Candidates use People’s Debate to attack each other over scandals

Posted at 12:51 PM, Oct 14, 2014
and last updated 2014-10-14 13:14:54-04

RICHMOND, Va. — CBS 6 anchor and debate moderator Bill Fitzgerald opened the final debate between Sen. Mark Warner and Republican challenger Ed Gillespie on Monday night with a call to “plow new ground.” But as voter groups and journalists started asking questions about the restoration of the Voting Rights Act, Gillespie pushed Warner for answers over his involvement in the scandal over former state senator Phillip P. Puckett.

“Many Virginians are concerned about the recent reports that Senator Warner made a phone call talking about the potential of recommending the daughter of a state senator for the federal bench, a lifetime appointment to the federal bench, in relation to a political decision,” said Gillespie, turning a question about the full restoration of the Voting Rights Act into an attack against Warner.

Warner had said previously that he had placed a phone call to the son of Puckett, who he had described as a longtime friend, but denied that he had made any specific job offers for Puckett’s daughter. Puckett resigned from the senate in June, which put Republicans in charge of the chamber.

“Let me make clear, I did not offer her a job, nor would I offer her any kind of a position,” Warner said in Monday’s debate. He said that he had only “brainstormed” with Joseph Puckett about “possible opportunities for his sister” Martha Ketron on the phone three days before his father’s resignation.

The sponsoring nonpartisan organizations AARP Virginia and League of Women Voters of Virginia had difficulties at the beginning of their debate at the studio of the Richmond PBS station WCVE to keep the candidates focused on their questions about other issues than the Puckett scandal. Warner in turn accused Gillespie of signing the Taxpayer Protection Pledge of Grover Norquist’s organization Americans for Tax Reform, which Gillespie denied.

“I think a lot of us would have liked to hear a little bit more about the Voting Rights Act,” said Kristin Goss, president of the League of Women Voters of Arlington. She said that her organization is very concerned about the civil rights legislation, which was partially struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court last year.

Goss’ second question about campaign finance reform, something Virginia League of Women Voter’s President Anne Sterling called a “perennial issue” for her organization, brought about another round of finger-pointing.

Gillespie criticized Warner for using $1.4 million in super PAC money to attack him, while Warner pointed out that Gillespie helped to create the American Crossroads super PAC with Republican strategist Karl Rove, which funds candidates nationwide.

Bob Blancato, president of AARP in Virginia, asked the candidates how they plan to protect  Social Security and to protect Virginians against the rising costs of healthcare. While both candidates promised to protect Social Security and Medicare, Gillespie criticized Warner for his standpoint on the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare.

Gillespie said that Warner aided in burdening 200,000 Medicare recipients with $715 million in cuts to help pay for Obamacare. Warner rejected Gillespie’s claim and said that he  would strengthen Medicare by combining Medicare Part A and Part B.

“I think they responded to the general concept of Medicare and Social Security need to be protected, but they went about it differently, and that’s something for the voters to think about,” Blancato said after the debate.

Blancato’s concerns about prevention care taking precedence over hospitalization reflect the differences of Medicare Part A and Part B. But Blancato also disagreed with candidate’s use of the term of “entitlements” when referring to Medicare and Social Security.

“These are earned benefits, we don’t call them entitlements,” Blancato said.

Warner attacked Gillespie on Social Security, saying that his support for the privatization of Social Security during the administration of President George W. Bush “would have been devastation” had it implemented  Warner said Gillespie voiced his support of that privatization in an editorial just last year. But Gillespie rebutted that he is running on his own platform based on his own ideas.

As in the previous two debates, Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis was not included in Monday night’s debate in Richmond. But Sarvis commented on his opponents comments via Twitter.

By Rachel Mahoney and Michael Melkonian (Special to

This story was reported by the “iPadJournos” mobile and social media journalism project, a cooperation between and VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture.