Candidates running for Virginia’s 28th District Senate seat sparred on gun legislation, the Equal Rights Amendment, immigration and other issues in their first debate Thursday at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg.
Democrat Qasim Rashid, a civil rights attorney, is challenging incumbent state Sen. Richard Stuart, an attorney for Westmoreland County, in the Nov. 5 election. Stuart hasn’t faced a challenger in the conservative-leaning district since he was first elected in 2007.
The debate was moderated by Stephen Farnsworth, director of the university’s Center for Leadership and Media Studies.
On the issue of gun reform, Rashid said he is in favor of comprehensive gun reform in Virginia, including universal background checks and so-called “red flag” laws, measures that would allow a judge to issue a protective order to temporarily remove firearms from someone deemed a threat to themselves or others.
By comparison, Stuart, who has voted against measures to increase gun background checks in Virginia, said he would not vote for any gun measure that would violate due process.
“We need to preserve our due process and our constitutional rights at all costs,” Stuart said.
Stuart voted with his fellow Republicans in the state Senate to delay a debate on more than 70 gun bills introduced during the General Assembly’s July special session on guns, including universal background checks and red flag laws. Republicans used their majority to postpone the special session until after Virginia’s Nov. 5 election and sent the bills to the State Crime Commission for further study.
“My opponent has voted against every single one of these commonsense measures and it when it came time to debate them, he adjourned the session,” Rashid said.
Equal Rights Amendment
Stuart and Rashid also differed on the Equal Rights Amendment. Stuart, who voted against ratifying the ERA earlier this year, said he would have voted in favor of the bill if had included “abortion-neutral language.”
“It’s not so much about equal rights, it’s about taxpayer-funded abortion,” Stuart said. “If we could get abortion-neutral language into the ERA, I would vote for it.”
The bill to ratify the ERA was passed by the Virginia Senate in January but was later killed by a House subcommittee.
The ERA is a proposed amendment to the United States Constitution that would guarantee equal legal rights for all American citizens regardless of gender on the principle that gender should not determine the legal rights of men or women. The text of the Equal Rights Amendment does not mention abortion.
Rashid said he would vote to ratify the ERA if elected.
The Virginia General Assembly voted in 2018 to expand Medicaid to cover more low-income Virginians. Since the expansion went into effect in January 2019, more than 300,000 additional low-income Virginians have enrolled in the program, which is funded by state and federal tax dollars.
Stuart, who voted against Medicaid expansion in 2018, said the change is driving up the cost of healthcare in Virginia.
“Medicaid was never designed to be a health plan, it was designed to be a safety net, and there are better ways we can do it,” Stuart said. “When you drive up the cost of healthcare for everyone in Virginia to serve a few, you’re doing an injustice.”
The General Assembly must vote to include Medicaid expansion in the new budget they approve in 2020 for the expanded program to continue. Stuart did not make clear whether he planned to vote for or against Medicaid expansion if re-elected.
Rashid said he would vote to continue the state’s Medicaid expansion if he takes office in January.
“I believe healthcare is a human right, and I believe that we must continue to work through new and innovative ways to advance that,” Rashid said. “I think we need to look at what party has been trying to expand healthcare and what party has been trying to strip it away without any kind of a replacement.”
Stuart, a former commonwealth’s attorney, said he does not believe in harboring illegal immigrants or “sanctuary cities.” As commonwealth’s attorney, Stuart said he cooperated with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement when necessary, and believes “we should cooperate with ICE.”
“We need folks that want to be here, that are willing to be productive citizens, that are willing to pay taxes and be a part of the community, but it’s got to be done in a legal way,” Stuart said.
Rashid, who immigrated to the United States from Pakistan 32 years ago, said he would like to make it easier for people to immigrate to the United States.
“I would like to see an immigration system that continues to thrive based on what made this country what it is, a nation of immigrations, where we make it easier to immigrate and follow through with the due process of law,” Rashid said.
Voting rights and redistricting
Both Stuart and Rashid said they are in favor of creating an independent redistricting commission to combat partisan gerrymandering in Virginia. Redistricting for the state legislature takes place once every 10 years to coincide with the release of new census population and demographic data.
“It’s unconscionable that we have districts where politicians choose their constituents as opposed to constituents choosing their politicians,” Rashid said.
The House and Senate passed a constitutional amendment earlier this year to create a bipartisan independent redistricting commission, but it must pass a second legislative session in 2020 before being voted on in a statewide election. Lines for Virginia’s districts will be redrawn in 2021.
Both candidates also stated their support for passing laws to increase voter participation. Stuart touted a bill he sponsored in 2019 that would allow “excuse-free” absentee voting. The bill was killed in committee.
The General Assembly went on to approve a no-excuse absentee voting bill that allows voters to cast ballots early without stating a reason during a seven-day period before the election. The new law takes effect in 2020.
“We should make it easy for people to vote and to participate in our democracy,” Stuart said.
The 28th district includes parts of Stafford, Prince William, King George, Westmoreland and Spotsylvania counties. If elected, Rashid would become Virginia’s first-ever Muslim state senator.
The district includes 41,322 residents of Prince William County.
No further debates are scheduled between the two candidates. Rashid said he and Stuart have been asked to participate in eight other debates leading up to the elections, but that Stuart has declined to participate in any of them.
“These debates and candidate forums are critical to a healthy democracy because they allow voters to see who stands for fairness and justice, and who does not. If Mr. Stuart believes his policies benefit Virginians then he should be confident to defend them in a public forum,” Rashid said in a statement.
In an email, Stuart said obligations to his private legal practice and “prior campaign commitments” have led to scheduling conflicts. He said his campaign would “continue to look for forums for joint appearances in the remaining 57 days until this election.”
Reach Daniel Berti at firstname.lastname@example.org