Democratic Candidates Highlight Differences in Virginia People’s Debate

By Ashley Spinks Dugan
March 13, 2021

Nine candidates took the stage Thursday night and each argued why they were the best candidate for the job.

RICHMOND – On Thursday, a coalition of more than 40 progressive advocacy groups came together to host the latest Virginia People’s Debate. The nine people vying for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor were invited to speak.

Stair Calhoun, founder of Network NOVA, introduced the event. Despite Democratic control of both chambers in the General Assembly, plus the governorship, Calhoun said, “the promise of a true blue Virginia remains unfulfilled.” Calhoun said those in pursuit of “a green energy future, an economy that puts people before profits,” and other progressive goals “still have a lot of work to do.”

The Virginia People’s Debate aimed to hold the nine LG candidates accountable to progressive positions. A key takeaway from the event was that Virginia’s Democratic Party is relatively united. Candidates cited largely similar and overlapping goals for the Commonwealth, and agreed more often than they disagreed. 

According to a March Madness Straw Poll conducted in Dranesville last week, Del. Sam Rasoul (D-Roanoke) and former Fairfax NAACP President Sean Perryman are leading the race for lieutenant governor. Events like the Virginia People’s Debate offer opportunities for candidates to raise their own profile and distinguish themselves from the pack. 

Criminal Justice Reform 

The debate kicked off Thursday evening with questions about criminal justice reform. There was broad agreement among the candidates on several measures. Most or all of the candidates favored restoring voting rights to formerly incarcerated people; expunging misdemeanor criminal records; ending cash bail; increasing transparency and accountability for law enforcement officers and fully legalizing marijuana. 

Perryman went a step farther than other candidates. He said Virginia should defelonize all drugs. He said conversations about legalizing various drugs too often revolve around potential tax revenue.

“It should revolve around equity and what is right,” Perryman said. 

With regard to police oversight, Norfolk City Councilor Andria McClellan called for independent review boards that, importantly, have subpoena power. Attendees of VACOLAO’s Immigrant Advocate Summit last year made a similar call. 

Both Del. Hala Ayala and Del. Mark Levine discussed the decriminalization of mental health challenges. 

And Xavier Warren, an NFL agent and lobbyist, highlighted the connection between workforce development and the re-enfranchisement of formerly incarcerated people.

“This is a financial issue,” Warren said. He added that returning citizens should be connected with jobs and training “so they can have opportunity.”

Warren grew up in Danville, in Virginia’s Southside. Danville is a former textile mill hub that’s reinvented its economy in recent decades. The theme of economic development solving secondary issues was one Warren returned to again and again.

Virginia’s Housing Crisis 

About mid-way through the debate, candidates discussed Virginia’s housing crisis. As Perryman pointed out, it’s a problem that predates the pandemic. “All COVID did was highlight the housing crisis,” Perryman said. He added, “I don’t think this was an accident in the former capital of the Confederacy,” Perryman, like many candidates, cited weak tenant rights in Virginia and lack of a living wage as factors that contribute to housing insecurity. He was one of two candidates to specifically mention how state and local zoning laws often preclude building affordable housing. Rasoul cited the same problem. 

All candidates agreed that the eviction moratorium should be extended at least through the end of the coronavirus pandemic.

Warren returned to the theme of economic and workforce development when discussing the housing crisis. “I believe in economic empowerment, to help (people) be able to take care of themselves and create generational wealth,” he said. “The best social program is a good job.”

Levine highlighted the intersectionality of the housing crisis. He said housing insecurity is also a function of “income inequality, mental health needs, racial justice. It’s all these things tied together.” 

Del. Elizabeth Guzman was the only candidate to mention that information on tenant protections, eviction moratoriums, rent relief and other resources is often inaccessible. She said those materials should always be available in multiple languages. 

Virginia People’s Debate Highlights Racial Justice 

During a segment on racial justice, moderator Rashad Pearson cited a deeply troubling statistic. Due to the pandemic, Pearson said, average life expectancy is declining throughout the country. Overall, Americans are expected to live one full year less than before. However, for Black Americans, that number is 2.7 years. What is causing this disparity, Pearson asked, and how do we solve it?

Everyone agreed that Virginia should focus on distributing COVID vaccines equitably. McClellan highlighted common barriers to accessing vaccines. “My entire campaign is about the idea of access,” McClellan said. She said many Virginians lack internet access, which makes call centers important. The City of Norfolk, she said, established a COVID call center weeks before the state did.

Candidates also championed ideas like healthcare for all and ensuring paid family and sick leave. Rasoul touted his Marshall Plan for Moms. He pointed out that women of color faced a disproportionate economic impact from the pandemic. His plan suggests access to universal child care and a caregivers’ tax credit. 

Levine returned to the theme of intersectionality in the context of ensuring racial justice. He said Black folks take public transportation more often than white folks, where the virus is likely to spread. “Many of them are out in the community with low-wage jobs,” Levine said. In addition to that, data on our healthcare system has “shown that the pain of Black people is not considered the same.” That inherent racism needs to be addressed for the healthcare system to become more equitable. 

Wrapping Up

During a discussion on worker protections, candidates called for a repeal of Virginia’s right-to-work law; implementing a living wage (which the General Assembly moved to accomplish last year); supporting union activity and strengthening worker protections. 

On voting rights, candidates (especially delegates) were quick to point out that the state has already made huge progress. In the last session, the General Assembly expanded voting options; abolished voter ID requirements; extended early voter registration to 16- and 17-year-olds and more. Guzman cautioned that if Democrats lose the majority, that progress could be erased. “If possible, we need to write these things into the constitution,” she said. McClellan added that it’s important changes to voting are included in the state budget. “Oftentimes what happens in Richmond comes down (to localities) as an unfunded mandate,” she explained.

Other topics of the Virginia People’s Debate include the climate crisis, gender equality, disability justice and campaign finance reform. You can watch the entire debate on Youtube. 

CATEGORIES: Uncategorized


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