The five candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for governor do something tonight that Democrats hardly ever do anymore: They’ll appear in Southwest Virginia.
The occasion is a debate hosted by WCYB-TV in Bristol, the second of four the Democratic candidate are having before the June 8 primary – which is already underway thanks to Virginia’s early voting rules. Democratic voters may be few in Southwest Virginia, but the state’s electoral reality is one of the candidates on that debate stage will on June 9 be the front-runner so even Virginians who don’t pay to vote for any of them ought to pay attention to what they have to say.
Before the Democrats debated last month in Richmond we posed three questions for them, two of which they didn’t address, and one they talked around. So we’ll re-up those three questions and add some more.
1. What will you do about the parole board? Don’t tell us it’s under investigation; we all know that’s a dodge. E-mails now show the former head of the board – now a judge in Virginia Beach — told a subordinate, “Wave that wand of power, and let’s cut them loose. There needs to be a silver lining to all this! Give me more!!!” Is she fit to be a judge? Democrats were quick to defend whistleblowers when one complained about former President Trump’s dealing with Ukraine; why aren’t Democrats defending the whistleblower who got fired here?
2. Will you support a constitutional amendment to end disparity in Virginia schools? House Democrats this year killed both a Republican version (from state Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin) and a Democratic version (Del. Chris Hurst, D-Blacksburg). Of the five candidates on the stage tonight, one – state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond – gets credit for voting for Stanley’s version in the Senate. As for the other four, if you don’t back this, how do you justify Virginia’s constitutionally-sanctioned school disparity?
3. Will you support a bond issue for school construction? Again, McClellan voted for Stanley’s call for an advisory referendum for a $3 billion bond issue. We haven’t heard the other four – Del. Lee Carter, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, former Del. Jennifer Carrol Foy – address this. Here’s your chance.
And now for the new questions:
4. Should the state expect poor localities to raise their taxes to pay for schools? During a debate on possible state support for school construction during the recent General Assembly session, one Democratic legislator from Fairfax County – Mark Sickles – singled out Lee County for criticism, saying, “I don’t see why people can’t take initiative, even in rural and small town Virginia, to solve their own problems.” Do you believe rural localities need to do more to raise their own funds? If so, when did Democrats start calling for more taxes on the poor?
Bonus question 1: Which if you plan to go to Lee County to see the conditions of schools there? Bonus question 2: The most infamous example from Lee County – the fourth-graders who had to set out buckets and trash cans on rainy days because the roof was leaking – took place when McAuliffe was governor and at the same time he was courting Amazon for Northern Virginia. A question for McAuliffe: Why weren’t you concerned about the physical state of some rural schools then? And why does your “big and bold” educational plan now still not address school construction or the state’s constitutionally-sanctioned school disparities?
5. What, if anything, does the state owe coal counties as reparations? All of you have backed the move away from fossil fuels. McClellan was the Senate sponsor of the Clean Economy Act, which calls for the state’s two biggest utilities to go carbon-free by 2045. Coal was declining anyway as a result of market forces but this state mandate accelerates that decline. Does the state owe anything to the coal counties in return? If so, what? If not, why not?
6. Who will back turning the University of Virginia’s College at Wise into a research university? Ralph Northam promised $15 million toward this when he was running in 2017 – we know that research universities are economic engines for spinoffs — but it never happened. More recently, Northam proposed using the money the state will save from retiring coal tax credits for expanding tech-related classes at the school. The legislature voted that down because many considered it an empty gesture; one legislature can’t bind a future one. But a governor can propose four years worth of spending. What will you do? And if you’re not going to commit to turning UVA-Wise into a research university, why not? Bonus fact: The website Axion Power lists 213 colleges in the United States that offer degrees in renewable energy. Not a single one is in the traditional coal-producing heart of Appalachia, the part of the most country most effected by the transition from fossil fuels to renewables.
7. What will you do to support or block natural gas pipelines? When McAuliffe was governor, he enthusiastically endorsed the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline (since cancelled) and the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which remains very much under construction through Southwest Virginia and into Southside. During the Democratic primary four years ago, Tom Perriello said he’d use his power to stop the pipeline; Northam said he would “follow the science,” which has effectively meant letting the pipeline proceed. As governor, what, if anything, would you do?
8. Who will agree to a fall debate in Southwest Virginia? Appalachian School of Law – backed by other groups – has offered to host a general election debate between the candidates for governor. Fairfax, Foy and McClellan have already agreed to take part if they’re the nominee, so this question is just for Carter and McAuliffe: Will you commit? If we were churlish, we’d point out that Appalachian formally made this offer in December 2020, more than five months ago. What’s taken so long?
All these questions, by the way, apply equally to the seven candidates seeking the Republican nomination for governor in a convention this weekend – they’re just not holding a debate where they have to answer anything. Among those seven, so far only Kirk Cox and Glenn Youngkin have agreed to a Southwest Virginia debate. For all the other candidates, on both side, isn’t committing to a single evening in Southwest Virginia the very least you can do?