Democrat Ralph Northam and Republican Ed Gillespie split over what to do with Confederate monuments on display in Virginia in a debate Tuesday that provided voters across the Old Dominion a picture of the two gubernatorial hopefuls’ different visions.
Mr. Northam, the state’s lieutenant governor, and Mr. Gillespie, a former adviser to President George W. Bush, also staked out opposing positions on “sanctuary cities” and agreed that young illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as minors, known as “Dreamers,” should not be deported.
The hour-long debate was the first between the two major-party candidates since a woman was killed in clashes in Charlottesville at a white nationalist protest against removing a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, which sparked a national debate over taking down monuments.
Mr. Gillespie said he would stop state-controlled statues from being removed and would encourage cities and counties to follow suit.
He said Virginia has sometimes been “on the wrong side of history” but said a better remedy would be to erect more statues honoring others among the state’s more celebrated figures, such as former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, the nation’s first black governor.
“When you are on the side of preserving the institution, the evil institution of slavery, you are on the wrong side of history. But our history is our history, and I believe that we need to educate about it, and that we need to teach about it. So my view is that the statues should remain and we should place them in historical context so people can learn,” Mr. Gillespie said.
Mr. Northam was more wishy-washy on the subject.
“If these statues give individuals, white supremacists like that, an excuse to do what they did, then we need to have a discussion about the statues,” he said. “Personally, I would think the statues would be better placed in museums with certainly historical context, but I am leaving it up to the localities.”
Hosted by the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, and moderated by Chuck Todd, host of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” the debate came at a critical point in the campaign — just seven weeks from the Nov. 7 election.
Libertarian Cliff Hyra is also running.
Most public and private polls show the race is tight — though Quinnipiac University released hours before the debate found Mr. Northam has opened up a 51 to 41 percentage point lead over his Republican rival among likely voters.
As one of two gubernatorial contests playing out in 2017 — the other is in New Jersey — the race here is getting national attention and is being viewed as a referendum on President Trump, whose approval rating is underwater in Virginia.
On a few occasions, Mr. Northam tried to steer the conversation toward Mr. Trump, accusing Mr. Gillespie of supporting the president’s decisions to to pull out of the Paris climate accord, to push a “travel ban,” and to unwind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) that President Obama unilaterally enacted to shield hundreds of thousands of younger illegal immigrants from deportation.
Mr. Gillespie countered that he thinks “Dreamers” should not be deported and that while he welcomes help from Mr. Trump, voters should judge him based on the policies he is offering.
“I could stand up here and say [Mr. Northam] is Nancy Pelosi, and he could say I am Donald Trump and we could have that debate,” Mr. Gillespie said. “That is not going to get one more job created in the Commonwealth of Virginia.”
Mr. Northam said he opposed Graham-Cassidy, the last-gasp efforts on Capitol Hill to repeal Obamacare. Mr. Gillespie also appeared to shoot down the proposal, which largely involves turning health care programs over to the states with block grants, but later clarified he was not “endorsing or opposing any specific legislation.”
Mr. Gillespie and Mr. Northam also disagreed over the state’s economic health.
Mr. Gillespie painted a gloomy picture and vowed to pursue policies — including a cut in the state income tax — that he said would lead to the creation of 53,000 private jobs.
Mr. Northam, meanwhile, said he wants to build on the success of the last four years under Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe, highlighting how the state’s unemployment rate has dipped and calling for more spending on education, health care and transportation.
Mr. Gillespie said he supports the Atlantic Coast Pipeline project, while Mr. Northam said he would support it as long as the proper environment safeguards are met.
Neither man would commit to giving $500 million to the Washington area Metro system after Republican Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland offered to put up the same amount as long as Virginia and the District of Columbia followed suit.
Asked whether “sanctuary cities” should be punished for not cooperating with federal deportation efforts, Mr. Northam balked at the idea.
“We don’t have a problem with sanctuary cities,” the Democrat said. “It is a solution looking for a problem.”
Mr. Gillespie called for a ban of sanctuary cities, saying it could bolster community safety.