Candidates running for Virginia’s 87th District House of Delegates’ seat clashed on environmental policy, independent redistricting and gun reform in their first debate in Haymarket Monday night.
Democrat Suhas Subramanyam, a former White House technology policy advisor to President Obama, is running against Republican Bill Drennan, a retired Air Force veteran, in the Nov. 5 election. The seat is currently held by Democrat John Bell who is leaving his post to run for Senate in the 13th district.
The forum was hosted by the Regency at Dominion Valley with help from the Prince William Area League of Women Voters. Jill Palermo, managing editor of the Prince William Times, served as moderator.
During the debate, Drennan labeled himself a “climate change skeptic” and called into question scientific research showing the existence of climate change. Drennan said the issue of climate change had become “a religion … not based on science.”
By contrast, Subramanyam has made climate change and environmental policy a top priority of his campaign. Subramanyam is a member of Zero Carbon Virginia, a group of experts and citizens promoting non-partisan environmental policy solutions.
Subramanyam said climate change and environmental policy should be a bipartisan priority in Virginia’s General Assembly.
“This is one of the greatest dilemmas that we will be facing, and we will be facing them whether or not we believe it’s a real thing,” Subramanyam said.
The vast majority of scientists say climate change is a growing, man-made threat to the planet, and has become a pressing issue for localities along Virginia’s coastline where communities are already being impacted by sea-level rise.
The two candidates also had contrasting views on whether they would support legislation changing Virginia’s gun laws. Subramanyam said he supports strengthening gun background checks and laws preventing domestic abusers from accessing firearms.
Currently, Virginia does not require private sellers, sellers who are not licensed dealers, to initiate a background check when transferring a firearm.
Subramanyam said “red flag” laws, which allow authorities to temporarily confiscate firearms from people who are deemed to be a danger to themselves or to others, had worked in other states and should be considered in Virginia.
“If we know they’re going to be a danger to themselves or others, we should be able to do something about it,” Subramanyam said.
Drennan said he is opposed to further gun regulations and said the Constitution and the right to bear arms is “under assault.”
“When you hear a politician say ‘commonsense,’ reach for your wallet, reach for your constitution,” Drennan said.
Subramanyam and Drennan are also at odds on how to address redistricting and gerrymandering in Virginia.
Responding to a question about whether the candidates would support an independent redistricting commission to combat partisan gerrymandering, Drennan said the redrawing of district lines is best left to politicians in the General Assembly.
“If you don’t like the way they drew those boundaries … then vote them out. That’s what elections are for,” Drennan said. “I don’t want to see politicians get off the hook by saying, ‘we turned it over to a non-partisan commission.’”
Virginia has been forced to redraw districts twice in the last decade as a result of the General Assembly’s 2011 redistricting process. Virginia courts ruled in 2015 and 2019 that state legislators had unconstitutionally gerrymandered U.S. congressional districts and state delegate districts on a racial basis.
The state House and Senate passed a constitutional amendment earlier this year to create a bipartisan independent redistricting commission to take the redistricting process out of the hands of legislators, but it must pass a second legislative session in 2020.
Redistricting for the state legislature takes place once every 10 years to coincide with the release of new census population and demographic data. New lines will be redrawn in 2021.
Subramanyam said redistricting and voting rights are a top priority of his campaign. Subramanyam said he would support an independent redistricting commission but expressed concern over whether commission members chosen by legislators would be truly independent.
“I want to make sure that the commission is independent,” Subramanyam said. “And then I would want to make sure the criteria for how they draw the districts is something that makes sense and is not political.”
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