The Bulletin

Virginia Bar Association cancels debate after Youngkin chooses to skip it

By: - July 12, 2021 4:12 pm

The Omni Homestead resort is the largest employer in Bath County. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

The Virginia Bar Association has cancelled its planned gubernatorial debate after Republican Glenn Youngkin broke with recent tradition by skipping what is usually the first face-to-face matchup of the general election.

In a statement Monday, the Bar Association said the debate has been removed from the itinerary for its annual summer meeting later this month at the Omni Homestead Resort in Hot Springs.

“While we had productive conversations with the campaigns, we were not able to get commitments for a debate that included all of the major candidates,” the Bar Association’s statement said. “The debate has always been one of the highlights of the summer meeting, and the VBA has been grateful to be part of the political conversation in Virginia for more than 30 years. We are disappointed that a statewide debate will not be a part of this year’s program.”

Republican nominee for governor Glenn Youngkin speaks during a GOP rally at Eagles Nest Rockin’ Country Bar in Chesapeake, Va., June 5, 2021. (Parker Michels-Boyce/ For the Virginia Mercury)

Though Youngkin’s campaign said he will commit to three debates this fall, Democrat Terry McAuliffe’s campaign blasted the GOP nominee for avoiding an event all major-party gubernatorial hopefuls have participated in since 1985.

“His refusal to participate in this debate is an insult to Virginians and shows that Glenn knows just how out of step he is with the people of the commonwealth,” McAuliffe said in a news release.

The Youngkin campaign said the Bar Association “refused to correct several problems” with the debate format, including the selection of PBS Newshour anchor and managing editor Judy Woodruff as moderator. Woodruff has moderated VBA debates in the past, but the Youngkin campaign has highlighted a $250 donation she made to the Clinton Foundation’s Haiti earthquake relief efforts 11 years ago as a possible conflict of interest.

Terry McAuliffe campaigns for governor in Richmond. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

“Unfortunately, the VBA refused to dedicate a portion of the debate to a discussion on Virginia’s economy and jobs, which proved to be an insurmountable barrier in our negotiations,” said Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter. “It would also be a conflict of interest to have former Clinton Foundation board member Terry McAuliffe being ‘questioned’ by a Clinton Foundation donor.”

A PBS ombudsman once called Woodruff’s donation to the Clinton Foundation a “mistake.” But recent Republican nominees Ken Cuccinelli and Ed Gillespie agreed to VBA debates she moderated, and this year she received a Peabody Award for journalistic integrity and an accompanying commendation that described her as “one of the most trusted broadcast journalists in America.”

The Bar Association’s debate policy says “questions will be prepared and presented to candidates by a nonpartisan, knowledgable person or panel of such persons who are independent of the VBA,” a setup that gives the VBA little ability to commit to including or ruling out certain topics.

Both Youngkin and McAuliffe have agreed to a debate at the Appalachian School of Law in Southwest Virginia in mid-September. Last month, the McAuliffe campaign released a list of five debates it has committed to, but the Appalachian School of Law event is the only one that also appears on the Youngkin campaign’s list of three.

It wasn’t immediately clear Monday if the campaigns would be able to agree on the terms of additional debates.

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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville.