House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, appeared at a forum Wednesday with Democratic challenger Sheila Bynum-Coleman. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Facing his first competitive re-election campaign in decades, Virginia House of Delegates Speaker Kirk Cox found himself on unfamiliar terrain Wednesday night: a debate stage.

At a candidate forum in Chesterfield County, Cox, R-Colonial Heights, faced off against Democratic challenger Sheila Bynum-Coleman, fielding questions on gun violence, climate change, the economy, LGBTQ rights and other issues.

Though he’s one of the most powerful lawmakers at the Capitol, Cox told reporters he couldn’t recall being in a one-on-one debate since his first run for the House in 1989.

Over the course of the 50-minute event, Cox defended how Republicans have wielded their legislative authority. Bynum-Coleman sought to portray his leadership as a barrier to progress, saying Virginia can “do better” for workers, teachers and students.

“This election is so much about people versus corporations,” Bynum-Coleman said. “I’m challenging someone who is an entrenched incumbent who has been in office for 29 years. And when you talk about teacher pay not being able to meet the national average, we have to look at who has been in charge. And it has not been the Democrats.”

Sheila Bynum-Coleman, a Democrat challenging House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, spoke at a candidate forum Wednesday. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Cox, who is fighting to keep his own seat and avoid becoming a one-term speaker by losing the House GOP’s slim majority, suggested a Democratic takeover would hurt Virginia’s economy and potentially jeopardize the state’s right-to-work law, which allows workers to reject union membership and avoid paying dues in unionized workplaces.

“We have gotten to where we are in Virginia I think because of very balanced, sound policies,” Cox said. “It’s the Republican majority that’s trying to keep those.”

Cox’s 66th House District, located just south of Richmond, changed dramatically this year when a federal court redrew district boundaries to address racial gerrymandering. The new lines made the speaker’s seat more competitive, pushing Bynum-Coleman into the spotlight as the Democrat who could potentially take down the House’s top Republican.

The forum — moderated by VPM News Director Craig Carper — was hosted by ChamberRVA, but the topics ranged far beyond business concerns. (Senate District 10 contenders Ghazala Hashmi, a Democrat, and incumbent Republican Sen. Glen Sturtevant, also faced off later in the program).

Guns

The sharpest exchange of the night came during a question about policies to prevent gun violence, which Cox used to accuse Bynum-Coleman of wanting to expel police officers from public schools.

“I think that would be a very, very big mistake,” Cox said, pointing to the school safety commission he established in 2018 after the mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla.

Bynum-Coleman said she does not want police-free schools altogether. But she said school-assigned officers should focus on protecting school buildings, not dealing with student misbehavior.

“We have seen numerous, time and time again, where black and brown kids are being mistreated by the police officers in the school when their white counterparts are not for committing the same offenses,” said Bynum-Coleman, who is African-American.

Bynum-Coleman said she supports universal background checks on gun sales and a ban on bump stocks. Cox said he sees gun violence as “very serious problem,” but he did not endorse any additional gun restrictions.

House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, appeared at a forum Wednesday with Democratic challenger Sheila Bynum-Coleman. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

LGBTQ Rights

Asked if she’d support legislation preventing anti-LGBTQ discrimination in housing and employment, Bynum-Coleman said she “most definitely would.”

Cox said “discrimination should be against the law,” even though several bills aimed at preventing anti-LGBTQ discrimination didn’t receive hearings this year in the GOP-controlled House.

Cox said House Republicans tried to address discrimination in public employment by passing a bill stating governmental hiring and firing decisions must be based on merit, a proposal Democrats rejected as inadequate. That bill failed in the Senate.

Climate change

When the candidates were asked whether they believe “climate change is happening” and what the state could do about it, Cox didn’t give a yes or no answer, saying it’s an issue that “obviously is debated a lot.”

Bynum-Coleman was more unequivocal.

“Yes I believe that climate change is a real thing,” she said. “I believe that it’s happening. All of the science and the data is telling us that it’s happening.”

She said Virginia should join the carbon-trading network known as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI, an idea General Assembly Republicans have opposed.

Cox said the legislature has made new investments in wind and solar energy, but he doesn’t want Virginia to move away from coal and natural gas too rapidly.

“What I don’t want to see is energy tax policies that just blow up the taxpayer,” Cox said.

Abortion

In response to a question on abortion access, Cox pointed to the controversy that erupted in this year’s legislative session over a Democratic-sponsored bill that would have eased restrictions on late-term abortions. The bill never made it to the House floor, but Cox called the proposal “very disturbing.”

“Bills like that are why we need a Republican majority,” he said.

Without referring to any specific legislation, Bynum-Coleman said the government shouldn’t come between women and their doctors.

“I think that that is a decision for women,” she said.