Arlington, VA

If you were hoping for fireworks in the closely-watched state Senate race between Arlington County Board member Barbara Favola (D) and McLean businesswoman Caren Merrick (R), you would have been sorely disappointed by last night’s Arlington County Civic Federation debate.

The unofficial kickoff to the general election campaign season lacked the audacious, back-and-forth recriminations of the 31st District Democratic primary. It did, however, set the stage for a clear battle of ideas in a race that could have significant repercussions in Richmond.

Smiling and effervescent, Merrick’s big debut to Arlington voters started out with her politely applauding Favola’s opening statement, then taking the podium, acknowledging her husband and sons, and describing herself as “the daughter of a Marine.” She recounted how she and her husband “started a software company in our basement” (it was sold to a German company in 2007 for $546 million) and touted her non-profit work with low-income families and “urban youth.”

Repeatedly, Merrick cited her business experience and argued that she was the stronger candidate on jobs and the economy.

“I believe that I have the experience that these challenging times call for,” Merrick said, adding that she would also focus on education and “bipartisan solutions for transportation.”

“I will not be part of the partisan gridlock,” said Merrick. “Above all, I promise that I will listen to you.”

Merrick stayed clear of hot-button topics like abortion and gay marriage in her opening and closing statements, but Civic Federation questioners pressed the issue.

“There are millions of good people on both sides of this issue,” she said when asked about abortion. “I’m pro-life. But I have a record of helping women who are homeless, who have been abused, who have had to rebuild their lives. The company that my husband and I co-founded… over half of the management team were women. So I’m pro-women.”

“In terms of discrimination, I believe discrimination is wrong,” she said, referring to a question about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights. “I’ve hired people from all walks of life.”

Favola, meanwhile, was unequivocal.

“I’m a strong supporter of pro-equality,” she said. “I’m 100% pro-choice as well.”

Favola and Merrick both said they supported increasing transportation funding, but differed in terms of how to pay for it.

“You have to remember that Virginia has one of the lowest gas taxes in the entire country,” Favola said in support of raising the state’s gasoline tax. “The bottom line here is: We have a problem, we have to fix it.”

“I don’t believe a gas tax is sustainable,” Merrick argued. “I agree with our Democratic Senators Warner and Webb, who are proposing that we sell off-shore [oil drilling] leases. I also support a myriad of other forms of revenue for transportation. I do not support the gas tax.”

Favola further differentiated herself from Merrick by talking about the role of government.

“I think government should use its power to provide opportunities for people, and to ensure that power and influence are not just reserved for corporate America,” she said. “Regulation is not a bad word… I’m the only candidate here who’s willing to use the clout of government to protect our environment.”

Favola warned that a win by Merrick in the Democratic-leaning 31st District could jeopardize Democrats’ slim majority in the state Senate.

“It is critical that voters consider the differences between Ms. Merrick and myself, and what it would mean for Virginia if Democrats were to lose control of the Senate,” Favola said. “In the last session, House Republicans reduced spending on K-12 education by $600 million, and Democrats in the Senate restored most of it… Twenty four anti-immigrant bills passed the House of Delegates, and the Senate defeated them. They were divisive, and were not in keeping with our values.”

Last night’s debate also featured 30th state Senate District candidates Del. Adam Ebbin (D) and Tim McGhee (R) and 32nd District candidates Janet Howell (D) and Patrick Forrest (R). While Ebbin and McGhee stuck closely to the issues and barely engaged one another, Forrest came out swinging against the incumbent Howell, saying that she has “not shown leadership” on issues like Metrorail to Dulles and rising tolls on the Dulles Toll Road.

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