RICHMOND, Va. -- Four of the five candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for Virginia governor in this year's race met for an online debate Tuesday night that was largely cordial and absent a frontrunning ex-governor.
Del. Lee Carter, former Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, state Sen. Jennifer McClellan and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax took part in the event, which was hosted by political, racial justice, climate and other advocacy groups.
Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, whose name recognition, broad support among many sitting lawmakers and fundraising prowess have vaunted him to Democratic frontrunner status, declined to participate.
The event was among the first opportunities of the campaign season for the public to hear from most of the Democratic field in a race considered the country's marquee political contest of the year.
Virginia and New Jersey are the only two states in the U.S. with gubernatorial races this year and only Virginia, once a key swing state that’s been increasingly leaning blue, has an open seat. Virginia’s off-year elections are also watched closely by both parties to see which might have an advantage heading into national midterm elections.
The candidates generally pitched the need for a new type of leadership in a state that's typically elected business-friendly moderates - and always men - as its chief executive.
“We are more diverse than ever before. But we have a long way to go,” said McClellan.
If she or Carroll Foy were elected, they would be the nation's first Black woman governor.
On a number of issues that highlighted the progressive nature of the field, the four candidates were in agreement. All four said they would support: ending qualified immunity for police officers; legalizing marijuana; imposing a moratorium on new fossil fuel infrastructure; tightening Virginia's notoriously lax campaign finance regulations; and making the currently part-time General Assembly a full-time body.
The candidates did not venture into personal attacks against each other, though Carroll Foy threw several jabs at McAuliffe, including one about his decision not to participate in Tuesday's debate.
McAuliffe said in a statement to The Associated Press ahead of the event that since launching his campaign, he has “been speaking directly with Virginians about my big, bold plans to rebuild our economy, create a more equitable Virginia, and move our Commonwealth forward.”
Carter, the state’s lone elected Democratic socialist, sought to distinguish himself as a pro-worker crusader and outlier even among the Democratic field.
“I think over the last two hours, we’ve heard some wonderful answers from all the candidates. But one thing that I have tried to make clear is that my perspective on issues is entirely different from the rest of the field,” said Carter.
The debate format featured “lightning round” questions that put candidates on the record on issues by demanding a simple yes or no response.
On a question about support for workers' rights to unionize, Carter, Carroll Foy and Fairfax - but not McClellan - said they would support repealing the state's right to work law. So far that's been an issue the new Democratic majority at the General Assembly has been loath to even discuss.
McClellan said that she does not believe employment should be conditioned on whether someone is or is not in a union but that as governor she would work to get rid of “anything that is standing in the way of organizing and collective bargaining."
Democratic voters will choose their candidate in a June primary, months ahead of the November general election. State law prevents Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam from seeking reelection.
Republicans, who last won a governor’s race in Virginia in 2009, have opted to winnow down their crowded field of contenders through a convention with remote voting at dozens of sites around the state. The GOP's approach emerged from months of confusion and infighting.
On the Democratic side, all the candidates - including McAuliffe - have committed to participating in four more upcoming televised debates being organized by the Democratic Party of Virginia, the first of which is April 6.
The organizers of the “Virginia People's Debates” previously hosted forums for the Democratic candidates for lieutenant governor and attorney general. Those events can be viewed online.