Democratic candidates weigh in on gun control, education at forum

Candidates vying for the Democratic nod to challenge Rep. Rob Wittman in the First Congressional District outlined their positions on gun control, education and health care at a forum Thursday.

While coming from varied backgrounds — Edwin Santana a former Marine, John Suddarth a businessman and Army veteran and Vangie Williams a strategic planner — the candidates hewed to a similar progressive message.

Ryan Sawyers, who was scheduled to appear at the forum, suspended his campaign Feb. 27, according to a news release.

In the wake of a mass shooting that left 17 people dead at a high school in Parkland, Fla., in February, the candidates voiced support for tougher gun laws, including a ban on bump stocks and expanded background checks.

“It’s time we take action and stop speaking words and having prayer,” Williams said. “It’s time for a change.”

The candidates also criticized the idea of arming teachers, with Santana saying the funds needed for training could find better uses in a classroom.

“Our public education system is the great equalizer,” said Santana, who said too much is spent on defense and not enough on education. Williams called for expanded career and technical training.

While Santana and Suddarth agreed expanding and improving broadband internet should be a priority, Williams said transportation improvements are a more pressing infrastructure project.

Williams also suggested an initiative that would exempt the first $50,000 of certain individuals’ earnings, such as enlisted military and teachers, from federal income tax.

Candidates expressed support for single-payer health care, saying it’s is a moral duty to make health care affordable.

“It works. We just got to do it,” Suddarth said.

The trio took aim at Wittman for what they characterized as a lack of community engagement and criticized his voting record on health care and the environment. They also panned President Donald Trump’s leadership and agreed they would support impeachment.

About 70 people turned out to listen to the candidates.

Among them was 55-year-old Geoff Perkins, who said the field looked strong and he was impressed by the candidates’ performances.

“It’ll be a tough one,” Perkins said.

Jared Miller, 28, fell in behind Williams, saying he valued her stance on education.

The discussion about education also struck a chord with 30-year-old teacher Jessamyn Rising, who criticized efforts to arm teachers.

“If I was handed a weapon I’d leave the profession,” Rising said.

Whoever ultimately wins the Democratic primary will be in for an uphill battle to defeat Wittman come November. Wittman has represented the First District, which stretches from the outskirts of Washington, D.C., to portions of James City County, since 2007.

Wittman defended his seat in 2016 with 60 percent of the vote. He also earned 63 percent of the vote in 2014, according to the Virginia Department of Elections.

Peninsula Voices for Change, a progressive nonprofit group, sponsored the forum. Rachel Bitecofer, a Christopher Newport University professor, moderated the forum.

Both Democrats and Republicans will hold primary elections in June.

Jacobs can be reached by phone at 757-298-6007.

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