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Editorial: Democratic debate in Bristol was disappointing. Here's why.
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Editorial: Democratic debate in Bristol was disappointing. Here's why.

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The most recent debate between the Democratic candidates for governor did little to change the dynamics of the race — former Gov. Terry McAuliffe remains in charge — and even less to address the economy of rural Virginia.

We can’t say we’re surprised, but we are disappointed. The whole point of having a debate in Bristol was that the party acknowledged there really is a part of Virginia outside the urban crescent. Too bad the candidates served up mostly platitudes about the region, when they acknowledged it at all.

State Sen. Jennifer McClellan delivered perhaps the most memorable line, about her 10-year-old son asking about the likelihood of being shot by police.

Former Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy was the most aggressive, describing McAuliffe as part of “Virginia’s past.”

But Del. Lee Carter might have been the most honest when he noted that others beyond Southwest Virginia were watching on various online platforms and proceeded to talk about the need for “off-peak, reverse direction” passenger rail service in Northern Virginia. Carter may be a socialist, but he knows how to count where the votes are.

Still, if we were grading the candidates on how well they addressed the needs of the region, we’d have to give them an I for “incomplete” at best.

That doesn’t absolve Republicans, by the way. Their seven candidates for governor — still awaiting the outcome of Saturday’s unusual remote convention with ranked-choice voting — haven’t exactly distinguished themselves by a serious discussion of the issues, either.

The reality is campaigns are rarely serious policy debates, despite the incessant prodding of pesky editorial writers.

For the record, none of the candidates addressed the eight questions we posed the day of the debate:

1. What will you do about the parole board?

2. Will you support a constitutional amendment to end disparity in Virginia schools?

3. Will you support a bond issue for school construction?

4. Should the state expect poor localities to raise their taxes to pay for schools?

5. What, if anything, does the state owe coal counties as reparations?

6. Who will back turning the University of Virginia’s College at Wise into a research university?

7. What will you do to support or block natural gas pipelines?

8. Who will agree to a fall debate in Southwest Virginia?

Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, to his credit, at least backed the spirit behind question three: He has proposed a $30 billion investment to “rebuild and reimagine” every public school building at least 40 years old.

He didn’t say how he’d get that past the Northern Virginia Democrats in the House who this year strangled even a much smaller investment — a $3 billion bond issue for school construction proposed by state Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County.

Once again we must point out an inconvenient fact: Democrats, who like to style themselves as the party most concerned about education, have somehow ceded this issue to Stanley, one of the most conservative Republicans in the legislature.

Fairfax ought to be standing in front of every old school building in the state — more than half are more than half a century old, so he has lots of opportunities — and making the case about how both parties have failed to fix the problem.

This is a political failure, although he’s got the policy right.

McClellan also gets partial credit for question three. She might be a calm, steady-handed governor (those are good things in our book, by the way), but is not a particularly aggressive campaigner. She voted for Stanley’s proposed bond issue, she voted for his proposed constitutional amendment, and she now chairs a commission on school modernization, but we didn’t hear her say much about any of this.

McClellan did, at least, find an opportunity, in a question about food security, to talk about how “I visited one school in Radford that doesn’t have air conditioning their cafeteria gets to be over 100 degrees … so when they eat [lunch], they’re passing out. We can’t have a bold education plan that does not address school construction and modernization needs.”

That was a mild jab at McAuliffe’s so-called “big and bold” educational plan that addresses none of these things. She, like Fairfax, ought to be making a much bigger deal about this.

Instead, when the candidates did talk about issues unique to rural Virginia, it was usually in the broadest of generalities (although we did learn that Carter backs a passenger rail line that would parallel I-81 all the way to Winchester and ideally beyond).

Guess what? All the candidates are in favor of rural broadband. Guess what? Republicans are, too. Talking about rural broadband is easy; making it happen is more difficult.

Carter, who’s not afraid to challenge the status quo, had the most specific plan: He thinks the government should build rural broadband and then spin it off to nonprofits.

That may not be the right answer — that’s a matter of ideological taste — but it’s at least a specific plan.

Are any candidates willing to pay for satellite-based internet that would bypass existing telecoms? We don’t know.

In a different context, Carter took a shot at Elon Musk. Here’s the thing: Musk, through his satellite-based Starlink service, is actually providing internet right now to some households in Wise County. We suspect Musk’s favorability rating there is pretty high right now.

McClellan and Foy both claimed credit for the Clean Economy Act — Foy as a co-patron, McClellan as the main patron. That might win votes in the urban crescent but not in Southwest Virginia.

The Clean Economy Act — which mandates a carbon-free electric grid by 2050 — is a bad deal for Southwest Virginia, although not for the reason Republicans might think.

The act accelerates the retirement of coal, but coal is going away regardless.

A study out last week found that solar and wind are now cheaper than 80% of the coal plants in the country. The real “war on coal” is being waged by the free market.

The problem with the Clean Economy Act is that it does very little to make sure that the renewable energy jobs that replace coal jobs are in coal country — one reason why even a Green New Dealer like Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke and now a candidate for lieutenant governor — voted against the act.

In a debate within listening distance of Virginia’s coal counties, we heard no serious discussion of how to build a new economy there.

That rates not an I but an F.

The Roanoke Times

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