U.S. Sen. Mark Warner and his Republican challenger Daniel Gade sparred on health care policy and criminal justice reform during their first debate.
But the two found common ground on immigration, with Gade saying he disagrees with President Donald Trump’s move to end the “temporary protected status” afforded to more than 300,000 U.S. residents, most from El Salvador.
Both Gade and Warner said they would vote for legislation blocking the deportation of such immigrants. Tens of thousands of Salvadoran TPS recipients live in Northern Virginia, many in Prince William County.
“America is a generous country and we’ve always welcomed people who are suffering,” Gade said.
Both also agreed that, in contrast to the Trump administration, the federal government should grant more H-1B visas, which are temporary residency permits that allow U.S. employers to hire “nonimmigrant aliens as workers in specialty occupations,” according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
“We need to have H1B visa workers, especially in Northern Virginia and especially in the technology sector,” Gade said. “And the administration has curtailed H-1B visas and I think that’s a mistake.”
“I’m glad to hear Mr. Gade finally break with his party at least on one item,” Warner replied, noting that many technology firms in Northern Virginia were founded by immigrants.
Gade also noted the need for lower-skilled workers but defended Trump’s position on the border wall, saying: “Of course we need to secure out border. And, you know, the president says, ‘Build a wall.’ That’s shorthand for ‘secure the border.’”
Warner said he agreed with the need to secure the border, but quipped: “I think we need to secure our borders, but I think there are smarter ways -- to use drones and technology -- not a 14th century technology.”
The debate, held Wednesday, Sept. 23, was moderated by Chuck Todd, an Arlington resident and host of NBC’s "Meet the Press," and sponsored by the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce, George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, NBC Washington and Telemundo Washington.
Warner, 65, is running for a third term in the U.S. Senate. He served as Virginia’s governor from 2002 to 2006, was first elected to the Senate in 2008 and was re-elected in 2014. He is the ranking member of the Select Committee on Intelligence.
Gade, 45, is a political newcomer. He served for 25 years as an Army officer and lost one of his legs in combat in Iraq. He retired as a lieutenant colonel in 2017, holds a PhD in public administration and policy and is a professor at American University.
The most heated exchange of the night came when the two talked about the Affordable Care Act and ensuring people with preexisting health conditions.
Warner claimed Gade “can’t have it both ways” by supporting the repeal of the ACA while also maintaining he supports legislation that forbids health insurance companies from charging higher premiums or denying people with preexisting conditions.
“The ACA is not perfect,” Warner said of the 2010 law. “But 20 million Americans got health care coverage. It protects 3.5 million Virginians, including my daughter, with preexisting conditions; 400,000 Virginians got healthcare coverage because of Medicaid expansion.”
Gade responded by noting that 25 states already protected people with preexisting conditions by the time the ACA went into effect.
“The idea that I would take away protections for people with preexisting conditions is offensive and it’s false and it’s defamatory,” Gade said. “I have a preexisting condition myself because I got my leg blown off in Iraq, and since then I’ve worked with people with disabilities … There’s nobody who cares more about people with preexisting conditions in this country than I do.”
Gade also said those calling for the wholesale repeal of all the ACA are “not thinking in terms of what is reality.”
“What we actually need to do is, of course, protect people with preexisting conditions. And then we need to expand access and increase the quality of health care by doing things like expanding health savings accounts and by having price transparency,” he added. “And the [Trump] administration, for all of its sometimes flaws, has done a good job in heading in that direction.”
On COVID-19 response, face masks
Gade criticized Warner for not voting in favor of the GOP-backed stimulus bill, which recently died in the U.S. Senate. The Senate has declined to take up the Democratic-backed House bill, dubbed the HEROES Act. Warner said the Senate legislation did not do enough to fund state and local governments and pointed out some Republicans were reluctant to vote for it in the bill's current form. Gade said the political stalemate has delayed relief to schools and small businesses.
“In that, I’m pointing directly to you, Senator Warner, because you voted against $105 billion to reopen schools; $258 billion for a second round of protection through the [Paycheck Protection Program] and $31 billion for a COVID vaccine and $16 billion for testing. So you can’t have it both ways. You can’t say this is important and then vote against the needs of Virginia citizens.”
Warner criticized the federal administration for not enacting a national coronavirus testing program and not having a “national plan on PPE.”
When asked what grade he would give President Donald Trump, Warner said he would give him a “failing grade.” Gade said: “Overall, I’d give our country a B- or a C+.”
The two men also went back and forth on the issue of face coverings. Warner repeatedly claimed Gade had said wearing a mask is a form of “tyranny.” Warner held up his own face mask, saying, “My opponent has called wearing masks a sign of tyranny. I think it’s a sign of respect.”
Gade denied that he had compared wearing a mask to tyranny. “I’ve got my mask it’s right here. It’s camouflage to honor my 25 years of military service,” he said, holding up his own mask.
In a May 29 radio interview on The Schilling Show, which airs on WINA in Charlottesville, Gade used the word “tyranny” in reference to an executive order issued by Gov. Ralph Northam to mandate face masks.
On ‘defunding the police,’ race relations
Gade repeatedly tried to associate Warner with calls by some activists and politicians to “defund” law enforcement agencies. Warner said he’s opposed to defunding the police and called for investing in more police training.
“Defunding the police, as Mark’s party has called for, is an evil idea because it puts the very same people at risk who are already at risk when police go rogue,” Gade said, touting his endorsement from the Virginia Police Benevolent Association, a law enforcement union with more than 60,000 members. The union has endorsed Warner in previous elections.
“They put their trust in me because I’m better on this issue,” Gade said.
Warner denied he is in favor of even diverting police funding to crisis-intervention programs. He instead proposed investing in law enforcement agencies and especially in training.
“I believe as well we should not be defunding the police,” Warner said. “In fact, if we’re going to give our police forces the tools they need, they will need additional training.”
Gade also argued police officers should retain the right to use choke holds, saying they could prevent a more deadly use of force.
“If they can’t use a choke hold, sometimes, guess what they are going to reach for?” he said. “They are going to reach for lethal means, for their pistol, and that’s going to be the next killing that happens. If we take a way tools from police, it’s no wonder why violence goes up.”
When asked about what he would do to “address those concerns around racial justice,” Gade gave no specifics.
“When I was wounded the second time [in combat], 25 sailors and soldiers gave me their blood and it didn’t matter if they were black or white or gay or straight or Hispanic or anything else. So I think we as Americans can come together to solve some of these hard issues,” he said.
He immediately transitioned to condemn “left-wing violence” and “Antifa.”
“There’s a right to peaceable assembly that is enshrined in the constitution. But there’s no place for organized, left-wing violence, and what we see, when you trace back the roots of Antifa, you see an organized movement to overthrow our government and to damage our system of democracy,” Gade said.
Warner also denounced violence, saying: “I also think that violence of any kind should be avoided. So whether you’re a vigilante on the street or about to throw a brick through a window, if you break the law, you should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
When asked about systemic racism, the candidates’ answers differed.
“There are absolutely still pockets of racism that exist in this country,” Gade said in response. “We need to find those, and we need to stomp them out. And getting people, updating their attitudes is the right way.”
Warner referenced the first enslaved Africans landing in Virginia in 1619 and the “challenging … history of race” in the country since then.
“So do I think systemic racism exists? I do,” Warner said, adding: “Black lives matter.”
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