Rep. Abigail Spanberger, the 7th Congressional District's Democratic incumbent in the upcoming election, and her Republican challenger Nick Freitas covered a wide range of topics during a Tuesday night forum in Richmond.
Available to watch on Virginia Public Media’s Facebook page, the debate was calm and did not mirror the contentious tone of the first presidential debate. Debate moderator Robert Costa of The Washington Post said it was “an interesting and civil evening,” noting that “it’s wonderful to see democracy in action and no fights, just good conversation, good discussion.”
Spanning just under an hour, that discussion covered myriad subjects including, but not limited to, the COVID-19 pandemic, a possible stimulus package, minimum wage, abortion, Confederate statues, militias, gun rights and voter fraud.
Asked if President Donald Trump should listen more closely to healthcare experts, Freitas said “of course we need to listen to health experts” but it is also important to listen to economists and public policy experts for a comprehensive approach in handling the virus. He added that the country should focus on helping vulnerable populations.
“Listen to the medical experts, but listen to all the experts and follow a scientific approach and when it becomes obvious that what we were doing before doesn’t work, don’t double down on the same strategies that Joe Biden is suggesting,” he said.
Spanberger said “we need a coordinated approach” and “we need leadership from the White House that models behaviors like wearing a mask, listening to scientists and a plan to ensure that we get the PPE [personal protective equipment] that we need.”
“The way that we will re-open our economy fully and completely and bring back consumer confidence is by ensuring that we have beaten this virus,” she said.
Spanberger said America should be leading the way in “getting this pandemic under control” with a “coordinated strategy” that includes “a president who listens to scientists, who shares information openly and correctly with the American people so that they can make decisions about how to protect themselves based on science and based on knowledge.”
Freitas said a “task force” should facilitate coordination between federal, state and local governments. He added that resources should be allocated to help vulnerable populations such as nursing homes and extended living facilities.
“The other thing that we have to do at the same time is that we have to allow our economy to safely and responsibly re-open. If you don’t do that, you’re not going to have a tax base,” he said.
When asked to grade Trump’s response to the pandemic, Freitas cited imposed travel restrictions and medical resources that were provided in saying the overall grade “is pretty good when you look at what the objective was of the federal government and the responsibility of the federal government.” He added that more focus should be placed on the allocation of resources and governors getting those resources to proper recipients.
Spanberger declined to grade Trump’s response to the pandemic, deferring to families of the 220,000 Americans who died of the coronavirus. Moving forward, she said the country must focus on “a unified response” that includes nationwide testing and proper access to PPE.
Both candidates said they would take a COVID-19 vaccine if it is approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
If another stimulus package is approved, Freitas said it cannot follow guidelines suggested by Nancy Pelosi under the Health and Economy Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act.
“If we’re going to do stimulus, the way that we need to do it is targeted spending toward those individuals and businesses that need it through no fault of their own as a result of COVID and some of the draconian shutdowns that we’ve seen as a result of Democratic governors all across the country,” he said.
Freitas added that it is important relief funds are passed on a “one issue per bill” basis to ensure individual expenditures “work best for the people that are most affected instead of voting for things like bailouts for state governments.”
Based upon what she has heard from small business owners in the district, Spanberger said “another stimulus package is necessary.”
“Additional relief is necessary and that’s what I’ve been fighting for. That’s why I voted against a Democratic partisan bill that came before the house in May, because it wasn’t negotiated. It wasn’t bipartisan. It was never going to deliver the relief that we needed. That’s why I voted against another bill that came up in late September, because it wasn’t negotiated, it wasn’t going to become law,” she said.
Spanberger added that she has worked with the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus that recognizes “the dire need” for aid and relief.
Noting the financial struggles of families across the district, Spanberger suggested a federal minimum wage hike to $15 per hour as part of a “phased increase.” While saying this is necessary as the minimum wage has not increased in a decade, she voiced support for providing exemptions to some small businesses based on revenues and number of employees.
Freitas said the American economy is great because everyone has “the opportunity to be able to build up within it.” He said some individuals need first jobs with the current minimum wage “to learn about work ethic, to get the necessary work experience to move up.”
“The bottom line is this: Less than 3% of the people in the labor force actually make minimum wage and the vast majority of them won’t be making minimum wage several months down the road provided that they can get that first job opportunity,” he said.
Freitas said increasing the minimum wage would increase youth unemployment and the solution to income inequality is providing “opportunities within the marketplace” as opposed to forcing small business owners into firing employees because they cannot afford salaries mandated by politicians.
Spanberger replied that the majority of minimum wage workers are predominantly mothers and often “black and brown women across the country.”
“This is an issue of income inequality. It is not an issue of entering the workforce,” she said.
Spanberger added that she recognizes the value of “ensuring that a hard day’s work is enough to put food on the table for a family.”
Freitas replied that doubling minimum wage results in fewer job opportunities for people who need them the most.
When asked her views on abortion, Spanberger kept her initial response brief, saying: “Roe versus Wade is settled law. It is settled law and that’s what I support.”
Freitas said he has “no idea what it’s like to be a young woman that finds themselves in a position with an unplanned pregnancy and I do believe in individual liberty and people making their choices."
“I do know what it’s like to be the son of such a woman who had to drop out of college in order to have me and had a lot of people encouraging her to have an abortion," he said.
Freitas added that there should be options beyond abortions and men should be raised to “understand that you have an obligation to your children and to the mother of your children and so I want to foster a society where we encourage life, where we welcome life into this country and where we provide the resources for mothers that they desperately need so that they can choose life.”
In a rebuttal, Spanberger said she gave birth to three healthy children but women who were not so lucky have told her stories about “the hard conversations that have been had between them and their healthcare provider.”
“I do not believe that in those desperate, difficult conversations there is a place for politicians to insert themselves,” she said.
Asked about the potential replacement of the Robert E. Lee statue in Richmond and whether Confederate monuments should be removed, Freitas said “we need to have a robust and comprehensive discussion about our history.”
“If that means including greater context, if it means putting up more monuments to civil rights leaders like Barbara Johns or Booker T. Washington, I think that is an excellent approach,” he said.
Freitas added that individuals are advocating to remove statues of founding fathers “because ultimately I don’t think this movement is about reconciliation, this movement is about Democrat politicians trying to distract from the fact that they have not been able to deliver on their promises in...the cities that they’ve controlled for decades.”
“And now they’re trying to point to an inanimate object as if that’s going to make it better when what we should be doing is focusing on the problems that really affect people’s lives on day-to-day basis. And this idea that we would rip down statutes of Washington, of Jefferson, of Madison here in Virginia is just beyond the pale and I do not support that,” he said.
Spanberger responded by saying she would answer the question regarding “the Lee statue and statutes of the Confederacy.”
Citing her voting history, Spanberger noted that she was part of a bipartisan House of Representative majority who agreed that Confederate statues should come down from the U.S. Capitol and that military bases with Confederate generals as namesakes should be re-named after “heroes of our United States of America.”
“These structures, while statues, represent so, so very much and we as a people, as Americans, should be focused on what structures could symbolize who we are and what we want to be into the future,” she said.
Regarding the rise of militia groups, Spanberger said radical and extreme ideologies leading to incidents such as the recent plot in Michigan to abduct, hold a “sham trial” and murder a sitting governor is “indicative of a major issue.”
“And it falls on all of us, any person in any level of elected office, to denounce these sorts of extreme or conspiratorial views that make us weaker as a country,” she said.
Spanberger added that Congress must define domestic terrorism because “any group that would choose to abduct and murder a sitting governor in the United States of America is doing so for political reasons and that is the sheer definition of terrorism.”
Freitas said any group that uses violence against innocent people to achieve political objectives fits the definition of a terrorist organization, which “absolutely cannot be tolerated for the security of this country, for the security of or communities.”
“The federal government has a role of working in conjunction with state and local law enforcement in order to investigate, try and prosecute to the full extent of the law any organization that advocates violence against the innocent in order to achieve their outcomes,” he said.
Regarding the Second Amendment, Freitas said it is more important than ever to understand that people have the right to self-defense and recent laws passed by the Virginia General Assembly should concern anyone who believes in that inherent right.
Having grown up with a house containing firearms and having previously carried a gun every day, Spanberger said she supports the Second Amendment. She added that having “across the board” background checks for all weapon purchases is “common sense.”
When asked about FBI Director Chris Wray’s testimony that there is not widespread voter fraud, Spanberger said she trusts and believes the FBI. Freitas expressed concern over legislative bills that “reduced the integrity of our overall elections” but said “I still have faith in the integrity of our elections.”