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McAuliffe’s Record Takes Center Stage at First Democrat Debate

Stage with candidates standing behind podiums
Democratic candidates for governor of Virginia, Del. Lee Carter, left, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, second from left, state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, center, Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, second from right, and Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, right, participate in a debate at Virginia State University in Petersburg, Va., Tuesday, April 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

A field of five Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls -- and their plexiglass dividers -- took up most of a stage at Virginia State University on Tuesday in the first of four debates.

And while the candidates anchored their pitch in their own records, few could resist a few pointed barbs at former Governor Terry McAuliffe. The Democratic fundraiser pitched himself as a trailblazer for a newly empowered Democratic Party, while some rivals said his record has not aged well on issues of race and criminal justice reform. 

McAuliffe spoke in superlatives and stressed he’d been up against a hostile, Republican-led legislature.

“I restored felon rights -- 173,000 [people] -- more than any governor in the history of America -- to erase a racist Jim Crow law that was designed to keep Blacks from voting,” McAuliffe said.

Other candidates said he hadn’t always spoken so directly about racial equity. State Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D - Richmond) – who has been in the legislature since 2006 -- highlighted her work on marijuana legalization and healthcare. She suggested McAuliffe had been slow to address racism.

“It is embedded in every system we have in government, and I did not need George Floyd’s murder or the Unite the Right rally to teach me that,” she said, in an allusion to the far-right rally in Charlottesville that critics said McAuliffe failed to adequately prepare for in 2017.

Jennifer Carroll Foy -- a former delegate who grew up in Petersburg -- drew attention to a deal he struck with Republicans on concealed weapons.

“When Terry McAuliffe had the opportunity as governor to be serious about gun violence, he did a backroom deal with the NRA,” she said.

Carroll Foy also said she was the candidate who could best relate to working class Virginians, citing her struggles juggling two jobs, child-rearing, and overcoming adversity.

McAuliffe brushed off the criticism of the NRA deal, saying top Democrats like now-Speaker of the House Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) and even McClellan had helped craft the deal. McClellan shook her head as he made the remark. 

Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax addressed two allegations of sexual assault. He said McAuliffe’s calls for him to resign were also connected to racism.

“He treated me like George Floyd, he treated me like Emmett Till -- no due process,” Fairfax said.

McAuliffe did not respond to the remark. 

Del. Lee Carter (D-Prince William), a self-described socialist, argued he’d been ahead of the curve in a party that has tilted left in Virginia over the last decade. He called for a worker-centric post-COVID economy.

“We have got to fundamentally rethink what economic development means in this commonwealth so that we are the ones making decisions about our economic future, not investors like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk,” Carter said.

Democrats will hold their next debate on May 6, with a primary vote on June 8. Republicans do not currently have any debates scheduled ahead of a May 8 convention. 

Correction: An earlier version of this story said McClellan has served in the legislature since 2005. It has been updated to reflect that she was elected to the House of Delegates in 2005 and began her term in 2006.