Virginia’s Democratic gubernatorial contenders held a televised debate Tuesday night, and, for once, voters got something different from the usual litany of talking points and uncomfortable body language.

They got useful information. Better still, they began to see that the default front-runner, Terry McAuliffe, isn’t inevitable.

Let’s get the worst section of the debate out of the way up front: The exchange on marijuana legalization was dispiriting and pedantic. That Virginia is poised to end prohibition is an enormous achievement. It will be the first Southern state to do so, and it will become one of the few states to do so through the legislature rather than the initiative process.

But viewers wouldn’t know this if they listened only to the candidates. What they got instead were overlapping lectures on the social justice, equity and economic effects of legalization. It’s a sad sign that doing the right, moral and long-overdue thing is no longer enough.

Then there was the jaw dropping segment of the debate: Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax’s response to a question about the death of George Floyd. Fairfax put himself in the frame, saying “African American men are presumed to be guilty, are treated inhumanely, are given no due process and have their lives impacted — in some cases, taken away in an instant.”

“Due process” was the tell. Fairfax was about to do something big. He went into his windup: “Everyone here on this stage called for my immediate resignation, including Terry McAuliffe” in the wake of sexual assault allegations made against Fairfax in 2019.

Then the pitch, high and inside: McAuliffe, Fairfax said, “treated me like George Floyd. He treated me like Emmett Till. No due process. Immediately assumed my guilt.”

It was a dangerous move that could as easily backfire on Fairfax because it could raise serious doubts about McAuliffe. But here’s the one thing that’s certain: Fairfax will look for a way to throw the same pitch at McAuliffe in future debates.

Another notable section came when the candidates were asked about the controversy surrounding the Virginia Parole Board.

This isn’t a question Virginia Democrats are eager to answer. As the Roanoke Times editorial board noted, Democrats’ “complacency” on the issue is politically dangerous:

Those suburban voters we talked about may be quite fine with all the social justice measures the Democratic-controlled General Assembly has passed — but may still not been too happy to hear about cop killers getting released early. Or a bunch of killers getting released early, and without the law being followed.

The responses from Fairfax, Sen. Jennifer McClellan of Richmond and former delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy of Prince William fell in line behind Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam’s proposed independent investigation — which Republicans, rightly, have questioned for its lack of independence, and which open-government backers have questioned for its secrecy.

McAuliffe tried to distance himself from the Parole Board’s actions: “I wasn’t there when this was going on.” He went further by saying “we have a racist criminal justice system” as justification for issuing pardons and expediting paroles.

But McAuliffe’s bluster didn’t answer the question. That was left to Del. Lee Carter of Manassas, who gave the most insightful answer to the Parole Board question.

Carter said executive branch agencies have “become resistant and averse to oversight” and “act with impunity far too often,” a direct shot across both Northam’s and McAuliffe’s gubernatorial bows.

Carter added that the General Assembly should exercise more oversight, but “there seems to be very, very little appetite within the General Assembly” to do so. And even if lawmakers saw themselves as something other than potted plants, governors tend to “obstruct any efforts” at oversight.

Northam, call your office. Oh, and McAuliffe? Buckle up.

Norman Leahy is a weekly commentator on Richmond’s WRVA and WLNI FM.

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