Virginia governor’s race: Key takeaways from the 1st debate

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Terry McAuliffe, Glenn Youngkin

Democratic gubernatorial candidate and former governor Terry McAuliffe, back center, gestures as his Republican challenger, Glenn Youngkin, back right, looks on during a debate at the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, Va., Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin met Thursday in southwest Virginia for the commonwealth’s first gubernatorial debate of the general election season.

Much of the exchange between McAuliffe, a longtime Democratic Party fundraiser who is seeking a rare second term as governor, and Youngkin, a former business executive and political newcomer, dealt with vaccine mandates and abortion policy.

Here is a look at some other topics the candidates sparred over during the hourlong debate in a race that is being closely watched ahead of next year’s midterms:

ELECTION INTEGRITY

During the GOP nomination contest, Youngkin made “election integrity” a top campaign issue, allowing him to appeal to supporters of former President Donald Trump who wrongly believed the 2020 election was stolen.

Moderator Susan Page pressed Youngkin to simply answer yes or no Thursday to a question about whether he agreed with remarks Trump recently made during a radio interview, in which he suggested that Democrats might “cheat” in the governor’s race.

“No. … I think we’re going to have a clean, fair election that I fully expect to win,” said Youngkin, who added he did not think there had been “substantial” fraud in Virginia elections.

Page also asked both candidates if they would concede if the state certified their opponent had won. Both committed to doing so.

QUALIFIED IMMUNITY

McAuliffe and Youngkin found a point of agreement on the issue of whether to end qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that often protects police from liability.

Both said plainly they would not seek to make any changes to that policy in Virginia. That’s a shift in direction for McAuliffe, who during the Democratic primary in April told the Virginia Mercury he would support ending it. He gave a less straightforward answer during a May debate among Democratic candidates.

STATE AGENCY CONTROVERSIES

Youngkin went after two state agencies that have faced persistent complaints from Virginians during the pandemic: the Virginia Employment Commission and the Department of Motor Vehicles.

“We’re going to introduce the concept of customer service, not flawed process,” he said.

And during a segment when the candidates were allowed to ask each other a question, Youngkin pressed McAuliffe about the woman he appointed chair of the state parole board, where the state’s watchdog agency has found a number of serious problems.

“If you could do it all over again, would you appoint her chair of your parole board?” Youngkin asked.

Without directly addressing the issue of former board chairman Adrianne Bennett, McAuliffe responded that if anyone in state government had acted inappropriately, “people would be removed.”

RENEWABLE ENERGY POLICY

Energy policy and climate change have so far not taken center stage in the campaign.

On Thursday, the candidates were asked whether they would have signed the Virginia Clean Economy Act, a sweeping piece of legislation Democrats passed in 2020 that lays out a plan to get Virginia electric utilities to 100% renewable generation by 2050.

Youngkin said he would not have signed the measure.

“I believe in all energy sources. We can use wind and solar, but we need to preserve our clean natural gas,” he said.

McAuliffe said “of course” he would have signed it. In a campaign platform, he’s called for accelerating Virginia’s path to “100% clean energy” by 2035.

RICHMOND’S ROBERT E. LEE STATUE

Page, the Washington bureau chief of USA Today, had a direct question for the candidates about last week’s removal of an enormous statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Richmond.

“What went through your mind when you saw that statue come down?” she asked about the state-owned bronze equestrian piece. Gov. Ralph Northam ordered its removal last summer after the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota, but litigation had tied up the work for over a year.

McAuliffe, whose position on Virginia’s Confederate statuary has shifted over the years and who could have sought to remove the monument when he was previously in office, responded that he was “happy” to see it go, calling it a symbol of “division and hate.”

Youngkin first took a shot at McAuliffe’s changing positions and then said he thought the Supreme Court of Virginia’s decision that allowed the statue to be removed “reflected the law.”

“I think that statue should be in a museum or on a battlefield, so we don’t airbrush away our history,” he said.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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