Editorial: Off the beaten path

Editorial: Off the beaten path
As seen in the Daily Press

Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie have a tall task of connecting with as many Virginians as possible before Nov. 7.

Our state is as vast as it is beautiful. More than 480 miles separate the commonwealth's western mountain towns from the seaside life on the Eastern Shore. Campaigning for governor, no doubt, must be as much of a lesson in geography as it is in sociology.

 

And yet, Mr. Northam and Mr. Gillespie seem to be asleep in class.

A schedule of debates released by the Northam campaign this month shows just three events before Election Day, the first of which took place July 22 in the the tiny resort town of Hot Springs.

 

The pair will meet again Sept. 19 in Northern Virginia, and against in October in Southwest Virginia.

None of those locations are close to Hampton Roads, and that is a problem.

Anyone content with the existing schedule should remind themselves of the long-held belief that all politics is local.

 

Keeping Hampton Roads entirely off the debate schedule leaves local residents with no opportunity see how candidates will respond under pressure to topics with significant regional impact.

 

The Hot Springs debate included questions about the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline that would travel from West Virginia to Hampton Roads and points south, through the heart of Virginia's Blue Ridge mountains.

While the pipeline could create significant energy savings, its potential effects are not as hotly debated here as they are in, say, Nelson County where nearly 300 property owners would have a portion of their land seized for the project.

 

Interstate tolling, offshore drilling, the Chesapeake Bay's health are all intensely Hampton Roads-focused topics, and the candidates should debate them here. Understanding the region also means knowing how federal defense spending affects our active and retired military communities. Hampton Roads is a region that is dependent on health care as a safety net for poorer communities, and changes in federal education spending can be the difference between whether a student's prospects involve a college dorm or a prison bunk.

Simply gerrymandering the region — 20 percent of the state's population — from a live debate is mind boggling.

To his credit, Mr. Gillespie accepted invitations to 10 debates — including one hosted by the Hampton Roads Chamber — and 10 joint speaking opportunities.

Mr. Northam agreed to just three debates and seven joint speaking opportunities, not including the proposed Hampton Roads event.

As lieutenant governor, Mr. Northam has name recognition, and therefore an advantage this campaign season. His error is using his political advantage to trample on the needs of voters.

The Northam camp argues its candidate held a debate in Hampton Roads against Democratic challenger Tom Perriello in March. The event was a race to see who could raise their flag first atop the liberal ladder, and it lacked the substance of a debate between opponents from opposing sides of the political spectrum.

It's a shame 1.7 million Hampton Roads residents will be denied an opportunity to see the next chief executive of the commonwealth debate local issues.

It's a shame close to one million registered voters must travel three-plus hours to attend a live debate.

And it's a shame a region with a more than $85 billion gross domestic product can't be placed on the debate docket.

Mr. Northam and Mr. Gillespie can do better; a debate in Hampton Roads should be a priority.

Why is debate more important than, say, a local meet-n-greet with a single candidate?

Debates give voters an opportunity to see how candidates perform on their feet, how they interact with opponents and how they can handle the nuance of important topics under pressure.

The extra heat flushes out the phonies and ill-prepared in ways that one-sided speaking engagements do not. We consider it a political theater under some very bright lights. After all, how a candidate performs on stage might reveal how they perform when they're pressured to provide for Virginians. Intense situations can shine a light on our true character.

Hampton Roads residents should contact the campaign offices of both Mrs. Gillespie and Mr. Northam to demand a Hampton Roads debate.

That brings us back to the debate in Hot Springs, a town of just 738 residents. We understand it's the ninth consecutive gubernatorial debate hosted by the Virginia Bar Association, which makes the event somewhat of a tradition on the campaign trail.

It wouldn't be Virginia if our politicians weren't placing some semblance of tradition and history over practicality.

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