The candidates for Virginia lieutenant governor had their first debate of the year last night (Tuesday) at George Mason University’s Arlington campus.
The debate gave Arlington residents a chance to see polarizing Republican candidate E.W. Jackson, who has made headlines since earning the GOP nomination by making disparaging comments about gays and lesbians, comparing Democrats to slavemasters and saying yoga could lead people to Satan.
Jackson, a nondenominational minister from Chesapeake, defended those comments as protected speech and explained that how he speaks in sermons, during which many of the comments were made, would not be how he would govern.
“I think we’ve got to watch this. What this really amounts to is a religious test,” he said. “The same thing they tried to do John Kennedy, the same thing they tried to do with Mitt Romney… its not his religion that matters, what matters is how he governs.”
Democratic candidate Ralph Northam said he was “offended” by many of the remarks Jackson has made during the campaign, asserting that there can’t be a distinction for a public official.
“What I do in church carries with me to what I do in everyday life,” Northam said. “Making statements against the LGBT community, saying they’re sick individuals, making statements against Democrats, saying they’re anti-god, anti-family, anti-life, those statements… are offensive. They have no place in the Commonwealth of Virginia. That’s not the state that I love and that’s not the state that you love.”
Perhaps Jackson’s most controversial statement of the night was suggesting more mentally ill patients should be housed in institutions, leading to WUSA reporter Peggy Fox, the debate’s moderator, to press him on the issue.
“I don’t want to scare you, but I’ve got some mentally ill people in my family, and they need help,” Jackson said. “You can’t just cast them aside. You can’t pretend that they don’t need something more than an occasional visit to a doctor or a hospital. They do need something more. They need to be housed, they need to be taken care of.”
Northam, a pediatric neurologist from Norfolk who has served in the state senate the last six years, countered Jackson’s statements.
“How sad to think you would visit [your family members] in an institution,” he said. “We can do better than that in the Commonwealth of Virginia.”
The loyalties of the crowd at GMU’s Founders Hall auditorium was considerably mixed, and several moments from each candidate drew loud cheers. Northam and Jackson both spoke passionately on the subject of abortion, the potential for Medicaid expansion in Virginia via the Affordable Care Act and ethics reform. Fox asked Jackson if he would enact ethics reform to prevent scandals like Gov. Bob McDonnell’s impermissible gifts scandal from happening again.
“We have found out about these indiscretions, so something obviously worked, because we know about them,” Jackson said. “I am willing to consider anything that will make the public’s trust in government greater… I am always skeptical of adding layer upon layer and law upon law because what we really need to do is elect people who want to serve.”