- Associated Press - Friday, December 2, 2016

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. (AP) - The four Republican candidates for Virginia governor promised Friday to jump-start the state’s lackluster economic growth, generally agreeing with one another in calling for reducing regulations and cutting taxes.

U.S. Rep. Rob Wittman, Prince William Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart, state Sen. Frank Wagner and former RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie spoke to a crowd of business leaders and public policy officials at an economic forum in Williamsburg hosted by the Virginia Chamber Foundation.

Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, the only Democratic candidate, addressed the group at a different event earlier in the day.

All four Republicans focused on the economy in their brief speeches, which came after the release of the 2016 State of the Commonwealth by Old Dominion University, which found that while the state’s economy has improved since the end of the Great Recession, it hasn’t kept pace with growth nationally and appears to be decelerating.

“We need to not just compete for new jobs but also aggressively work to keep companies in Virginia,” said Wittman, who appeared in a video filmed in Washington and added that regulations needed to be reined in to benefit businesses.

He also called for “reinventing” the state’s education system by equally emphasizing career and technical education.

Stewart, one of president-elect Donald Trump’s earliest and most brash supporters in Virginia, emphasized his record in Prince William County, where he said household income has increased during his tenure.

He said North Carolina had worked harder than Virginia to improve its business climate and was stealing jobs and new business opportunities.

“North Carolina is eating our lunch,” he said.

Like Wittman, he said Virginia couldn’t turn things around by only recruiting big businesses and instead said the state needed to reform taxes and invest in transportation projects like widening Interstate 81 to create new jobs.

Gillespie, who challenged Sen. Mark Warner in 2014 and narrowly lost, said Virginia wouldn’t solve its budget shortfall by “raising taxes on hard-working Virginians.” A polished political insider who endorsed Trump, but with muted enthusiasm, Gillespie said he was optimistic that Trump’s election would turn “headwinds” from Washington into tailwinds.

Wagner, who spoke last, said that while all the candidates had recognized that economic development and job creation was the No. 1 issue in Virginia and across the nation, he’s the only candidate who’s “walked the walk.”

Wagner said that as a shipyard owner he’d seen firsthand how onerous government regulations can be.

“Long before regulation was sexy, I understood what it was about,” he said.

Northam, who spoke in the morning, joked that audience members would be hearing a lot later from the Republican candidates about how poorly Virginia’s economy is doing.

“We have a lot to be proud of here in Virginia,” Northam said, citing the state’s low unemployment rate and a ranking by Forbes magazine this year as the sixth best state in the nation to do business.

He said North Carolina had lost “millions and millions” of dollars in business to Virginia over its law limiting civil rights protections for LGBT people and requiring transgender people to use bathrooms corresponding to their biological sex.

“We need to continue to be an inclusive state. … As long as I’m in charge, that’s the way it’s going to be in Virginia,” Northam said.

None of the candidates took questions from the audience.

Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe cannot run again because Virginia governors are barred from serving consecutive terms.

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