Candidates Spar Over Campaign Funds, Criminal Justice Reform During Debate

Disagreements over campaign contributions and criminal justice reform during a debate last night revealed fault lines between some of the Democrats running for the party’s nomination.

Six candidates running for Commonwealth’s Attorney, state Senator and Delegate who sparred during the Wednesday night debate agreed on green energy and defeating Republicans. But their disagreements on other topics showed that even in an all-Democratic playing field there are shades of blue.

One area of disagreement was campaign contributions.

Sen. Barbara Favola was asked by a moderator why she continued to accept contributions from the controversial Advanced Towing company in light of complaints about employees allegedly towing a vehicle with the owner’s pet still inside.

The state senator called the story “extraordinary unfortunate” but said that the solution was for people “to go back to the landowner and complain about the contract” they have with a company.

Her challenger, Nicole Merlene hit back by referring to the 2017 NBC 4 report that Advanced Towing gave Favola $1,500 in campaign contributions after she voted to loosen towing regulations and allegedly convinced then-Governor Terry McAuliffe to do the same.

Favola said she voted “with the county” and that “what Governor McAuliffe had decided to do is Governor McAuliffe’s prerogative.”

Both candidates spoke in strong support of increasing affordable housing and paying interns.

A flash point Wednesday night was the issue of criminal justice reform.

During the debate between Commonwealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos and her challenger, Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, both candidates offered sharp critiques of each other’s criminal justice philosophy and experience.

In Arlington, Stamos said the county has a “discovery” policy that dictates that defense attorneys must hand copy case information from the courthouse because that helps protect crime victim’s privacy. The prosecutor added that even if that were not the case her office would “need more resources” to digitize discovery.

Dehghani-Tafti called the current system “actually a waste of resources” by limiting lawyers to manual copying in person during the court’s business hours.

Dehghani-Tafti touted her experience as a defense attorney as a reason why she was qualified to reform the office. Stamos said that didn’t equate to being prepared as a prosecutor and that Dehghani-Tafti had represented a “a deep misunderstanding of trial work.”

The pair also clashed over fair punishment for marijuana-related charges.

Stamos said currently, first-time possession is treated like a “traffic ticket” — a characterization Dehghani-Tafti disputed by saying it’s still a criminal matter that costs people time and money.

Another theme from the evening was what chance Democrats have of reclaiming a majority in Richmond — and whether the old guard were better equipped at making that happen.

Incumbent Del. Alfonso Lopez said being so close to a progressive majority calls for someone with “a nuanced understanding of public policy” in office and said experience and legislative track record makes him qualified.

“I’ve been fighting tooth and nail for eight years to recruit candidates, to raise money, to actually create… a true progressive majority in the House of Delegates,” said Lopez.

“I may have not have been in politics for 27 years, but I’ve been on the battlefield for our Democratic party, for our social construct and how it affects our people of color,” said challenger J.D. Spain, Sr., who served as a Marine for 26 years and recently led the local NAACP chapter.

Spain called Lopez a “career politician” and accused him of “taking a lot of money” from interest groups, in contrast to Spain’s grassroots-funded campaign.

Lopez swore off campaign contributions from Dominion Energy in January and returned cash from Amazon. On Wednesday, Lopez said “the vast majority” of his campaign funding came from individual donors, unions, and environmental groups.

Both candidates highlighted their focus on disability rights and promotion of women into top roles within their campaigns during the debate.

The Arlington Young Democrats hosted the debate, which was was held at National Rural Electric Cooperative Association in Ballston, ahead of the June 11 primaries.

Voters can head to the polls from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m during the June election, and anyone waiting in line by 7 p.m. can vote.

People who want to cast ballots must register to vote at least 30 days before the primaries. Arlington residents can do so online, in person at the Office of Elections at 2100 Clarendon Blvd, or by mailing an application. Register voters can check their polling location here.