Virginia candidates spar over gay rights, gift scandal in debate

The main candidates in Virginia's governor's race faced off in their first debate on Saturday, with gay rights and a festering gift scandal providing some of the most heated moments.

ADVERTISEMENT
Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R) and former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe were close in the polls heading into the Virginia Bar Association debate.

McAuliffe was able to put Cuccinelli on the defense for large parts of the debate over comments Cuccinelli made related to homosexuality and abortion in the past, and over questions that have surfaced related to gifts he received from Jonnie Williams, the head of the Star Scientific nutrition company.

A report by Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael N. Herring (D) last week found that Cuccinelli had broken no laws in failing to fully disclose the gifts. 

The debate was by no means a clear win for McAuliffe though, as the Democrat came under fire for misstating the Herring report findings during the debate. Cuccinelli was also able to blast him for his past business record and ties to labor unions.

On gay marriage, Cuccinelli was asked by moderator Judy Woodruff about prior comments that homosexuality was against nature.

“My personal beliefs about the personal challenge of homosexuality haven't changed,” he replied.

McAuliffe said such comments would drive businesses away from Virginia and said he would support changing the Virginia Constitution to allow same-sex marriage. Cuccinelli retorted that the suggestion business would suffer was laughable and offensive.

On abortion, the attorney general was asked whether he would push new restrictions. He said that “I do not expect to use the political capital of the governor's office for moving those piece of legislation.”

The subject of possibly improper gifts came up when McAuliffe was allowed to ask direct questions. Sitting Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) is under investigation for his relationship with Williams and Star Scientific and Cuccinelli has acknowledged receiving gifts himself.

The Democrat went further and accused Cuccinelli of doing favors for Williams in exchange for turkey dinners and use of a resort home.

The attorney general spent valuable debate time focused on defending against the charge.

“The only thing that Jonnie Williams got from the attorney general's office is opposition,” Cuccinelli said when asked about a tax case.

The Republican was able to strike back on economic issues. He accused McAuliffe of betraying Virginia when he was the chairman of GreenTech Automotive in 2009 when he chose Mississippi as the site of a plant rather than Martinsville, Virginia.

“Instead of putting Virginia first, you put Terry first,” he said.

The Democrat argued that as the head of a company he had to make the best business decision and in any case he chose Mississippi over Virginia, not himself over Virginia.

“So you picked Mississippi. Run for governor in Mississippi!” Cuccinelli said, to some laughs.

He also said that McAuliffe's support for project labor agreements on major government contracts showed that he would favor unions over protecting taxpayer dollars.

He said the choice in the election is between “Union Terry or Frugal Ken.”

Cuccinelli was vague, however, when asked by Woodruff on how he would cut taxes by $1.4 billion. He declined to specify loopholes he would end or spending cuts he would make to pay for the cut.

The attorney general also said he has “no position” on whether immigration reform should include a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.