4 moments that stood out during the first Democratic gubernatorial debate

The first televised debate of Virginia’s Democratic gubernatorial primary started out tame...
The first televised debate of Virginia’s Democratic gubernatorial primary started out tame Tuesday evening, with almost 25 minutes of civil discussion about how the five candidates onstage plan to lead the state out of it.(Virginia State University)
Published: Apr. 7, 2021 at 9:25 AM EDT
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Fairfax compares himself to George Floyd

Fairfax used a question about the killing of George Floyd, which sparked nationwide racial justice protests last year, to draw a comparison with how he was treated after two women accused him of sexual assault in 2019.

Saying Floyd’s death speaks to a larger history of African-American men being presumed guilty and having their lives upended “in an instant,” Fairfax noted all other candidates onstage called for his resignation immediately before the accusations were investigated. He singled out McAuliffe in particular, suggesting he was “speaking truth to power.”

“He treated me like George Floyd. He treated me like Emmet Till,” Fairfax said. “No due process. Immediately assumed my guilt. I have a son and I have a daughter. I never want my daughter to be assaulted. I never want my son to be falsely accused. And yet this is the real world that we live in.”

Fairfax did not heed the calls to resign and the accusations against him were never investigated by law enforcement or any other authority in Virginia. Many Democrats have assumed they’re all but certain to derail Fairfax’s chances of making the typical leap from lieutenant governor to governor, but he nevertheless pressed on with his gubernatorial run.

No other candidates responded to his comment on stage and the McAuliffe campaign declined to comment after the debate.

Fairfax’s remark quickly drew national media attention and condemnation, with some calling the comparison highly inappropriate.

It also drew a social media response from Vanessa Tyson, a California professor who accused Fairfax of assaulting her in a hotel room during the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. She said she has no regrets about coming forward and stands by her account.

“So to all the people of Virginia, young, old, or somewhere in the middle—I wish you wisdom and strength,” Tyson said on Twitter. “Beware those who peddle foolish lies for ill-gotten gains—those who would exploit history and your emotions for their own ambition.”

McClellan and Carroll Foy attack McAuliffe’s gun deal

McClellan and Carroll Foy, both seeking to become the first Black woman elected governor of any state, used a question about gun violence to launch their most direct attacks against McAuliffe of the night.

McAuliffe noted he was one of the first prominent Democrats in the state to directly challenge the National Rifle Association and said as governor he’d work to ban assault weapons, high-capacity magazines, untraceable “ghost guns,” and empower local governments to ban firearms at events.

Though bans on specific types of weaponry have failed to pass the Democratic-led General Assembly, McClellan then pointed out legislators have already given local officials more control over guns in their jurisdictions. The legislature could have “gone farther,” she said, by having Virginia stop recognizing concealed carry permits issued by other states with looser rules.

Carter says ‘we’ve got to reduce the size of the police’

The reference to Floyd’s death came as part of a larger question about police reform, an issue Democrats took up in a special session last year.

Carter, a self-described socialist and one of the few Democrats in Virginia openly aligned with activist calls to defund the police, said his stance on policing sets him apart in a party that boosted police budgets last year and passed reform bills with so many exceptions “they might as well be made out of swiss cheese.”

“We have got to rethink what policing means in this Commonwealth,” Carter said. “There are a lot of things that do not make sense to have a man with a gun doing, like mental health checks, like welfare checks, like traffic enforcement. And we’ve got to reduce the size of the police in this Commonwealth to what makes sense to have them do. And nothing more.”

McAuliffe said he supports accountability and transparency but believes in “working with the police” to ensure they have proper training.

McAuliffe distances himself from Parole Board controversy

The candidates were asked to weigh in on the ongoing controversy surrounding the Virginia Parole Board, which has come under fire over several watchdog reports last year that concluded the board violated its own policies and state law while releasing several inmates last year without proper outreach to the families of crime victims and local prosecutors.

Many of the violations identified in the reports occurred under the leadership of former Parole Board Chairwoman Adrianne Bennet, who was originally appointed to that position by McAuliffe before leaving a year ago to become a judge in Virginia Beach.

Several candidates said they support Gov. Ralph Northam’s call for an outside investigation into the watchdog reports while saying they favor parole reforms to make more inmates eligible for early release.


The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.

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