ETTRICK, Va. -- Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe touted his record Tuesday evening while his opponents made their case that the Commonwealth needs new leadership during the first televised debate among Democrats in this year's governor's race.
McAuliffe, former Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, Del. Lee Carter, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and state Sen. Jennifer McClellan met at Virginia State University for the hour-long, socially distanced debate.
The candidates have appeared in other events, but Tuesday night's event offered the first chance for a large, statewide audience to hear from the Democrats' unusually broad field in the year's marquee political contest.
Virginia and New Jersey are the only states holding gubernatorial elections this year. And because Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam cannot serve a consecutive term, only increasingly blue Virginia has an open seat.
The off-year elections typically draw national attention as a bellwether for which party might have an advantage in the national midterm elections.
Largely cordial at first, the debate heated up as it progressed with the sharpest jabs directed at McAuliffe, who is widely seen as the Democratic frontrunner.
A former Democratic National Committee chairman and friend of Bill and Hillary Clinton, McAuliffe was governor from 2014 to 2018. He brings name recognition, fundraising prowess and, as he touted Tuesday night, backing from key Virginia politicians, including many of the state's most powerful Black lawmakers.
McAuliffe told the crowd he could steer Virginia most effectively through the economic recovery from the pandemic.
“I did it before” and will do it again, he said of an earlier recession and recovery.
Both Carroll Foy and McClellan attacked McAuliffe's record on gun legislation, criticizing a 2016 compromise deal that strengthened some gun control measures while reversing a policy that would have invalidated concealed handgun permits in Virginia held by residents of 25 other states.
McAuliffe responded that the bill was a bipartisan attempt at progress on gun control when Republicans controlled the legislature.
Carroll Foy, who was elected to the House of Delegates in 2017 and resigned in December to focus on the governor’s race, pitched herself as a change-making progressive and the best candidate to take on McAuliffe. She’s aggressively painted the former governor as out of touch with everyday voters in ways she contends - as a former foster parent, public defender and working mother of toddlers - she is not.
“Virginians deserve a governor who has walked in their shoes,” she said.
Carter, a Marine veteran and self-identified socialist who works as a Lyft driver while the legislature isn't in session, said he was the only person on stage who wasn't a millionaire or an attorney.
Carter is unapologetically far left of center and as equally willing to take aim at Democrats as he is Republicans or big business.
McClellan, the only Richmond-area candidate, touted her 15 years in the General Assembly. She has carried some of the most consequential, complex legislation during the two legislative sessions with the new Democratic majority in charge. Currently on unpaid leave from her job as an attorney at Verizon, McClellan often speaks about the state-sanctioned discrimination her family faced living in the segregated South and how that inspired her work in government.
Either McClellan or Carroll Foy would be Virginia’s first female governor and the nation’s first black female governor.
Fairfax, whose post is typically a launching pad to the governor’s office, is campaigning despite facing unresolved allegations of sexual assault that are widely viewed as an enormous hurdle to overcome.
Fairfax vehemently died the allegations again Tuesday night, directly addressing them while criticizing everyone else on stage for having demanded his resignation.
He had particularly sharp remarks for McAuliffe, who was among the first to call for Fairfax's resignation, saying: “He treated me like George Floyd. He treated me like Emmett Till, no due process.”
None of the other candidates had an opportunity to respond. Jake Rubenstein, a spokesman for McAuliffe, declined comment later.
Fairfax insists there is evidence that exonerates him in the case of one of the accusers, and he has tried vigorously to clear his name.
Tuesday night’s debate, moderated by WTVR anchor Bill Fitzgerald, was the first of four gubernatorial debates the Democratic Party of Virginia is organizing ahead of the June 8 primary.
Primary voters will also be choosing the party’s nominees for attorney general and lieutenant governor and, in some cases, contested House primaries.
On the GOP side, after months of infighting, party officials opted to host a convention May 8 with voting sites across the state. The seven-candidate field will meet both for an online candidate forum and a debate later this month. Both will be paid, ticketed events.
Also in the governor’s race is Princess Blanding, the sister of a Black man killed by Richmond police in 2018, making a longshot bid under the Liberation Party banner.
Former Republican U.S. Rep. Denver Riggleman could be in the mix, too, having not ruled out an independent bid.
The general election is Nov. 2.