By SARAH RANKIN, Associated Press
ETTRICK, Va. (AP) — Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe touted his record Tuesday evening while his opponents made their case that the Commonwealth needs fresh leadership during the first televised debate of Democratic side of the governor’s race.
McAuliffe, former Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, Del. Lee Carter, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and state Sen. Jennifer McClellan took the stage for an hourlong, socially distanced debate at Virginia State University.
The candidates have been appearing at forums and other campaign events, but Tuesday night’s event offered the first chance for a statewide televised audience to hear from the unusually broad field in a closely watched race.
Virginia and New Jersey are the only states in the country with gubernatorial races this year, and because Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam cannot serve a consecutive term, only increasingly blue Virginia has an open seat.
The Old Dominion’s off-year elections typically draw national attention and are watched closely by both parties to see who might have an advantage heading into the national midterm elections.
The debate was largely cordial to start with. But it heated up as time went on, and the sharpest jabs were directed at McAuliffe.
A former chairman of the Democratic National Committee and a close friend of Bill and Hillary Clinton, McAuliffe served as governor from 2014 to 2018 and is widely seen as the Democratic frontrunner. He brings name recognition, fundraising prowess and, as he touted Tuesday night, a deep bench of support from key Virginia powerbrokers.
McAuliffe told the crowd he could steer Virginia most effectively through the economic recovery from the pandemic.
“I did it before” and will do it again, he said.
Carroll Foy, who was elected to the House of Delegates in 2017 and resigned her seat in December to focus on the governor’s race, has pitched herself as a change-making progressive and the best person in the race to take on McAuliffe. She’s moved most aggressively to paint the former governor and longtime party fundraiser as out of touch with everyday voters in a way that she contends — as a former foster parent, public defender and working mother of toddlers — she is not.
“Virginians deserve a governor who has walked in their shoes,” she said in her answer to the night’s first question.
Carter, a Marine veteran and self-identified socialist who works as a Lyft driver while the legislature isn’t in session, also sought to set himself apart from the field, noting he was the only person on stage who was not a millionaire or an attorney.
Carter is unapologetically far left of center and as equally willing to take aim at Democrats as he is Republicans or big business — often on Twitter — where he has the largest following of any of the candidates.
McClellan, who is the only candidate from the Richmond area, touted the 15 years she’s spent in the General Assembly. She is a well-regarded senior member who’s carried some of the most consequential, complex legislation during the two legislative sessions the new Democratic majority has been in charge. Currently on unpaid leave from her job as an attorney at Verizon, McClellan often speaks about the state-sanctioned discrimination her family faced living in the segregated South and is campaigning as the most experienced alternative to McAuliffe.
Either McClellan or Carroll Foy would be Virginia’s first female governor and the nation’s first black female governor.
Fairfax, who occupies a post that’s typically a launching pad to the governor’s office, is campaigning despite facing unresolved allegations of sexual assault that observers widely view as an enormous hurdle to overcome.
Fairfax has vehemently died the allegations and directly addressed them Tuesday night, proclaiming his innocence and criticizing everyone else on the stage for demanding his resignation.
The allegations were raised publicly in 2019 just as Fairfax appeared poised to ascend to the governorship due to a scandal over a racist photo in Northam’s medical school yearbook that nearly drove Northam from office.
Fairfax insists there is evidence that exonerates him in the case of one of the accusers and he has tried vigorously to clear his name.
Tuesday night’s debate, which was moderated by WTVR anchor Bill Fitzgerald, was the first of four gubernatorial debates that the Democratic Party of Virginia is organizing, each hosted by a different Virginia TV station. Two more will take place in May, followed by the final one on June 1.
The Democratic primary is June 8. Voters will also be choosing the party’s nominees for attorney general and lieutenant governor. In some cases there will also be contested primary races for House of Delegates seats.
In-person absentee voting begins April 24, and the deadline to register to vote is May 17.
On the GOP side, after months of infighting over the process, party officials opted to host a convention May 8 with voting sites across the state. The seven-candidate field will meet for both an online candidate forum and a debate later this month. Both will be paid, ticketed events.
Also in the governor’s race is Princess Blanding, the sister of a Black man who was killed by Richmond police in 2018. She has launched a longshot bid for governor under the banner of the Liberation Party.
Former Republican U.S. Rep. Denver Riggleman could be in the mix too. He has not ruled out an independent bid.
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