The two candidates vying to win the election in the most competitive House of Delegates race west of Richmond this year sparred over hot-button issues like abortion, guns and energy policies at the first Conversations with the Candidates forum hosted by Cardinal News and the Blacksburg Library on Tuesday.
Democrat Lily Franklin, a former high school math teacher and former chief of staff for Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, and her Republican opponent Chris Obenshain, a Montgomery County prosecutor, are running in the newly created House District 41, which covers parts of Roanoke County and Montgomery County and which currently has no incumbent.
Both have deep roots in Southwest Virginia, and for both it is their first campaign for the House — which may be a reason they also found much common ground, from education to cannabis regulation and the elimination of the car tax.
Much like her former boss Rasoul, Franklin, a graduate of Northside High School in Roanoke County who holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from Longwood University, cast herself as a moderate Democrat who is willing to work across party lines and who wouldn’t shy away from breaking ranks with her own party if it benefited her constituents.
“He lost some support from the Democratic side for some of the votes that he took,” Franklin said, referring to Rasoul. “That’s because he always fought for Southwest Virginia. And that’s exactly what I am going to do.”
About 90% of all legislation that passes in Virginia’s legislature does so on a bipartisan basis, Franklin said. “And what we hear about most of the time is those party-line votes, and I think a lot of times if you are a constituent in Virginia you would think that we disagree on everything, because you only hear about the things we disagree on.”
Obenshain agreed, stating that bipartisan collaboration is a tradition in Virginia’s legislature that “we are doing pretty well,” and something that he said he has also done throughout his professional career as a prosecutor and assistant attorney general.
“I have that experience of working with folks on the other side of the aisle. There are a lot of different areas where we can certainly work together,” Obenshain said.
One example, both candidates agreed, was the proposed transformation of the state-owned Catawba Hospital in Roanoke County into a state-of-the-art campus offering substance use disorder treatment and addiction recovery.
Although Senate Democrats scrapped a planned $14.7 million to fund the cost of planning and renovating an existing building and instead earmarked $500,000 to evaluate a potential public-private partnership, the proposal — sponsored by Rasoul — found widespread support from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
“I agree that Catawba is an incredibly important project for our region, particularly for this district,” Obenshain said, complimenting Rasoul for his effort.
Both candidates on Tuesday came out in favor of additional tax relief for Virginians.
“I’m a fiscal conservative, I believe that we should let people keep more of their own money instead of sending those dollars to Richmond and having them go somewhere else like Northern Virginia or Tidewater,” Obenshain said. “Especially right now, with inflation and the cost of living so high, we need to be doing more to get more money back into people’s pockets.”
Franklin said that Virginia’s budget surpluses in recent years were enough reason to weigh additional tax relief for residents of the commonwealth. “I think that it is time that we revisit the way we tax and start getting economic relief back to our working class and middle class families,” she said.
Franklin stunned her Republican opponent when she responded affirmatively to a question from moderator Dwayne Yancey, Cardinal’s executive editor, about whether she supported eliminating the car tax — which Republicans had tried to do since 1997, when then-Gov. Jim Gilmore pushed the plan.
“It’s really interesting to hear Lily talk about reducing taxes, especially the car tax. That’s something that Republicans have tried to do 20 or 30 years ago, and then Democrats blocked it every single time,” Obenshain said. “And now you want to talk about getting rid of the car tax? Give me a break.”
On the possession of small amounts of marijuana, which Democrats legalized in 2020 under then-Gov. Ralph Northam — but without creating a regulative framework — the candidates agreed that the current law should not be reversed but required improvements.
“I struggled with it initially, I have a lot of family members that have struggled with substance abuse, so thinking about legalization originally was definitely a tough sell for me,” Franklin said.
But decriminalization has created a black market for marijuana sales, Franklin said. “And instead of empowering small businesses and local farmers, we’re allowing out-of-state megacorporations to get ready for when we eventually legalize. In addition kids are now getting access to marijuana that is not regulated and that’s dangerous, because there are all kinds of things that can be laced into marijuana.”
Obenshain said that as a prosecutor, he deals with substance abuse and mental health issues every day.
“Personally, I really don’t have a problem if responsible adults want to use marijuana in their own home, and they aren’t harming anyone. I don’t think we need to roll back that aspect of the law,” he said. “But what I do have a problem with is when people can decide to use marijuana and get stoned, and then get behind the wheel of a vehicle and put people’s lives at risk.”
Democrats, Obenshain said, also killed a Republican bill that would have set a blood-alcohol limit for marijuana, similar to that for alcohol. And because of a lack of regulation, he said, THC-infused edibles are marketed toward children.
“They are so readily available, they are in our schools,” he said.
But the “quasi-legalization” in Virginia has “confused lots of people and has harmed businesses right here in our area, and that needs to change,” Obenshain said. “So I would vote for changes to that law that would protect public safety and create a more regulated environment so that businesses are not harmed by it.”
One of the most contentious moments of Tuesday’s discussion was when the candidates accused each other of failing to offer a clear position on abortion legislation.
Obenshain said that as a Christian, he believes that “every life has intrinsic value and worth,” which is why he supported Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s proposed legislation that would limit access to abortion after 15 weeks, with the exception of rape, incest or when the life of the mother was in danger.
“It’s a common-sense bill, it’s consistent with laws and regulations around the world. The governor has worked very hard to build consensus on this issue and it is something that is supported by a majority of Virginians, particularly in this district,” Obenshain said, referring to the measure that Senate Democrats killed in February.
Obenshain accused Franklin of avoiding her views on a proposal introduced by Democrats that would lift all restrictions on abortion. “She said she has been clear about her position, but she hasn’t said anything about her position, on whether there should be any limitation on abortion whatsoever,” he said.
Franklin stated that she believes this decision should remain between a woman and her doctor, and that she opposes new restrictions to abortion access.
“If we think the governor is only going to impose a 15-week ban, we are kidding ourselves. That‘s not what was put in the General Assembly last year,” Franklin said. “The question remains, if Chris is presented with a six-week ban, is he going to vote supporting that ban?”
Neither Obenshain nor Franklin offered a clear response to repeated follow-up questions by Yancey, the moderator.
The two also sparred over attempts by Democrats to further restrict access to guns. Franklin, who said she grew up in a family of gun owners, said that Virginia’s red-flag law, which allows authorities to take guns away from people deemed dangerous to themselves or others, has proven to be effective, but that more needs to be done.
“We know that red-flag laws work, they protect victims of domestic violence,” Franklin said. “It’s not unreasonable to require people to have safe storage, to have background checks, and to not allow someone who is a known abuser to go purchase a weapon. At the end of the day, the people who are dying are children, they are women in domestic violence situations, they are people that are suicidal, so we have to do more than just not offer solutions.”
A staunch Second Amendment supporter, Obenshain said that more gun laws wouldn’t “do a darn thing” because “criminals do not listen to the laws that we already have on the books, they violate those laws every day.”
The Second Amendment, Obenshain said, is a fundamental right that should be protected for people who are responsible gun owners. “Red-flag laws infringe on people’s constitutional rights. You don’t have somebody who is being charged with a crime, you are taking away somebody’s constitutional right without due process,” he said.
When Obenshain responded to Yancey’s question about whether he should be able to buy an AR-15 with, “Absolutely, an AR-15 is just a rifle,” the audience responded with loud, disapproving laughter.
Obenshain got a similar response when he proclaimed that “there is no climate crisis.”
“We absolutely have to take care of our environment, but I wouldn’t call it a climate crisis. Part of the problem is that you have all these outside groups that are trying to make money off the idea of a crisis by creating this idea of a crisis,” he said.
Obenshain criticized Democrats for passing legislation in 2021 that links Virginia’s automotive emissions standards to those of California. Whatever California decides will be the law of the land in Virginia — and California already has said that internal combustion engines cars will not be sold in that state after 2035.
“I absolutely do not support outlawing gas vehicles, it’s a ridiculous policy,” Obenshain said. “It’s absurd that the Virginia legislature passed a law that gives its authority away for regulating our environment to California, it makes absolutely no sense.”
In order to reduce emissions, Obenshain said he supported an “all-of-the above energy policy” that includes renewables but also fossil fuels and nuclear energy. “We need everything on the table, that competition is what is going to drive down energy rates.”
The Virginia Clean Economy Act of 2020 wasn’t the right approach, because it is “going to raise utility rates by $800 for families,” Obenshain said. The law mandates that the two utilities in the state, Dominion Energy Virginia and Appalachian Power, produce 100% renewable electricity by 2045 and 2050, respectively.
Franklin noted that Rasoul voted against the 2020 law, adding that the measure was “short-sighted” because it didn’t address the urgency of the climate crisis and didn’t protect Virginia ratepayers.
“I believe that we have an obligation to create a clean environment that isn’t on the backs of the consumers and ratepayers. We have these electric utility corporations that have overcharged ratepayers by the millions, and that’s where we should be addressing this first.”
After more than an hour of discussion, both candidates made their cases for why they were better suited to represent the 41st House District.
Obenshain cited his professional record while painting his Democratic opponent as someone with priorities “that are not in touch with this region entirely. “
“Southwest Virginia is my home. Southwest Virginia has a unique opportunity this year to elect someone with experience, to elect someone with a strong voice, to stand up for Southwest Virginia families,” Obenshain said.
Citing the struggles of her family’s working class history, Franklin said that she could relate to the plights of many residents in her district.
“My family and myself, we struggled in silence for years. I would watch other community members find help and assistance and we would be left behind, over and over again,” she said. “It wasn’t until years later until I realized that we weren’t the exception, we were the rule. More often than enough families are struggling, and that struggle is getting worse.”
Franklin vowed to “fight like heck” to ensure that the region has a voice in Richmond. “I have legislative experience, I have that background and I understand how that system works. If you want to join me, we’re going to build back a Southwest Virginia that is stronger than ever.”
The forum Tuesday was taped by Blue Ridge PBS and will air on the station’s ECHO streaming service starting Oct. 11.