CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – The Republican Virginia gubernatorial candidates who gathered Saturday for their first primary debate talked about revising the criminal justice system – and two said marijuana should be decriminalized.
The event, hosted by millennial GOP groups and moderated by the chairman of the state Republican Party, featured brief discussions about the cost of higher education, criminal justice and the future of health care in the state.
The four men seeking the GOP nomination in the June primary said little about President Donald Trump, whose approval rating in Virginia is below 40 percent, according to a poll released last week by Quinnipiac University.
The event was presented as a debate, but it highlighted few policy differences among the candidates, who remained cordial and refrained from criticizing each other.
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Prince William Board of County Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart, who has fashioned himself as a candidate in the mold of Trump, didn’t take the opportunity to criticize front-runner Ed Gillespie to his face, after months of bashing him online as a Washington insider. Stewart later told reporters that he would ratchet up attacks at future events.
The Republicans said they were interested in relaxing criminal penalties for drug possession.
Denver Riggleman, a distillery owner and former Air Force intelligence officer who is positioning himself as a populist candidate, described how his brother struggled to reintegrate into society after spending nine months in prison on marijuana-related charges. He said the state should give ex-offenders financial help to ease their return to society.
“If they do screw up like my brother did, they are going to get help transitioning back into the community,” Riggleman said.
In response, Stewart said Riggleman’s brother never should have gone to jail. He joined Riggleman in calling for the removal of criminal penalties for simple marijuana possession.
“It’s absolutely atrocious that we are jailing people simply because they are in possession of marijuana,” Stewart said. “We need to be focusing our resources on the real crimes and the real problems.”
Gillespie, who has led in campaign fundraising and polls, said the state should do more to keep people out of jail, noting that the average annual cost of incarceration is $29,000 per person.
“That can save us a lot of money, but also save a lot of lives,” said Gillespie, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee who nearly unseated U.S. Sen. Mark Warner (D) in 2014. “I believe in redemption and reconciliation.”
Gillespie later told reporters that he isn’t in favoring of legalizing marijuana but supports legislative efforts to have a state commission review whether the penalties for marijuana offenses are in line with the severity of the crime.
State Sen. Frank Wagner (Virginia Beach) said that he supports the drug court model to steer offenders to therapy instead of incarceration but that violent criminals should be punished harshly.
“Let’s get them into a treatment program rather than prosecute these people and make them criminals for the rest of their lives and can’t find them jobs,” Wagner said.
Both Democrats competing in that gubernatorial primary, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and former congressman Tom Perriello, want to decriminalize marijuana use. Last week, Northam cited it as a racial equality issue, noting that compared with whites, African Americans are disproportionately prosecuted for using the drug.
The candidates praised Trump and congressional Republicans’ intention to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Stewart and Wagner said they want to see the federal Medicaid program converted into block grants to the states.
The Saturday debate featured little discussion of contentious social issues such as gun rights and abortion.
But Stewart highlighted his effort to prevent Charlottesville officials from moving a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee from a downtown park, noting how dozens of protesters shouted him down when he showed up to defend the statue last weekend.
“They are trying to defeat us culturally, and this is not going to stand in a Stewart administration,” said the candidate, who calls Lee a hero and plans to address the Charlottesville City Council about the issue Tuesday and has been promoting that appearance in fundraising emails.
Gillespie and Riggleman in their closing remarks stressed the importance of Republicans winning statewide elections after a long drought.
“We have got to stop the liberal governance in the governor’s mansion,” Gillespie said. “We cannot have Ralph Northam or Tom Perriello continue Terry McAuliffe’s failed policies.”
The Quinnipiac poll showed either Democrat beating any of the four Republicans in head-to-head matchups. McAuliffe, the Democratic incumbent, is barred from seeking consecutive terms.
The gubernatorial candidates shared the debate stage with the Republican candidates for attorney general and two of the candidates for lieutenant governor.
State Del. Glenn Davis Jr. (Virginia Beach) and state Sen. Bryce Reeves (Spotsylvania), vying for the lieutenant governor nomination, made cases for less government and more compassion, particularly for people affected by the heroin epidemic. In November, Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) announced that opioid addiction in Virginia had been declared a public health emergency.
A third GOP candidate for lieutenant governor, Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel (Fauquier) did not participate, citing a scheduling conflict. That race took an ugly turn after Reeves accused Vogel or someone close to her of sending emails falsely alleging that he had an affair with a staffer.
John Adams and Chuck Smith, lawyers running for the Republican nomination for attorney general, blasted incumbent Mark Herring (D) for what they saw as politicizing his office.
Smith drew some applause for saying Virginia shouldn’t have more Muslims, mosques or refugees until the country’s security is strengthened. After the debate, he said he meant that Muslims – or anyone – should be barred from immigrating to the United States if they pose a danger.
Some in the audience of about 100 said they want a standard-bearer in the November election who embraces Trump.
“I want to see our nominee embracing Trump, because if not, he is going to lose voters,” said Holli Foster, a 17-year-old student from Orange who plans to cast her first vote in the primary. “He is our president, and he is the face of the Republican Party.”
Supporters of Gillespie defended him against criticism from Stewart that he is the kind of establishment figure that Trump spent his campaign railing against.
“He’s worked at the center of the Republican Party for a number of years, but he has always been pro-freedom and pro-liberty,” said Erich Reimer, a 26-year-old University of Virginia law student.
Fenit Nirappil covers politics and government in Maryland, Virginia and D.C. He previously covered the California statehouse and suburban government outside Portland, Ore. @FenitN