RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- History will be made no matter who Virginians choose for their next lieutenant governor this election season. Both candidates have a shot at becoming the first woman of color elected to statewide office.
But who voters choose could have a major impact on whether policies related to abortion, guns, marijuana, policing and the minimum wage live or die.
Democratic nominee Del. Hala Ayala, a cybersecurity professional who identifies as Afro-Latina, Lebanese and Irish, was first elected to the legislature from Prince William County in 2017.
Republican Winsome E. Sears, a Jamaica-born ex-Marine and small business owner, is a former delegate from Norfolk.
The lieutenant governor presides over the state Senate and casts deciding votes in the event of an even split. The current Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax has cast more than 50 tie-breaking votes since 2018.
On gun control, Fairfax paved the way for Virginia’s new red flag law. It allows for a person’s firearm to be temporarily seized following a court order if they’re deemed a threat to themselves or others.
“Why don’t we enforce the laws instead of adding new infringements on our Second Amendment,” Sears said.
“Weapons of war don’t belong in our neighborhoods,” said Ayala, whose father was a victim of gun violence. “We need to ban ghost guns and other undetectable firearms.”
Earlier this year, Fairfax was the deciding vote on legalizing limited possession and home growth of recreational marijuana. Next year, the General Assembly needs to approve a framework for legal sales to move forward and some are pushing for an accelerated timeline.
Ayala said she would need to see the details before agreeing to move up the 2024 start date previously agreed upon but she generally supports recreational marijuana legalization, unlike Sears.
“Legalization of marijuana is good for the economy and a central component to equitable criminal justice reforms,” Ayala said. “It will lead to hundreds of new businesses and generate millions of dollars in revenue.”
Sears raised concerns that the new law is confusing Virginians, will cause more people to show up high to work and that it won’t reap the promised economic returns. That said, she’s not necessarily planning to block legal sales from moving forward if it comes down to a tie-breaking vote.
“I think we ought to take a good look at it to see how we can make it better. I’m not against medicinal marijuana. I’m just really worried about recreational marijuana,” Sears said.
Abortion has emerged as a flashpoint this election season after Texas implemented a law effectively banning the procedure, without explicit exceptions for rape and incest.
The repeal of abortion restrictions in Virginia also cleared the Senate by a razor thin margin in 2020.
While Sears has previously stated that she would support a Texas-style abortion ban in Virginia, she appeared to backtrack in an interview on Friday.
Asked if she would support a fetal heartbeat bill, Sears said, “I haven’t really looked at that,” adding that she thinks there should be exceptions for rape, incest and when the life of a mother is in danger.
Sears wouldn’t say how many weeks into a pregnancy she thinks abortion should be banned otherwise.
“I’m going to say asked and answered,” Sears repeated twice without answering the question.
On the other hand, Ayala supported her party’s push to end ultrasound requirements and the 24-hour waiting period. She wants Roe. V. Wade enshrined in the State Constitution.
“It’s 2021 and it’s absurd at times that I would have to justify making a decision about my own body,” Ayala said. “I’ve been a firewall for women and reproductive rights.”
Ayala didn’t commit to support a failed bill that would’ve reduced the number of doctors from three to one needed to sign off on a third trimester abortion when a mother’s health is in danger. Some argue it’s a barrier in rural areas.
Since racial justice protests raged across the country last year, the Senate has repeatedly rejected efforts to end qualified immunity for police officers. Some Democrats are pledging to try again but McAuliffe backtracked support for the policy in a recent debate.
Ayala, on the other hand, voted in support of the bill in the House of Delegates. She said she’s still open to it in an interview on Friday.
“We have to rebuild the trust that has been broken between communities and law enforcement and that starts with increasing accountability when someone violates the law unethically and we should absolutely consider reforms to qualified immunity,” Ayala said.
Sears was critical of the idea but said, if that’s the will of the legislature, they should strip immunity from all public officials, including lawmakers.
“If that is what they want to do, let’s add all public officials to it because it doesn’t make any sense,” Sears said.
Sears has frequently accused her opponent of wanting to defund the police but Ayala’s campaign said she doesn’t support that.
There are also some clear differences between the candidates when it comes to economic policies that the General Assembly is expected to revisit in 2022. Ayala supports raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2024, paid sick leave and paid family medical leave. Sears is concerned about the cost burden on businesses and said those issues should generally be left to the private sector.
On schools, Ayala wants to raise teacher pay above the national average but she is opposed to the expansion in charter schools being pushed by Republicans like Sears.
The two have also taken vastly different tones when it comes to the coronavirus vaccine.
While Sears said she has been encouraging people to get the vaccine on the campaign trail, she has refused to share her vaccination status.
“It’s a privacy issue,” Sears said. “We are going down a slippery slope. Are you now going to ask me about my HIV status?”
“I am vaccinated and I share that story because I hope that it inspires others, including the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor, to get vaccinated,” Ayala said.