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88th House debate shows wide divide

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From Medicaid expansion to gay marriage, the candidates for the 88th District House of Delegates seat disagreed on most major political topics at their first debate Wednesday night. 

Republican Del. Mark Cole described himself as a supporter of limited government and low taxes while his opponent, Democrat Kathleen O’Halloran, painted him as an extremist who wants to control the health care decisions of women. The debate took place in front of about 100 people at the University of Mary Washington’s Lee Hall.

Cole, who has held the seat since 2002, said he opposes Medicaid expansion, the $6 billion transportation bill that was passed earlier this year and gay marriage. His opponent took the opposite stance on those issues.

Cole, echoing concerns from other Republicans, said he thinks the federal government would dump the cost of expanding Medicaid onto Virginia. “It’s foolish to believe that Washington’s going to keep their promises and keep funding it when they’re going to have to make big budget cuts at the federal level,” he said.

O’Halloran said the expansion would bring billions into the economy. “The money is paid for already in our taxes, and if Virginia doesn’t take the money, it’s going to go to another state,” she said.

Cole said he opposed the transportation bill because it raises taxes. The bill, which was supported by Gov. Bob McDonnell, eliminates the state’s 17.5-cents-per-gallon gas tax, applies a 3.5 percent wholesale tax to gas and a 6 percent tax to diesel and raises the state sales tax to 5.3 percent, among other provisions. “Any time you take money out of the private sector and move it into the government sector, you have a negative impact on the economy,” Cole said.

O’Halloran, who supports the measure, countered that the current traffic situation costs Virginians money by forcing them to sit on clogged roads. “Do you all realize what we spend sitting in our cars every day?” she asked.

She noted that companies won’t move to the state because of the problem, saying: “It’s affecting our economic viability here.”

The issue of Cole’s job as deputy county administrator in Spotsylvania also came up. O’Halloran, a retired environmental planner from Stafford County who worked for private companies and government agencies, said she thinks the position will cause Cole to favor Spotsylvania over the other localities he represents.

“Since Spotsylvania pays him $125,000 a year, he cannot be impartial,” she said.

Cole, who started the local government job at the beginning of this year, said he would not favor one locality over another. In addition to Spotsylvania, the 88th District includes parts of the city of Fredericksburg, and Stafford and Fauquier counties.

On social issues, O’Halloran criticized Cole’s support for a bill that requires women to undergo ultrasounds before receiving an abortion. Cole, she said, claims he’s against government mandates, “yet he doesn’t mind regulating what a doctor can tell its patient.”

Cole, who is anti-abortion, said he thinks the state has a role in “setting basic health and safety standards for abortion clinics and also for the procedures themselves.”

“The extremist word is batted around quite a bit,” Cole said. “I’ve come to realize an extremist is anybody who disagrees with a Democrat.”

The candidates did find some common ground.

Both said they favor having a minor league baseball team in Fredericksburg but don’t think it should be supported with taxpayer dollars.

And both think the governor should be able to serve two terms.

The tensest moment in the debate came when O’Halloran criticized Cole as being for smaller government despite working on his second or third government pension. In addition to his state and local government experience, Cole served in the U.S. Navy and the Navy Reserve.

“I do not have a federal pension,” Cole shot back.

Jeff Branscome: 540/374-5402


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