Va. governor candidates Northam, Gillespie hold largest yet non-partisan forum

Va. governor candidates Northam, Gillespie face off in largest yet non-partisan gathering. (Rich Reeve/ABC7)

Nokesville’s Patriot High School became the setting for a unique political event Sunday.

“America is ‘We The People,’” declared one speaker.

More than 1500 people jammed the school auditorium to hear Virginia Gubernatorial Candidates Ralph Northam, the Democratic Lieutenant Governor, and Republican Ed Gillespie, the former chairman of the GOP National Committee and a White House advisor to George W. Bush.

The group VOICE, short for Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement, sponsored the event.

“I’m encouraged,” said Lynne Garvey-Hodge, a Burke resident. “There has been so much divisiveness in this country.”

Northam was the first to speak.

“Don't continue to promote the fear mongering,” he declared. “The hatred and bigotry that we're seeing coming out of Washington right now.”

Gillespie came out with support for a group that has seen up and down support from the White House.

“We should accommodate the dreamers,” he said. “They should not be deported. Congress should act to do so.”

The two men didn’t debate each other, but spoke separately.

This was the largest non-partisan, non-denominational gather so far in this gubernatorial campaign.

For some, it’s given them a sense of hope.

“A sense of pride, pride in the process,” says Roger Dahlin, a Springfield resident. “The seriousness with which each of the candidates presented himself was wonderful.”

Weeks before the election, both candidates have been ramping up their campaigns with some high-profile appearances.

Over the weekend, Vice-President Mike Pence campaigned for Gillespie, and former Vice-President Joe Biden stumped for Northam.

Former President Obama has scheduled a campaign appearance for Northam in Richmond this Thursday.

The Washington Post is reporting the White House is in “very serious talks” with Gillespie’s campaign about having President Trump stump for him in the state.

Statewide, the president’s approval rating is below 40%.

In the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton beat Mr. Trump by five points in the state.

Still, when the president tweeted out an endorsement for Gillespie last week, the Republican gubernatorial candidate did not retweet it or acknowledge it until asked by reporters, according to the Post.

A new survey from Christopher Newport University shows Northam getting 49% of likely voter support, while Gillespie receives 42%.

Sunday, Northam was pushing for an assault weapons ban, for dreamers to stay in the US, and against the travel ban.

“I was at Dulles Airport to make sure our immigrants were welcome,” he told supporters.

Gillespie touted endorsements from various police departments, including the FOP, and voiced concerns about affordable housing and education.

“You have to fight with every fiber of your being to make sure every child in Virginia has access to a good safe public school,” he declared.

But outside the forum, there was disagreement between immigrant groups, especially about the fate of Dreamers.

“This country opened its arms to you guys, and you’re complaining,” argued Jairo Rodriguez, a naturalized Columbia immigrant. “You shouldn’t be here.”

“I was glad to hear that,” says Emma Violand-Sanchez, an Arlington resident, talking about Gillespie’s stance for immigrants. “I hope he talks with the president of the US, and Attorney General Sessions so that we need to address that need.”

There were numerous fears about the future.

“I’m from Syria,” explains Maysaa Alsous, who currently lives in Fairfax. “This is one of the countries which has a travel ban. I’m not sure if I will stay here or be kicked out.”

Yet, amid the uncertainty, there is a flicker of hope.

“If the noise gets in the way of our thinking through what the issues are, and how will we respond to them, then we will have failed,” Dahlin says. “Tonight was not about failure, tonight was about hope and going forward and being very positive.”

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