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Transportation Issues Spotlight Divide in Va. Gov. Race

Transportation Issues Spotlight Divide in Va. Gov. Race

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - August 9, 2013

At a forum with business leaders in Northern Virginia, the Old Dominion's two gubernatorial candidates squabbled Friday over gridlock -- and not the congressional kind.

Transportation policy was a focus of the event in Manassas, a key swing suburb 30 miles outside of Washington, D.C., where traffic congestion is a problem. And in a state that prides itself on being friendly to businesses, such congestion has political repercussions. Democratic businessman Terry McAuliffe and Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli used the issue as a club to bash each other in a gubernatorial campaign that has gained national attention for its nastiness and potshot politics.

Their campaign machines have been relentlessly on the attack in what is expected to be a low-turnout race, hoping that dislike for the other guy fuels their respective bases. But with three months to go until Election Day, the finger pointing and millions of dollars spent on the airwaves haven’t yielded much. Polls show a sizable chunk of voters still don’t know enough about the candidates to make up their minds, or are just don’t care.

The forum was not a debate, and the two men did not appear together. Instead, each took a turn onstage, making opening and closing remarks while fielding questions -- ranging from transportation to healthcare to education to the economy -- from representatives of area chambers of commerce in between. Thus, each candidate had to take it upon himself to shoot down his opponent. And both did exactly that.

At this time last year, Manassas and surrounding counties just outside the Beltway were bellwethers in the presidential race, and both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama competed vigorously for the vote there. Obama won the commonwealth for the second time in 2012, underscoring the significant political changes in the Southern state that is now considered a key battleground.

Virginia’s gubernatorial elections are also typically bellwethers: Voters in the off-year contests tend to back the candidate from the opposite party of the president. At the beginning of this race, observers saw it as a test of that trend, and whether Virginia might forge on as a purple state. But instead of a clash of big ideas and governing philosophies, Virginians are seeing little but mud slinging.

That style was on display Friday when McAuliffe was asked about the Bi-County Parkway, a proposal backed by the business community that would connect Loudoun and Prince William counties with a 10-mile stretch of road. McAuliffe refused to state his position on the project, arguing that he needed to weigh all the facts first. (Opponents fear it will cause disruptions around a historic battlefield, among other concerns.) When pressed by the moderator about Virginia voters wanting to know his position, McAuliffe fired back, “That’s cute to say, but I do not make decisions, nor will I make decisions, without the facts in front of me.”

Cuccinelli’s campaign almost immediately fired off a press release using the quote to argue that “Terry McAuliffe once again proved to Virginians that he is unwilling or unable to tell the truth.” A Republican opposition research firm called America Rising cut a video clip of the comment soon after, saying McAuliffe had a “meltdown” in response to a yes-or-no question.

For his part, Cuccinelli backed the project, but expressed concern about the idea of more traffic buildup by closing other roads to make way for the new one. McAuliffe pointed to his support for Gov. Bob McDonnell’s massive transportation bill -- which Cuccinelli opposed -- that passed the legislature, and also for a Silver Line metro train to Dulles Airport. “Let’s be clear: My opponent was the only statewide official to be against it,” McAuliffe said. “You can’t grow transportation if you’re not for mainstream compromise.”

On the subject of the Affordable Care Act, McAuliffe said he would take the Medicaid expansion offered by the law because it would cover 400,000 Virginians. “It’s morally, socially the right thing,” he said. He also praised the president for delaying the individual mandate for businesses, and said he would work to fix the law where needed and where possible. But, he said, “it is now the law of the land, whether you like it or not.”

Cuccinelli, who as attorney general in 2010 sued the federal government to block the law, criticized “the rolling jalopy of the federal health care bill” and argued against the Medicaid expansion because he doesn’t trust the government to pay its share. “Once we’re in, we’re stuck,” he said. “We can’t get out without federal permission.”

But while the focus of the forum centered on regional and economic issues, McAuliffe did not shy from attacking Cuccinelli’s conservative social views on abortion and gay marriage, which McAuliffe called part of his “divisive, social, ideological agenda.” He called Cuccinelli’s two-year-long investigation into a University of Virginia climate-change researcher a “witch hunt.” McAuliffe painted his opponent as a Tea Partier averse to compromise.

But McAuliffe did not go after Cuccinelli’s ties to McDonnell, who is embroiled in controversy over thousands of dollars in improper gifts to his family from Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams. Cuccinelli has also admitted to receiving gifts worth $18,000 from Williams. Democrats are hammering him for refusing to return the money, and the Democratic Party of Virginia sent an email blast after the debate demanding he do so.

Both gubernatorial candidates have been besmirched by scandal, and Cuccinelli ripped McAuliffe for his GreenTech electric car company that is being investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission for its use of worker visas. McAuliffe often points to the company to tout his business credentials and his role in creating jobs. But Republicans have been hitting him on the airwaves for locating GreenTech in Mississippi and making manufacturing investments for it in China.

“You may not always agree with me but you’ll always know where I stand,” said Cuccinelli.

The two candidates are scheduled to debate in September. 

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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