Steve Helber/AP Photo
Democratic gubernatorial candidate former Governor, Terry McAuliffe, left, with Republican challenger Glenn Youngkin during a debate at the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, Va.
Steve Helber/AP Photo
During the last two years, Virginia has seen historic changes to its criminal justice system — changes that may not have been politically possible just a few years ago in the once-purple state. Lawmakers legalized recreational weed and abolished the death penalty. And they funded a package of more than a dozen bills focused on policing in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, including a ban on no-knock warrants and chokeholds (they fell short of passing the most progressive reforms).
Progressive Democrats in the state had hoped to build on these changes in the next legislative session, under the leadership of a new Democratic governor. But as the razor-tight race for governor has narrowed, rhetoric around criminal justice reform on the campaign trail has become increasingly fraught, putting Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe on the defensive and Republican Glenn Youngkin on the attack with the help of conservative media.
Both candidates have chosen to take a "tough on crime" framing of the issues, touting their strong relationships with police and distancing themselves from attempts to reduce police budgets. McAuliffe's response to the political attacks from Youngkin has progressive advocates worried that the conversation around criminal justice reform has been stripped of nuance — and that McAuliffe has let conservatives dictate the narrative around crime.
"There's a whole lot more work to be done when we're talking about fixing this system that impacts millions of Virginians and Americans," says Sheba Williams, Executive Director of Nolef Turns, a nonprofit that works with Virginians who have court involvement. "But so far, there's a lot left to be desired with the conversation from each of the individuals that are running."
In a series of TV ads, the Youngkin campaign has come after McAuliffe specifically for his record on crime. They repeat the statistic that the murder rate went up 43% during McAuliffe's tenure as governor — a claim that is technically true but misrepresentative of the overall picture, because despite the increase, Virginia was one of the safest states in the country in terms of violent crime.
"Crime in Virginia is skyrocketing," reads the narrator of one Youngkin campaign ad released in August (overall crime in Virginia is in fact down this year compared to last year, though — as is true across the country — homicides in particular are up). It goes on to criticize McAuliffe for "touting endorsements" from so-called "extreme left-wing groups" who want to "defund the police, abolish ICE, and close prisons." It ends with the slogan. "Terry McAuliffe: too dangerous for Virginia."
The Youngkin campaign has also attacked McAuliffe on parole, arguing that the parole board he appointed as governor to review the cases of geriatric prisoners was an example of "criminals-first policies."
This strategy seems to be backed up by recent polling. An estimated 81% of conservative voters surveyed by CBS News earlier this month said crime and public safety were a "major factor" in their choice for governor.
McAuliffe, meanwhile, has tried to distance himself from the most progressive kinds of criminal justice reform. The former governor is well-known for his commitment to certain areas of reform, including restoring voting rights to people convicted of felonies — but on the issue of policing, he tends to be a centrist. McAuliffe recently reversed his previous stance on qualified immunity and said he was supportive of keeping the policy, which shields police officers from personal liability for certain misconduct charges. He's assured sheriffs who support Youngkin that he's "never been for defund the police." His campaign platform puts forward relatively moderate, incremental police reforms like putting funding towards more community-oriented policing, increasing racial diversity in police departments, and helping police departments get accredited.
And in response to Youngkin's ads, the McAuliffe campaign released a police-filled ad of its own, in which sheriffs and other former and current police officials expressed their support for McAuliffe — and claimed it was actually Youngkin who put forward a budget proposal that could cut funding for police (Youngkin's campaign has said he wants to protect law enforcement funding).
The McAuliffe campaign did not respond to a request for comment from DCist/WAMU on its police and criminal justice messaging. The Youngkin campaign, in a statement emailed to WAMU/DCist, doubled down on language meant to inspire fear about a McAuliffe administration.
"As governor, Glenn Youngkin will prioritize public safety, support law enforcement, and work hard to keep guns out of the hands of criminals," wrote Youngkin spokesperson Macaulay Porter. "Terry McAuliffe will only bring more chaos by attacking the police and giving every violent criminal access to parole."
While McAuliffe's campaign platform puts forward largely centrist policies on policing, some other criminal justice-focused aspects of his platform are more aligned with what progressives in the state are asking for — like updates to mandatory minimums, expanding parole, and increasing funding for public defenders. The platform says McAuliffe was supportive of the Northam administration's stance on police reform, along with its approaches to reforming policies for teenagers accused of crimes and expanding violence prevention programs in hospitals.
"It is fairly detailed," says Brad Haywood, executive director of the progressive advocacy group Justice Forward Virginia and chief public defender for Arlington County and Falls Church about the McAuliffe platform. "Obviously, there's somebody in his campaign who knows what they're talking about. However, it definitely just relies on police and prisons too much still to solve social problems."
But these more progressive and in-the-weeds parts of his vision on criminal justice haven't been emphasized on the campaign trail — perhaps because they're not the issues driving much of the public conversation this election, or perhaps because McAuliffe is worried about alienating moderate voters or being exposed to more fear-based attacks from Youngkin.
"As far as record-sealing and housing issues for people who have criminal records or issues with employment and becoming a better second-chance state, I have not heard very much at all [during this campaign]," says Williams of Nolef Turns.
"It just seems like we're being put on the back burner for now," says Haywood. "We're being told to be patient, and we're being told to trust McAuliffe's campaign, to trust the Democrats, that he's just saying this now because he has to — and that later on, he'll sign our bills."
The political pressure McAuliffe is under comes at a time of broader uncertainty, both in Virginia and nationally, about what strategies are most effective in energizing Democrats now that Donald Trump is no longer in office.
A growing population and shifting demographics in Virginia — particularly in D.C. suburbs like Loudoun County and Prince William County, where the population has become much larger and much less white — led political analysts to declare last election cycle that the state had officially gone from "purple" to solidly blue and Democratic.
And particularly after the summer of 2020, when widespread protests for racial justice in Virginia and across the country asked for radically different approaches to policing and a large-scale confrontation of anti-Black racism, some on the left were calling for a more progressive candidate — and perhaps a Black woman candidate.
But ultimately, Virginia's Democratic establishment, including many Black Democratic leaders, threw their support behind McAuliffe over the more progressive Black women who ran against him in the primary, Jennifer McClellan and Jennifer Carrol Foy. Now, in the face of intense enthusiasm for Youngkin among Virginia's conservative voters, onlookers are waiting to see if that choice was the right one.
"You had these amazing, formidable Black women who were more than capable of being governors and the National Democratic Party, per the status quo, went with a mediocre white man. Moderate, run of the mill, vanilla ice cream," says Jatia Wrighten, a political science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. "We'll see if that plan pays off."
So far, McAuliffe's response to Youngkin's attacks on the issue of police funding seems to be in line with widely discussed findings from centrist Democratic researchers, who argue that the party should distance itself from the activist phrase "defund the police" if they want to be successful with working class Black and Latino voters.
On the topics of the criminal justice system and heavy-handed policing, which disproportionately harm Black communities in Virginia, Wrighten said McAuliffe's more moderate platform seems illustrative of a broader trend, where major changes are followed by some fear and moderation.
"People are afraid of change," she says. "There's always going to be ... one step forward, two steps back, especially as it relates to race relations."
Tuesday's election results will likely fill in the picture of where Virginia stands politically — with some caveats, because the electorate in non-presidential election years tends to be older and therefore more conservative.
But Haywood believes that if explained fairly, criminal justice reforms should actually have bipartisan appeal. In recent weeks, progressives in Virginia have pointed to polling from the left-leaning think tank Data for Progress that found Virginians across party lines think their communities are just as safe or safer after reforms like death penalty abolition and weed legalization. Democrats, Republicans, and Independents all overwhelmingly support expanding non-police violence prevention and alternatives to incarceration for young people, according to the polling.
Haywood said he's been frustrated with the McAuliffe campaign for adopting the same "tough on crime" framing as the Youngkin campaign on policing, insead of taking the opportunity to educate voters about the issues.
"In the political world, they say, 'When you're explaining, you're losing — and maybe that's the problem," says Haywood. "But that's always going to be the problem with our issues because they're nuanced, and they don't fit into sound bites or clickbait as well as the tough on crime stuff. You've got to take three minutes to actually explain what you mean rather than just saying, '[Someone] shot a police officer. Let's never have parole again.'"
This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.