What Did We Learn From The First Democratic Primary Debate?

By Brian Carlton

April 7, 2021

Five candidates for governor laid out their positions on a number of issues.

RICHMOND-So what did we learn Tuesday night? At this point, most of the Democratic candidates for governor have released their proposals on everything from broadband to healthcare. When all five met for the first televised debate, they answered some existing questions and raised others. More than anything, differences started to emerge.We’ll look at some of the major issues touched here.  

How Do You Stop Gun Violence? 

Nowhere was that more clear than the topic of gun violence. When asked how they would cut down on gun violence in the Commonwealth, candidates went different ways. Former governor Terry McAuliffe, for example, said if elected, he planned to ban assault weapons and large capacity magazines. He also wants to strengthen background checks and ban ‘ghost guns’. 

“We need to lean in,” McAuliffe said. “It’s time we got serious about gun violence.” 

State Sen. Jennifer McClellan pointed out the current General Assembly passed multiple gun control bills over the last two years. That included giving cities and counties the abilities to ban guns from public places. Richmond and Roanoke, among others, have used that law to pass limited gun bans. The Assembly also passed a limited background check requirement and a “red flag” bill. That gives authorities the ability to remove guns from someone deemed a threat to themselves or others. 

McClellan said she would push for true universal background checks on all gun purchases. She also highlighted the need to deal with domestic violence, as many shootings stem from domestic situations. The Assembly this year passed HB 1992, which would have banned anyone convicted of assaulting their husband or wife from owning or buying a gun for up to three years. However, Gov. Northam sent it back with some suggested amendments.

Del. Lee Carter argued that we’re looking at gun violence wrong. Instead of focusing on taking away guns, “we’ve got to get at the root cause of gun violence, which is despair,” he said. “When people don’t think they have access to a better future, their actions become unpredictable.” 

Former Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy simply argued that “it’s not that we don’t know how (to reduce gun violence), but we have politicians who fail to act.”

What About Legalizing Marijuana? 

Later today, the General Assembly will meet in Richmond to discuss marijuana. Gov. Northam proposed several amendments to the legalization bill, including an increased timeline that would make possession legal on July 1 of this year. The next governor, however, will be seated when several parts of this process take place, including determining what to do with the industry’s tax revenue. With that in mind, candidates were asked how they would handle the situation. 

Jennifer Carroll Foy said she would focus on addressing the harm caused by previous laws. That means working to expunge marijuana convictions and investing in communities through social equity programs like child care centers, day centers and more money for at-risk schools.

Both McClellan and Carter pointed out they’ve been pushing for this for a while. In multiple sessions across several years, Carter filed bills and pushed for legalization. McClellan, meanwhile, filed the bill the Assembly signed off on this year. 

Aside from that, everyone on stage agreed that marijuana should be legalized. Carter and McAuliffe, however, offered two specific ways the money should be spent. 

Carter argued that tax revenue from marijuana needs to go for reparations. He felt the state needs to invest in communities of color to repair the damage done by centuries of slavery and racism in Virginia.

McAuliffe said something similar, arguing that we need to look beyond just legalizing marijuana. Instead, he said we should focus on giving more people, especially communities of color, access to funds to start and grow businesses.

What’s The Future of Law Enforcement? 

Virginia right now is dealing with a number of issues, when it comes to law enforcement. Already this year, we’ve reported on the Xzavier Hill and Orlando Carter cases. Then in recent weeks, residents started asking questions in the death of Donovan Lynch. What changes need to happen to Virginia’s law enforcement agencies? 

Again, the candidates all outlined different issues in their answers, so we’ve separated each one to make it clear what their focus was.  

Lee Carter

Lee Carter argued that we don’t see real change because “too many Democrats try to strike a bargain with police where they try to put in place new rules on the use of force, new rules on the acquisition of military hardware, that have so many exceptions and so many ways around it that they might as well be made of swiss cheese.”

He questioned what was actually accomplished in recent sessions, aside from increasing the state police budget by over $12 million, while also giving individual officers an 8% pay raise. Carter said he would change what policing means. 

“There’s a lot that it doesn’t make sense to have police doing, like mental health checks, like welfare checks, like traffic enforcement,” Carter said. “We’ve got to reduce the size of police in this Commonwealth to what makes sense to have them doing and nothing more.” 

Terry McAuliffe

The former governor outlined three things that he said need to change with Virginia law enforcement. 

“We need full accountability. [We] need full transparency. We need to invest more on the training,” McAuliffe said. 

Federal funds originally scheduled to pay for equipment instead went to law enforcement training when he was governor, McAuliffe added. That way, if something happens, there’s accountability. He also wants to see every police officer in Virginia equipped with a body camera, “so we can all actually see what’s going on.” 

Jennifer McClellan

Watching George Floyd being murdered, McClellan said she felt the same trauma her parents felt when they saw Emmitt Till being murdered. These problems repeat, McClellan said, because change is needed in every system we have in government. 

“I did not need George Floyd’s murder or the Unite the Right rally to teach me that,” McClellan said. 

She would do several things to change law enforcement if elected. First, McClellan said she would continue the work the General Assembly started over the last two years with police reform. But more than that, she wants to see comprehensive criminal justice reform that eliminates “these low level offenses that criminalize poverty and mental illness.”

George Floyd was detained for one of these low level offenses, McClellan pointed out. 

“[He] was detained for having a counterfeit $20 [and] that became a death sentence.” 

McClellan also said she wants to continue her work legal reform. One of McClellan’s 10 bills from this past session that Gov. Northam signed into law allows defendants to tell the court about their mental illness or developmental disability. Previously in Virginia, a defense team couldn’t argue over how a mental illness may have impacted their client’s mental state at the time of the alleged offense.

Jennifer Carroll Foy 

One day, Jennifer Carroll Foy knows she’ll need to have “the talk” with her two sons. She’ll have to tell them “about how there’s two different justice systems in this country and in this Commonwealth.” 

Carroll Foy argued that she’s been fighting for years to change law enforcement in Virginia, first as a public defender and then as a member of the General Assembly. 

“I can tell you I’ve been protesting,” Carroll Foy said. “My protest is in passing bills and budgets that will address the hurt and harm felt by so many communities due to over policing, disinvestment and the war on drugs.” 

Jennifer Carroll Foy also pointed to bills she supported and laws she helped push through, as an example of what she’d continue doing as governor. 

“I’ve carried and passed a bill that prohibits the use of chokeholds by law enforcement officers so we don’t have an Eric Garner situation in Virginia,” Foy said. “And I can tell you I helped pass a bill banning no knock warrants, so we don’t have a Breonna Taylor situation in Virginia.”  

Justin Fairfax

The current lieutenant governor took the question down a personal road. Fairfax referred to the sexual assault accusations he faced in 2019, pointing out that everyone on the stage Tuesday night had called for his immediate resignation. That included Terry McAuliffe, Fairfax said. 

“He treated me like George Floyd,” Fairfax said. “He treated me like Emmitt Till. No due process. Immediately assumed my guilt.”  

George Floyd’s murder was horrific, Fairfax said, but it recalls a history in Virginia where African Americans are presumed to be guilty, are treated inhumanely, are given no due process and have their lives impacted as a result. Fairfax didn’t say anything about the question, about how he would change policing in Virginia. Instead, he focused on the personal cost. 

“I have a son and I have a daughter,” Fairfax said. “[I] don’t ever want my daughter to be assaulted. I don’t want my son to be falsely accused. And yet, this is the real world that we live in. And so we need to speak truth to power and be very clear about how that impacts people’s lives.”

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