Batten Hosts Candidate Forum with Democratic Contenders for Virginia’s 5th District Seat

Earlier this week, Batten professors moderated a discussion between the four candidates on issues ranging from racial justice to gun control

On June 7, Batten professors Andy Pennock, Gabe Adams, and Peter Johannessen moderated a virtual candidate forum between the four Democrats vying to challenge Republican incumbent Denver Riggleman for his seat representing Virginia’s fifth congressional district. "Convening public conversations is an important part of the Batten School's mission,” said Pennock. “The pandemic has made public conversations both more important and more difficult to have. This forum was an opportunity for us to serve the voters of the Commonwealth. We were grateful to have the resources on Sunday to execute it well. We look forward to hosting virtual debates throughout this election season and to have them in person when we are able to so safely." Answering questions on everything from racial justice and policing to former Vice President Joe Biden’s options for running mates, the four candidates mostly focused on distinguishing their platforms and relevant personal experiences, rather than directly sparring with each other.

Former Rappahannock County supervisor John Lesinski highlighted his track record of election in a rural district and his ability to “reach across the aisle,” as well as his 35 years of business experience. R.D. Huffstetler, who was raised in a rural family and attended Harvard’s Kennedy School with help from the G.I. Bill, emphasized his intimate knowledge of the district and his experience “living the American dream” as a first-generation college student. Ex-Marine Claire Russo characterized herself as “a leader and a fighter,” calling attention to her experience in the military and her advocacy for women as a sexual assault survivor. Cameron Webb, a lawyer, educator, and physician at the University of Virginia, focused on his ability to connect with people of all backgrounds and attend to a hurting nation: “I’m a healer by vocation, by inclination, and by calling,” he said.

All four candidates professed their commitment to taking on the racial inequities that the murder of George Floyd has illuminated for many people in our country. Lesinski noted the need for white people to reflect more deeply on race. “The level of racism within us—we have to acknowledge that, because only when we shine a light on it can we really begin to address it,” he said.

Russo and Huffstetler stressed the systemic nature of racism and its influence on policy. “It’s about the right to have your voice heard, the right to protest, the right to equitable health, the right to water that essentially isn’t being poisoned, the right to be safe in your classroom,” Russo said. Huffstetler noted the need for reforms in many areas, including policing. “If we can train service members overseas, who are protecting us in the gravest of circumstances,” said Huffstetler, “we can certainly make sure that that knowledge and intuition is used stateside so that African Americans can be safe on the street in our country.”

Drawing on his experience working at the White House, Webb also focused on potential policy changes, outlining two primary recommendations for addressing police brutality: implementing the Obama administration’s “21st-century” policing approach throughout the country and changing the U.S. Criminal Code to hold officers accountable. Since policing falls under the purview of individual states, Webb said that Congress needs to be asking a key question: “How do we help mold what local law enforcement looks like?”

The atmosphere of the debate was collegial and civil; participants frequently expressed respect for their fellow candidates and generally refrained from criticizing each other’s platforms. The main exception was Lesinski, who objected to Russo’s assertion that she would tackle the country’s most fraught issues “head on” and “not shy away from having tough talks about guns.” 

“With all due respect to one of my candidates here,” Lesinski said, “we’re not going to be able to get the folks we need from the fifth district by hitting the gun issues straight on. It’s an attack on rural heritage to do that.”

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