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UPDATE: Police reform, Amazon deal, Petersburg among key topics as Democratic candidates for governor debate in Bristol

UPDATE: Police reform, Amazon deal, Petersburg among key topics as Democratic candidates for governor debate in Bristol

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All five Democrats vying to become Virginia’s next governor took the debate stage in Southwest Virginia on Thursday, just shy of a month until voting closes in the June 8 Democratic primary.

Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe — who polls show is far ahead of the other candidates — fielded the most attacks throughout the night. Former Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy took the most forceful swings at McAuliffe, calling him “Virginia’s past.”

Sen. Jennifer McClellan of Richmond touted a long list of legislative victories; Del. Lee Carter of Manassas cemented his place to the left of the field; and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who last month made headlines for comparing himself to Emmett Till, largely focused Thursday night on the policy questions at hand.

McAuliffe, who served as governor from 2014-18, said during the hourlong debate in Bristol that he is the right candidate to take on the eventual Republican nominee, who he said would threaten liberal policies and Democratic control of the legislature.

The candidates met in far Southwest, an area where job growth has stalled. All five candidates agreed the area could benefit from intensified focus on economic development, and all agreed greater public spending on broadband would be key to improving life in the region and other rural parts of the state.

The debate — the candidates’ second of five — was hosted by the Democratic Party of Virginia and WCYB, an NBC affiliate. Here are some of the highlights:

Police reform

All five candidates agreed to support ending qualified immunity for police officers in Virginia, a policy that restricts citizens from suing officers who violate their civil rights for financial damages in civil court.

Carroll Foy said a majority of police officers “are doing the right thing,” but that the state needs a governor who would “stand up for the people” when that isn’t the case.

She cited a statement from the April 2015 veto session, reported in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, when McAuliffe said “as it comes to public safety issues, I am always going to come down on the side of law enforcement.” The statements came after McAuliffe declined to limit law enforcement’s use of surveillance technology, including license plate readers.

The ACLU of Virginia stated at the time that such surveillance tools allowed police to overreach.

“I did stand with the police on license plate readers, because what they do is capture murderers and child molesters,” McAuliffe said Thursday. “Hannah Graham was murdered, UVA student. How did we catch that murderer? It was a license plate reader.”

Reporting by The Houston Chronicle at the time said that Jesse Matthew was arrested in Galveston, Texas, after a tipster led police to his car, and then a tent where he was staying nearby. The Roanoke Times reported that the pursuit began earlier, in Louisiana, when police identified his car with a license plate reader. Matthew was convicted in 2015.

McClellan, who supported abolishing qualified immunity when it came before a Senate panel last year, detailed a conversation with her son, who worried about being killed by police. “There are too many people who call the police for help and are killed,” she said.

McAuliffe said he supports greater transparency as to police misconduct, and expanded use of body cameras.

The Amazon deal

Asked about economic development in Southwest Virginia, Carter took a shot at his opponents for supporting the deal that led to Virginia’s winning bid to house Amazon’s second headquarters in Northern Virginia.

“The other four candidates on this stage all supported the Amazon deal, which gave $1.8 billion of your money in cash, tax breaks and infrastructure upgrades to a corporation, owned by the wealthiest man who has ever lived,” Carter said, referring to Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder and CEO. Carter called the deal a “handout.”

Carter’s figure includes $1 billion in spending for colleges and universities to produce more students with degrees in tech fields. Carter said job growth should come from growing Virginia businesses.

McAuliffe responded by saying he “wrote the bid to get Amazon to come to Virginia.” While McAuliffe was part of the team that put the deal together, officials within the administration of Gov. Ralph Northam spearheaded the effort. The McAuliffe administration started the process at the end of his administration.

“Over 230 cities across this country wanted it. We’re talking 25,000 jobs with an average salary of $150,000,” McAuliffe responded. “And guess what? No upfront money and not a penny of state money can be spent until we get the tax revenue in from the new jobs.

“That is a very good deal,” McAuliffe said.


The city of Petersburg and its troubles became a topic of pointed discussion.

Asked about food insecurity, Carroll Foy spoke about growing up in Petersburg, which has dealt for decades with high rates of poverty. Petersburg faced a high-profile financial crisis that began in 2008 that by 2011 had left the city with no reserves.

“I know when Petersburg, Virginia was falling on hard times - financial insecurity - that the community asked for help from Governor Terry McAuliffe, and he chose inaction,” Carroll Foy said. “A predominantly African American community that needed the former governor and he didn't show up. So where was his big and bold, then?”

A 2016 Times-Dispatch article detailed that in June of that year, the city’s interim manager “asked the office of Gov. Terry McAuliffe to help determine and catalog the city’s obligations and liabilities and identify the historical causes and structural problems that led to Petersburg’s budget crisis.”

McAuliffe Secretary of Finance Ric Brown dispatched a team of auditors under his purview that helped the city manage a $4.5 million insolvency issue and catalog its debt and outlined major issues with its budgeting practices.

McAuliffe said that all Petersburg schools were accredited when he left office through his administration's efforts. Carroll Foy said that today, just one school is accredited by the state, and vowed to invest in Petersburg and communities like it if elected. (Her campaign said she erred; just two schools in Petersburg are accredited.)

Transgender rights

All five candidates on the debate stage said that they would reject any proposal to ban transgender student athletes from competing in a sport that aligns with their sexual identity. Other states, led by Republicans, have weighed such proposals, arguing that in some cases, it disadvantages non-transgender students.

“I’ll veto any bill that discriminates against the transgender community,” McClellan said.

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Twitter: @MelLeonor_


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