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Congressional Candidates Talk Police Reform, Bipartisanship

Craig Carper Moderates VPM Forum
VPM News Director Craig Carper moderates the "Virginia Decides" 4th Congressional District Forum between Rep. Donald McEachin and Bishop Leon Benjamin on Tuesday, October 13. (Crixell Matthews / VPM News) 

A long time Virginia lawmaker is facing a new challenger, as they compete in the 4th U.S. Congressional District. They told Virginians where they stand on the issues during the “Virginia Decides” VPM Forum, supported by ChamberRVA. 

The district encompasses most of the Richmond area, the Tri-Cities and parts of Hampton Roads. Rep. Donald McEachin (D - 4th) has held the seat since 2017. In the decade prior, McEachin served in the state Senate and the House of Delegates. 

Voters will decide whether the incumbent will have a third term in office or if Republican Leon Benjamin will be their new representative. 

Benjamin is the Richmond GOP Chairman and currently the senior pastor and bishop of the New Life Harvest Church. According to his campaign website, he was a surrogate for President Donald Trump in the 2016 campaign. He was then part of the president-elect’s transition team, working specifically on the faith-based initiative support team.

During the “Virginia Decides” VPM Forum on Tuesday, October 13, the candidates were posed a question about the Justice in Policing Act, which was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives but stalled in the Republican controlled Senate. The legislation prohibits racial profiling, bans no-knock warrants and mandates the use of de-escalation techniques. 

Representative Donald McEachin
Taking additional health and safety protocols because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Rep. Donald McEachin stands 30 feet away from his challenger, Leon Benjamin, during the forum at the VPM studios. (Crixell Matthews / VPM News) 

McEachin, one of the co-sponsors of the bill, said, “You shouldn’t have an encounter with the police and not survive to get to court.” 

“Most police officers are good officers, but for the bad ones we need to put in place these rules, these reforms and that’s why people are out in the streets,” McEachin said.  

The legislation addresses  a number of demands issued by demonstrators during protests in Richmond this summer. Criminal justice reform was also a topic many respondents to VPM’s Citizens Agenda Election Survey wanted to ask political candidates about. 

When asked if he supports the bill or if there are other police reforms he would support, Benjamin said that Congress should be investing in law enforcement, not “defunding” them. 

“When I call 911 I don’t need a psychiatrist, I want a police officer to come and defuse the situation - whatever that might be,” Benjamin said. “Yes, get more training. Yes, get more - what I call - wrap-around services. And please, let’s get more officers on the streets. ”

Virginia was in the headlines Tuesday, after reports that the same extremist militia group that allegedly plotted to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D-Michigan) also discussed abducting Gov. Ralph Northam. There are also concerns that militia groups may commit acts of violence if  Trump loses the election and does not accept the results. 

During the forum, VPM News Director Craig Carper asked Benjamin and McEachin: “How do we lower the political temperature both in Congress and among the public at large to prevent chaos like this from erupting?” 

Leon Benjamin
Republican candidate Leon Benjamin explains his stance on what Congress. (Crixell Matthews / VPM News) 

To Benjamin, there is an “enemy that wants us to be divided,” which he says “isn’t the American way.” He also said no one deserves to be harassed, whoever they are.  

“We have to begin to understand that this is the greatest nation of all time, and there are some who would want to bring us down to the lowest degree, hating one another... and that’s not what makes us great Americans,” Benjamin said. “Yes, we have disagreements. Yes, we have debates like this here today. But that’s where we say ‘I agree to disagree,’ but not to the point where you want to harm someone and even take someone’s life. That’s not America.” 

Highlighting the words of President Trump, McEachin said messages saying “Liberate Virginia” during the lockdowns have ceded divisions in the nation and that we have to hold ourselves to a higher standard.   

“Words matter, actions matter, how you conduct yourself in the public square matters. We need to conduct ourselves as Americans,” McEachin said. “We have to conduct ourselves as if we are moving toward that more perfect union, And we have to conduct ourselves, not as if we are learning that this is the greatest country in the world - like we already know that this is the greatest country in the world.” 

Throughout the forum, both candidates jabbed at each other for partisan tactics: McEachin highlighting that Benjamin was using talking points from the president, and Benjamin alleging McEachin’s record stuck with the party and not in the district’s interests.

The forum also touched on the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, the national deficit, and criminal justice. 
Election Day is Tuesday, November 3. For more resources on how to vote early and to apply for absentee ballots, VPM News has created a series of guides to assist voters.