With just two weeks until election day, the candidates running for Virginia’s hotly contested 10th district senate seat squared off in a forum at the VCU Commons Theatre on Oct. 20.
The contest for the seat, which will be vacated by the retiring John Watkins (R), is critical in deciding whether Democrats or Republicans will control the senate in January. Six seats will be contested in the Nov. 3 elections; four of those seats are currently held by Republicans and two by Democrats. Republicans currently have a 21-19 majority.
The forum featured not only the Democratic and Republican nominees, Daniel Gecker (D) and Glen Sturtevant (R), but third-party libertarian candidate Carl Loser and independent Marleen Durfee. The debate allowed the candidates to pose each other questions as well as answer questions from audience members.
The candidates discussed topics including the economy, health care, college affordability and gun regulation.
The segment in which the candidates posed questions to each other produced some tension, but perhaps the most tense moment occurred when Loser accused Gecker and Sturdavant of stealing their adopted children from their natural parents.
“You stole your adopted kids. These children were taken away from their parents,” Loser said as some members of the nearly 300-member audience booed.
Sturtevant, at whom the question was directed, chose not to give it consideration.
Sturtevant has three adopted children and Gecker has four children, two of whom are adopted.
“I did not understand most of the question posed,” Sturtevant said. “The part that I did understand, I’m not going to dignify with an answer.”
Gecker and Sturtevant challenged each other’s stances on the minimum wage. Sturtevant said he would seek to raise wages by improving the education and skills of those in the workforce, not by raising the minimum wage.
“It’s not lack of education, it’s a failure of the market to pay appropriately so every Virginian has the opportunity to earn a living wage,” Gecker responded.
Durfee, who served one four-year term on the Chesterfield board of supervisors, was eager to point out the rising costs associated with campaign financing.
“Instead of knowledge or experience dictating our elections its money and power,” Durfee said, “expensive TV ads would make you think that there are differences between these candidates, the realities of both of them are tied to parties, parties’ agendas, and money.”
Durfee pointed toward the difference in spending on her campaign and that of Gecker and Sturdavant, who have both eclipsed their opponents in funds raised. To date, Gecker has raised about $1.1 million to Sturtevant’s nearly $800,000. Durfee and Loser have raised approximately $12,000 and $6,000 respectively.
The candidates also addressed the topic of increasing tuition costs and student debt. Durfee proposed free community college tuition for students with a grade point average of 3.5 or higher.
I’ve already said I strongly support two years of free community college for those who qualify.This opens the doors to students and gives us a future workforce,” Durfee said.
Loser called for the federal government to no longer award financial aid, stating that aid should be shifted to the private sector.
“We can make the process easier by privatizing student loans. If we could do that, that would solve the problem,” Loser said.
Members of the audience included the parents of the WDBJ-TV reporter Alison Parker. Parker, 24, was fatally shot on-set alongside photojournalist Adam Ward, 27, while conducting a live television interview near Smith Mountain Lake in August.
The candidates each elaborated on their own measures for reducing gun violence: Gecker and Durfee called for stricter gun regulations, proposing measures such as the prohibition for anyone convicted of domestic violence. Sturtevant said he would support funding for law enforcement to enforce gun laws and improve mental health services.
Loser seeked to distance himself from the other candidates regarding second amendment rights by reiterating his contrasting stance on the issue of gun control.
I’m the only candidate here that is pro-gun,” Loser said, “I think conceal-carry is something we should have. I stand by that and everyone here might not agree with me but that is my position.”
The forum was sponsored by Virginia21, VCU’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, VCU’s Department of Political Science and the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture.
In the audience were SGA senate chair, sophomore Kedji Abazi, and sophomore vice-chair Sarah Kilmon.
“I’m not sure if there was a clear winner of this debate but it was great to see that there were candidates that weren’t just Democrats or Republicans,” Kilmon said. “Nationally those candidates don’t get as much attention so it was refreshing to see them get a level playing field.”
Virginia’s 10th senate district covers a large portion of VCU’s campus and surrounding areas. Abazi said the location of the district means that VCU students should familiarize themselves with the candidates and why it’s important for the university to host events like the debate.
The trend is that young people don’t come out to vote, but VCU is different and we’ve had very high voter turnout among our students,” Abazi said. “A lot of people showed up, and it was important to have the debate here so our students can make an informed choice while they exercise their right to vote.”