB BROWN/RICH­MOND TIMES-DIS­PATCH VIA AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D), left, and Repub­li­can nom­i­nee Ed Gille­spie meet in Hot Springs, Va., for their first for­mal de­bate. They are vy­ing for the Vir­ginia gov­er­nor’s man­sion.

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