Democratic U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine and his Republican opponent, Corey Stewart, avoided direct criticisms of each other in separate speeches Thursday in front of a bipartisan Fredericksburg audience.
But they offered some clear political differences during the Virginia Association of Counties summit at the Fredericksburg Expo & Conference Center.
Kaine, a former Virginia governor and Richmond mayor, explained his support for universal background checks on gun buyers and limitations on high-capacity magazines. He noted that February’s mass shooting at a Parkland, Fla., high school stopped only after the gunman unsuccessfully attempted to change a magazine.
“Sometimes when a magazine’s being changed, that’s when law enforcement is able to stop someone who’s committing a horrible crime,” Kaine told the group of local government officials. “And so, limiting the size of magazines, it’s not going to eliminate carnage, but it gives us more of an opportunity to stop crimes once they start.”
Stewart, chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, criticized what he called “gun-free zones” in schools. Under Virginia law, only current or recently retired law enforcement officers can carry guns in public schools.
Stewart said he thinks all schools should have “armed guards,” whether they are school resource officers or retired police officers, and that the federal government should help with the cost. He has also expressed support for letting teachers carry concealed guns if they receive training.
“What we’ve done is essentially made our schools as targets, as soft targets,” Stewart said.
Spotsylvania County recently agreed on a plan to put school resource officers in all elementary schools, while Stafford County is launching a pilot program this year that includes three armed elementary school “protection officers.” High schools and middle schools already have armed officers.
Stewart, well known for his support of Confederate monuments and Republican President Donald Trump, mostly steered clear of polarizing political rhetoric. He did tie Medicaid expansion to opioid addiction, though experts have said there is no evidence linking the two.
“When you want to receive painkillers … under Medicaid expansion, that bottle will cost somewhere between $5 and $10 for a month’s supply,” Stewart said. “That person can then turn around and sell that right back to the community for $500 to $1,000, so of course this is happening.”
States, he said, should be able to come up with their own health care programs for the poor. Kaine is in favor of Medicaid expansion, which the Virginia General Assembly passed this year.
Stewart also said heroin and other drugs are being smuggled across the Mexican border and that “building and having real border security” will reduce the flow of illegal narcotics.
Kaine did not criticize Trump by name, but was clearly referring to the president when he brought up the divisive political environment.
“There’s a lot of name- calling from the very top,” he said. “Picking fights, calling people names.”
His campaign centers on the “liberty and justice for all” part of the Pledge of Allegiance, Kaine explained.
“I think there’s a question about whether we’re living like a ‘for all’ people,” he said. “Are we still really embracing the ‘for all’ part of the Pledge of Allegiance?”
He said Democrats could compromise with the Trump administration on infrastructure spending, though he said the federal gas tax does not create enough revenue to pay for all of the country’s transportation needs. He suggested a sales tax on online purchases to help pay for road improvements.
Stewart says he thinks local governments should have more say over federally funded road projects, but he opposes any new tolls to help cover the bill.
Veteran political observer Bob Holsworth, former director of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center for Public Policy, also spoke. He told attendees that Stewart faces an uphill battle. He noted that Republicans are pouring money into other states with GOP incumbents.
Recent polls have shown Kaine with a large lead in what Democrats hope will be a “blue-wave” election in which they take control of the House and Senate.
“Probably the last place [the GOP is] going to look and spend money is a state where last year’s Democratic candidate for governor won by 9 points,” Holsworth said. “So the challenge for Corey Stewart is, he’s on his own.”