Congresswoman Jennifer Wexton and her Republican challenger, retired Navy Capt. Hung Cao, clashed on abortion rights, gun violence, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s proposed new policies for transgender students and what to do about rising college and health care costs during their first live debate Sunday at the Dar al Noor mosque in Manassas.
Wexton, 54, is a Democrat and a former prosecutor and state senator who is seeking her third term in Congress representing Virginia’s 10th District, which shifted a bit due to redistricting and now covers all of Fauquier County as well as the northern half of Prince William County.
Cao, 51, is a political newcomer who came to the U.S. as a Vietnamese refugee in 1975 and went on to attend the U.S. Naval Academy. He served in the U.S. Navy for 25 years, rising to the rank of captain, before retiring in 2021.
The two clashed most significantly on social issues – including abortion rights and the treatment of transgender students – but found common ground on whether Prince William County should open about 2,100 rural acres near the Manassas National Battlefield Park to data centers. The Prince William Board of County Supervisors delayed its Oct. 11 vote on a comprehensive plan amendment that would pave the way for the new development, but the matter is expected to come before the board in November.
While stressing the decision is ultimately a local issue, Cao said Prince William County supervisors should put the brakes on the “Prince William Digital Gateway” until more studies can be done to determine how the large-scale development would affect the watershed feeding the Occoquan Reservoir, which provides drinking water to 800,000 Northern Virginia residents as well as the Fort Belvoir Army base.
Wexton, meanwhile, said she has “partnered with the National Park Service about their objection to the data centers going in near the battlefield” and said she understands “how important it is to maintain the rural character” of parts of Northern Virginia.
“I will continue to fight with our partners about preserving the rural character of the region and also ensuring that when the data centers do go in, they go in the right places,” Wexton said. “I think they belong in places zoned for industrial, not zoned for agricultural.”
The two also agreed that President Joe Biden is the duly elected president, and that the 2020 election was “free and fair and untainted.”
But the question teed up perhaps the sharpest zinger of the night. In response to whether he believed that Biden was fairly elected president, Cao said: “Joe Biden is president of the United States. If you don’t believe me, go to the gas pumps or go to the grocery stores and that will tell you. …The economy proves it, and inflation proves it.”
Wexton responded by saying she is “concerned” about future elections “because so many Republicans and so many people on the right are questioning free and fair and valid elections and trying to suppress the vote.”
“I was there on Jan. 6, and I saw the people who had been brainwashed to think that the election was stolen from them, and we cannot let that continue to happen,” she added. “Democracy is absolutely under attack. That’s one of the reasons I ran in the first place, because I saw democracy was hanging by a thread.”
The debate was the first sponsored by Motivate Organize Virginians for Engagement, or MOVE, which is described as a chamber of commerce for Muslim-owned businesses in Northern Virginia, according to Raheel Sheikh, of Manassas, who serves on the organization’s board of directors.
The debate was moderated by Shuja Nawaz, a Pakistani author and former director of the Atlantic Council’s South Asian Center, and Ayan Sheikh, a Somali journalist and a news editor and producer for WAMU 88.5, the region’s public radio station.
Questions came from both the moderators and the audience members. The event drew a crowd of about 300 people and was also streamed online.
On school policies regarding transgender students
When asked how Virginia’s public schools should keep transgender students safe while also keeping parents involved, Wexton said that “parents can and should be involved in all decisions regarding their children.”
But she noted that the Youngkin administration’s proposed policies for transgender students say teachers do not have to abide by parents’ requests that their transgender children be called by their preferred names and pronouns if the teachers object to doing so because of their own religious beliefs.
“So those kids could be outed, and they could be vilified even further,” Wexton said, adding: “I think [Youngkin is] using these kids as political pawns. I don’t think it’s about the kids themselves. I don’t think it’s necessarily about parental rights.”
“In a perfect world we would see parents who are caring and loving and take care of their kids, but we’re not seeing that in all instances,” Wexton said. “So that’s something that’s very concerning to me.”
Cao responded by saying he agrees with Youngkin that decisions about preferred names and pronouns belong to students’ parents.
“That right belongs to the parents always, always, always,” he said. “I mean, a school can’t even give your kid an aspirin, but you’re saying that school can decide what sex your child is?”
Cao went on to blame COVID-related school shutdowns for causing mental health stress among students. He downplayed the mental health challenges experienced by LGBTQ+ teens, and said parents will do what’s best for their children, just as he does for his own five kids.
“The decision lies with the parents, always,” he added. “Not with the school board, not with the state, not with anybody else but the parents.”
On abortion rights
When asked whether government restrictions on abortion rights contradict Cao’s expressed beliefs about limited government, Cao said his Vietnamese culture teaches him that life “begins at conception.”
“I have an obligation to protect all American lives,” he added.
Wexton, however, countered that “women have the right to make their own reproductive decisions and that includes the right to get an abortion.”
“This is something a vast majority of Americans favor, and it is not something the government should be getting involved in,” she added. “This is oftentimes the hardest decision a woman has to make. She needs to make it with her doctor and her partner, if she chooses, but the government should not be making that decision for her.”
Wexton went on to add that Cao’s stance about life beginning at conception could affect certain kinds of contraception, fertility treatments and even treatments for miscarriages.
“It’s not just about abortion, it’s about women’s full reproductive health,” she said.
On gun violence
When asked what they would do to address “the epidemic of gun violence in our communities” if elected, Cao blamed mass shootings on mental health challenges and other “root causes,” while Wexton said the root cause is “easy access to guns.”
Wexton also said she was glad that Congress passed gun legislation in the wake of the mass shooting that killed 21 students and teachers at a Uvalde, Texas elementary school but said the law “didn’t go far enough” because it did not prohibit people under 21 from purchasing an assault rifle.
Regarding inflation, health care costs, college affordability and student loan forgiveness, Cao and Wexton offered different ideas for addressing the problems.
Cao criticized the recently passed “Inflation Reduction Act” as a vehicle of government spending that will do little to rein in inflation. He stressed the need to let the “free market” allow competition to address problems such as rising prices for health care and higher education.
Wexton, meanwhile, said she supports Biden’s student-loan forgiveness proposal and countered that free market forces on health care insurance resulted in lifetime spending caps, limits on coverage for pre-existing conditions and adult children being kicked off of their parents’ health insurance in their early 20s.
Wexton said she supports the Affordable Care Act and believes it needs to be expanded.
“Everyone needs to be covered [by health insurance] and that’s the best way to ensure that we’re bringing down costs for everyone,” she said.
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