Sen. Glen Sturtevant, R-Chesterfield, debates Democratic challenger Ghazala Hashmi. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

It took less than 10 minutes for Gov. Ralph Northam’s blackface scandal to come up Wednesday night in a debate between Republican state Sen. Glen Sturtevant and Democrat Ghazala Hashmi.

Sturtevant, one of the most imperiled Republicans in the Virginia Senate whose suburban Richmond seat is seen as a prime pickup opportunity for Democrats, repeatedly attacked Hashmi for accepting $25,000 from Northam’s PAC after calling for the governor’s resignation. 

Hashmi, a community college educator who would be the first Muslim-American woman to serve in the Virginia Senate, characterized Sturtevant’s line of attack as a distraction from issues like health care, education and gun violence.

Though some Republicans have acknowledged the scandal over the racist photo on Northam’s medical school yearbook page has faded as an election-year issue, Sturtevant appeared determined to keep the money element at the forefront of his race, one of a handful of hotly contested districts that could decide which party controls the Senate. As Northam tried to recover from the controversy that threatened to end his political career in Feburary, he made several five-figure donations to Democrats running in competitive legislative districts.

Over the course of a 50-minute forum hosted by ChamberRVA at the VPM studios in Chesterfield County, Sturtevant mentioned Northam’s donation to Hashmi five times, saying his opponent had gone “silent” after accepting campaign cash from the governor.

“That is not the kind of leadership and partisanship that we need in the Virginia Senate,” Sturtevant said. “We have got to have someone who is willing to break with their party, as I have, whether it’s on the ERA or red flag laws or to prohibit gerrymandering.”

“Governor Northam is not on the ballot in November of 2019,” Hashmi replied. “Glen is on the ballot. I’m on the ballot. And if we’re going to make decisions about who is right for this district, about who is right for Virginia, we need to be focusing on the issues that concern the voters in this district.”

Hashmi offered several versions of that answer throughout the event as Sturtevant circled back to the donation.

“If anybody thinks that I can be made silent or bought into silence, you don’t know me,” Hashmi said. “I speak my mind.”

A spokesman for Northam’s PAC declined to comment. Recent polls have shown Northam’s approval rating trending upward. A University of Mary Washington poll conducted in early September found Northam’s approval rating at 47 percent, compared to the 55 percent the same survey found a year ago.

Sen. Glen Sturtevant, R-Chesterfield.
Sen. Glen Sturtevant, R-Chesterfield. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Rolling out a few attack lines of her own, Hashmi said Sturtevant opposed Medicaid expansion and the Affordable Care Act “just like Donald Trump.” The GOP’s yearslong opposition to Medicaid expansion broke in 2018, when about two dozen Republicans joined with Democrats to expand health insurance coverage to roughly 400,000 low-income Virginians.

“This was done because we had Democrats committed to doing this,” Hashmi said. “For the past four years, Glen has done everything he could to block Medicaid expansion.”

Sturtevant acknowledged he opposed the measure dating back to his 2015 Senate campaign, but he added that he would not vote to undo it in future sessions.

“Medicaid expansion is now the law of the land, and I do not support rolling it back,” Sturtevant said.

Though Sturtevant highlighted his support for red flag laws – protections meant to allow judges to take guns from people whose behavior suggests they could be a danger to themselves or others – Hashmi said Virginia Republicans showed they lacked “political will” by using their slim majorities in both legislative chambers to refuse to vote on gun legislation in the special session Northam called after the  mass shooting in Virginia Beach on May 31.

“Glen and his Republican colleagues came to the Capitol, they made one decision. And that was to adjourn,” Hashmi said.

“It’s not true that we just adjourned,” Sturtevant responded. “We have sent that legislation to the State Crime Commission.”

The Crime Commission is studying a variety of gun and mental health bills aimed at stopping mass shootings, but it won’t issue recommendations until after the Nov. 5 elections.

Democratic Senate candidate Ghazala Hashmi.
Democratic Senate candidate Ghazala Hashmi. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

The 10th Senate District, which Sturtevant narrowly won in 2015, includes portions of western Richmond, part of Chesterfield County and all of Powhatan County.

Asked to weigh in on the city of Richmond’s perennial debate over Confederate statues, Sturtevant and Hashmi differed sharply on whether the General Assembly should empower local governments to take down or modify controversial monuments. Bills allowing Confederate statue removal have repeatedly failed in GOP-led committees.

Sturtevant said he doesn’t support the legislation, because taking down monuments would “erase history.”

“Future generations will forget what was done here and why. And America’s original sin of slavery,” Sturtevant said.

Hashmi said she supports allowing communities to choose whether they want to keep monuments that could make some people feel excluded from their own city.

“I teach history. I teach history through texts, through evidence, through facts,” Hashmi said. “I don’t teach history through Confederate monuments.”