National politics—as expected—came up early and often Saturday during Virginia’s first 2017 gubernatorial debate, with moderator Judy Woodruff pressing candidates Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and Ed Gillespie (R) on undocumented immigrants and health care.
Hosted by the Virginia Bar Association at the Omni Homestead Resort in Hot Springs, Virginia, the debate also covered environmental issues, energy, reproductive rights, and other topics.
Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chair and counselor to President George W. Bush, said he didn’t agree with everything President Donald Trump tweets, but pledged to cooperate with the administration if elected. He added later that he does not support in-state tuition for DREAMers, children brought to the United States without documents, while Northam said he believes the students deserve in-state tuition rates.
Asked by PBS NewsHour host Woodruff about his primary campaign ad calling the president a “narcissistic maniac,” Northam said he stood by his words and added that the commander-in-chief “lies like a rug.”
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Gillespie responded, “We need to have a governor who can work with the president …. What are you going to do as our governor, call the White House and say, ‘Please put me through to the narcissistic maniac?’”
In a discussion of congressional efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA), as well as the GOP-controlled Virginia legislature’s refusal to expand Medicaid benefits to 400,000 people with low incomes, Northam suggested the state is giving away $5 million a day in federal funds by not expanding Medicaid—a claim rated “mostly true” by fact-checking website Politifact.
Gillespie, however, claimed that expanding Medicaid would lead to higher expenses for Virginians down the line and declared that he has a plan to hold down health costs in Virginia while addressing growing rates of opioid addiction.
Reproductive freedom came up during the debate, with few departures from the candidates’ party lines. Northam has promised on the campaign trail that he would defend reproductive rights and veto anti-choice bills passed by the state’s Republican-held General Assembly.
With Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), Northam has advocated for spending $6 million annually in federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) funds to make long-acting reversible contraceptives such as intrauterine devices and implants available to Virginians with low incomes. Republicans in the state legislature have blocked the measure.
In a question that appeared to surprise Gillespie, Northam asked if he would support this idea.
“I will take a look at that and dig deeper into that TANF money,” Gillespie said, “but I’m not familiar … with your language you put in there, nearly as familiar as you are with it.”
Gillespie added that birth control pills should be available over the counter, a policy reproductive health experts support but say would be insufficient as a stand-alone measure for increasing access to contraceptives.
Northam said women should be the ones to decide what happens with their bodies, and vowed to veto radical “personhood” laws—which could ban abortion and some forms of contraception—or other measures that interfere with women’s autonomy.
The candidates also sparred over energy and the environment. Both Northam, whose position on two proposed natural gas pipelines has gained attention during the campaign, and Gillespie have received campaign funding from Dominion Energy, the Richmond-based company that would build the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Northam has been pressured by progressives who supported his anti-pipeline primary opponent, Tom Perriello.
“If they deem them safe and responsible, then the pipelines will move forward, and I will certainly support that. If they don’t then I will not support it,” Northam said. He added that he opposes fracking in Virginia. Gillespie voiced his support for fracking, claiming it “helps provide a reliable source of affordable energy.”
A young man at the debate interrupted Northam’s opening remarks, shouting “No pipeline!” as he was escorted out of the room.
The second of three debates between Gillespie and Northam is scheduled for September 19 in northern Virginia.