The gem of public higher education in Southwest Virginia, UVa-Wise, was the host site for the final Virginia gubernatorial debate between candidates Dr. Ralph Northam and Ed Gillespie on Monday night.
For UVa-Wise, it was a chance to shine in far Southwest Virginia hosting the debate and an opportunity to put the region in the spotlight with attention being paid to issues that strongly affect the region.
Among the issues addressed by both candidates and pressing among residents still residing in the Southwest: the need for economic development or lack thereof, school funding and population decrease among SWVA counties and statewide and the epicenter of the statewide problem concerning opioid addiction.
WCYB-TV news anchor Paul Johnson moderated the debate with Roanoke Times writer Carmen Forman serving as the only panelist posing questions to both candidates.
In his opening remarks, Democrat Northam said that it was time to “get out the paddles and shock” the Southwest Virginia region back to life economically with plans such as expanding UVa-Wise as a catalyst for economic development and further expansion by offering graduate degrees and other offerings that will bring in talent to SWVA.
Northam said he viewed UVa-Wise as a “gem” for the region and its potential. The college was founded in 1954 as Clinch Valley College by the University of Virginia to serve as a branch of the Charlottesville campus. A name change occured in 1999 to better reflect the relationship between the two colleges.
The college is the only four-year Virginia public college west of Blacksburg.
Northam cited as the first thing the region needed was jobs in addition to paying public school teachers more, adding that Virginia teachers are paid $7,500 less than teachers in other states and also that K-12 education in the Commonwealth “must be a priority” in addition to better opportunities to healthcare.
Republican challenger Gillespie countered Northam with the claim that Virginia as a state has lagged behind other states for six straight years in economic growth and expansion referring to Virginia’s ranking 39th out of 50 states seeing economic growth.
One pressing question from the debate panel on the night: what should be done addressing the rural and urban disparity of schools in the coalfields and statewide?
Schools in Southwest Virginia continue to see a population decrease due to lack of jobs or economic opportunity, resulting is less federal and state funding. The decrease has left Southwest Virginia counties reeling as to funding education.
Northam said his take on the issue was bringing jobs to the region while Gillespie agreed that population decline was an issue, but so was overpopulation in some Virginia schools, and that one solution was to propose student loan forgiveness for teachers who teach in Virginia and stay.
Perhaps one of the biggest issues addressed was the opioid epidemic in Virginia and Southwest Virginia, which is considered by some as the “epicenter” of the opioid epidemic.
“We’ve got to address it,” replied Gillespie to the question citing the issue is awful around the commonwealth, especially in SWVA. Gillespie spoke of a Scott County woman whose son was addicted, stealing money and jewelry to satisfy his addiction.
“It’s an addiction,” added the Republican candidate. It “can’t be a partisan issue, it has to be a priority.”
Gillespie commented that he has an addiction recovery/mental health plan that “offers specifics for helping get those addicted into treatment with a greater emphasis on prevention.”
“Addiction needs to be treated as a disease not a “moral failing,” according to the Republican.
Northam said as a pediatrician that he has talked to medical students, doctors and others about the epidemic and said “(t)here has to be a better way to treat acute pain,” adding that there are currently too many of those addicted in the state’s jails and prisons saying that the issue is a terrible problem but added that it was going to “take resources,” saying that it is better for someone that knows how to deal with it and taking a jab at his opponent, “not a lobbyist.”
Gillespie countered that a recent meeting of the Virginia Sheriff’s Association could have provided some direction to issues facing law enforcement dealing with the epidemic, but the cancellation by Governor Terry McAuliffe and Ralph Northam was not a good way of dealing with the issue.
Gillespie has received endorsements from sheriffs and law enforcement officials statewide, and the recent move to cancel the appearance by McAuliffe was viewed as political. Later, Northam told Gillespie in an exchange during questions between the two candidates that he had “nothing to do with the cancellation of the meeting,” and referred to his “great relations with law enforcement.”
Other issues addressed by the gubernatorial candidates included the expansion of broadband for all Virginia as Gillespie told those present that 70% of internet traffic comes through Loudoun County, but that over 900,000 Virginians still have no access to broadband or cell service in the state. Northam added that expansion of broadband was vital to economic growth in the state as well as education.
Gillespie also told the audience that “Obama style clean power plants” are not going to work adding that “we’ve shed too many jobs in other areas” referring to the coal industry. Northam countered that he has had discussions with coal miners and that the demand for steam coal is down, but coal for metallurgical use is up, and that if elected, he would continue to push for renewable energy and also opportunities with UVa-Wise.
Northam also continued to take his digs at Gillespie’s proposed tax cut plan for Virginians citing the move would blow a “$1.4 billion dollar hole in the budget” with Gillespie’s plan and that the tax cuts are aimed to benefit the wealthy.
Gillespie’s fired back that it wasn’t a tax cut for the wealthy and that he supported an energy policy that included the pipeline while supporting property owner rights, the proposed Dominion Energy hydroelectric plans for Southwest Virginia using old mine sites and the reinstatement of the coal tax.
Other topics addressed during the debate was the redistricting issue for Virginia with Northam saying that Gillespie was the architect of the state’s gerrymandering, adding that the system needs to stop. “I will not sign a map unless it is drawn fairly, non partisan by voters not politicians.”
Transportation and the topic of “sanctuary cities” was also touched upon during the debate with Northam citing ”fear mongering” and political games by the Gillespie campaign. “I don’t support sanctuary cities” replied Northam. “I support our law enforcement and making Virginia safe.”
Gillespie told the audience at one point that Northam’s attendance at meetings had been less than satisfactory, with Northam countering Gillespie’s employment as a lobbyist in Washington. Gillespie responded with the comment directed back at Northam, “you’ve got 8.4 million clients and you’re letting them down by not showing up for your job” when it came to rural Virginia economic meetings.
The debate lasted just shy of one hour.
Northam received an endorsement prior to the night’s debate as the United Mine Workers of America threw their support behind the current lieutenant governor, with UMWA president Cecil Roberts giving the nod to Northam over Gillespie.
It was announced also prior to the debate that Vice President Mike Pence will visit Southwest Virginia in support of Gillespie at a rally in Abingdon on Saturday.