Story by Jeremiah Knupp, senior contributor; Photos by Holly Marcus, senior contributor
A crowd gathered Wednesday evening in Edinburg for a rare event: the chance to see their choices for the General Assembly who will be on the ballot in November come together for a public forum. From agriculture to abortion, the contenders for both the 26th District State Senate and 15th District House of Delegates, laid their views out to the audience in the gym of the Charterhouse School.
“This is intended to be a civil, non-partisan discussion of the issues,” said Alliance for the Shenandoah Valley Executive Director Kate Wofford as she opened the forum.
The event’s format allowed for a half-an-hour “meet and greet” time, followed by two one-hour periods where each pair of candidates answered questions submitted in advance by the audience.
Clear differences between candidates in SD26 rematch
First up were April Moore, a Democrat, and Republican incumbent Mark Obenshain, the two candidates in the State Senate 26th District, which includes Harrisonburg and northwestern Rockingham County, along with Page, Rappahannock, Shenandoah and Warren counties. Obenshain, who lives in Harrisonburg, is seeking a fifth four-year term in the Virginia Senate, while Moore, a Shenandoah County resident, is running against him for the second time. In 2015, Obenshain easily defeated Moore, winning 69 percent of the vote.
The event represented the first time the candidates have met in a public forum during this election cycle. A second forum is tentatively scheduled for Oct. 24 in Warren County.
“I realize that this district is quite conservative and I respect that,” Moore said in her opening statement. “In normal times I wouldn’t be running. In normal times I would accept that the conservative people of this district are represented by a good conservative. But these are not normal times when good conservatives have the integrity to serve the people they claim to represent.”
“[Obenshain] has chosen to be a party man at a time when his party has abandoned the conservative principles that used to guide it,” she continued. “Mr. Obenshain has repeatedly chosen to support the powerful, moneyed interests at the people’s expense. I’m running because I want to offer the people another choice.”
In his opening statement, Obenshain said political campaigns “really ought to be based on issues and principles, not name calling and not attacking each other’s character.”
“What I will do is talk about the issues that are important to the people of the Shenandoah Valley. During my tenure in the General Assembly I have worked closely to make sure I represented the values of the Valley,” he continued. “I hope that by standing up, answering questions honestly and telling you where I stand without regard to whether you agree with me or disagree with me you can always count on me to be straight with you. And you can always count on me to stand up for the values for the people of the Shenandoah Valley.”
Seated together at a small table, the candidates did find areas where they could nod in agreement, from supporting local agriculture to making higher education more affordable. Those moments, however, quickly gave way to each using their limited time to point out stark differences in their platforms on topics including healthcare, right-to-work laws and raising the minimum wage.
Moore criticized Obenshain’s effort to block Medicaid expansion in the state.
“I see no reason why Mr. Obenshain and his fellow Republicans refused to pass Medicaid expansion for a number of years,” she said.
“There is a fundamental question in this country and it has taken stage on a national level and that is, are we going to have a government run healthcare system in this America or not? And I think April and I probably fundamentally disagree on whether that is the route we should be taking,” Obenshain replied.
He tried to link Moore’s positions to national Democratic platforms.
“We have an opportunity in Virginia to do good things, to clean up our air and clean up our water and be conservation-minded, but also not be crazy,” Obensahain said. “We’ve got folks in Washington D.C. who are proposing crazy. The Green New Deal, for example, is insane.”
“I am not a candidate that has signed onto the Green New Deal,” responded Moore, who has made the environment a major emphasis of both her campaigns. “I believe we need as much action as fast as we can get it to address climate change. If it turns out eventually that that is the Green New Deal, then I would support it.”
The most contentious moments in Obenshain’s and Moore’s hour concerned gun control, an issue that repeatedly came up. Moore criticized Obenshain, who chairs the Senate Courts of Justice Committee for voting “to kill more than a dozen common-sense measures designed to address gun violence just in the 2019 session.”
“The Second Amendment is a fundamental part of the Bill of Rights and, yes, I oppose legislation that violates the Constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens,” Obenshain responded.
In HD 15, first-time candidate challenges House Majority Leader
Next up were the candidates for the House of Delegates 15th District, which covers the northeast corner of Rockingham County plus Page, Shenandoah and Warren counties. The district is now represented by Del. Todd Gilbert, a seven-term incumbent who serves as majority leader in the House of Delegates. His challenger is Democrat Beverly Harrison, a first-time candidate. Both are from Woodstock.
Gilbert used his opening statement to outline what he sees at stake in this November’s election.
“Those of you who follow Virginia politics beyond Shenandoah County and beyond the 15th House District know that Virginia is at a crossroads,” he said. “Literally one vote eliminates control for the Republican party on either side [of the General Assembly]. I happen to believe that the Democrats I serve with in Richmond are some of the most radical, progressive Democrats in the land.”
His opponent said that she would refute “blind party loyalty.”
“I am running as a person and not as the Democratic Party,” Harrison said in response. “I don’t agree with the Democratic Party all of the time and they’re not the ones I hope to represent. It’s you, the people of this community and your best interest.”
Their discussion became contentious when it came to the Equal Rights Amendment – an issue that Harrison said prompted her to run for public office.
“I decided that [the Equal Right Amendment not being in the Constitution] was something that I could not let stand,” Harrison said. “My son and my daughter need to have equality in the nation’s Constitution.”
Last session, a bill to make Virginia the 38th and final state to ratify the Constitutional Amendment passed the State Senate but died in a Republican-controlled House committee.
Gilbert linked the ERA to relaxed abortion regulations.
“We do not get the luxury, as legislators, of passing ideas into law. I’ve learned that states that adopted Equal Rights Amendments as state-level initiatives, that in those states abortion groups have challenged state laws that place even the most modest limits on the right to abortion,” Gilbert said. “So forgive me for being circumspect and thoughtful about an issue that I also care about in addition to the issue of equality.”
Wednesday night’s forum was the second of three consecutive evening events held by the Alliance for the Shenandoah Valley, a regional organization that “advocates, educates, and connects people to conserve natural resources, cultural heritage, and the rural character of our region.” While forums on Tuesday and Thursday featured candidates for local office in Shenandoah County, Wednesday’s event attracted a crowd from throughout the Valley that came for the rare chance to see their choices on next month’s ballot face each other and questions from the public one of them will serve.
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