Lt. Gov. hopefuls offer Va. voters a stark choice

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — The candidates for lieutenant governor offer Virginia voters a stark choice: a socially conservative Republican opposed to abortion and a Democratic state senator and physician best known for his defense of women’s reproductive rights.

Sen. Ralph S. Northam and E.W. Jackson also part ways on a number of other issues, including same-sex marriage and an expansion of Medicaid in Virginia. Jackson is against both; Northam backs them.

Each seeks to succeed Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, a Republican who was outmuscled in his expected bid for governor by conservative supporters of Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, the party’s nominee.

Besides their political differences, Jackson and Northam have traveled very different paths to Tuesday’s general election.

Jackson has said on campaign stops that he grew up in a Pennsylvania foster home lacking indoor plumbing. From that impoverished start, he went on to serve in the Marine Corps, graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Massachusetts in Boston and a law degree from Harvard, according to his campaign literature. He also was accepted into the Baptist ministry and studied theology at Harvard Divinity School.

Jackson, who traces his family ties to Virginia back two centuries, practiced small business law in Boston for 15 years. He retired from private practice in 1997 to become a full-time minister. He lives in Chesapeake, where he founded a nondenominational Christian church.

Northam was born on Virginia’s Eastern Shore and graduated from Virginia Military Institute. After he graduated from Eastern Virginia Medical School, he served eight years of active duty in the Army, rising to the rank of major. In Norfolk, he practices pediatric neurology at Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters and is an assistant professor of neurology at his alma mater medical school, according to his campaign literature.

Northam has served in the Virginia Senate since 2008. There, he successfully sponsored legislation to prohibit smoking in restaurants and has been an advocate for women’s health.

The two candidates staked out their differences at a Sept. 24 debate in northern Virginia.

Northam criticized his opponent’s social agenda, while Jackson stood by his opposition to gay marriage, abortion and Medicaid expansion.

Their sharpest clash came over legislation that holds Virginia abortion clinics to stringent architectural standards that apply to hospitals. Critics have called it an attempt to limit abortion.

In an interview, Northam said social issues, while important, detract from the larger role of state government.

“We’ve got to get back to talking about what’s important to Virginia regarding our economy and jobs,” he said. “We need to talk about things like good transportation and infrastructure.”

As a physician, Northam added, legislatures dominated by men should not be getting between doctors and the women they treat.

“The patient-physician relationship is a sacred relationship, and legislators shouldn’t be telling providers such as myself how to practice medicine,” he said. “It is a very slippery slope to go down.”

Northam said “the less abortion, the better,” but he said the way to achieve that is through education and better access to health care.

While Jackson calls himself “pro-life,” he insisted in an interview that he would not attempt to outlaw abortion in Virginia, but reduce it through “persuasion.”

“We have to incrementally do what we can to save the lives of children,” he said. “What I’m interested in doing is trying to change the hearts of people so there is a social consensus in our country that it is simply not a good thing.”

Jackson, however, has been criticized for comparing abortion to slavery, and he drew the parallel in an interview. But he said critics don’t get the nuance of his message.

“I’ve made it clear it is a similar moral dilemma,” Jackson said. “I believe that the destruction of an unborn child is an immoral act, and what I’m saying is there are people who don’t believe that.”

How much influence the election winner will have on abortion or any other issue is debatable. Lieutenant governors have no voice in legislative issues short of casting tie-breaking votes in the 40-seat Senate. Democrats and Republicans now hold 20 seats each, but Tuesday’s election could change that equation.

Under Gov. Bob McDonnell, Bolling has been deemed the administration’s jobs czar. Jackson and Northam each said they would carve out agendas to pursue as the No. 2 officeholder in the state.

Northam said he would focus on economic development, health care and mental health issues. “Finally, if I could leave my mark on Virginia in any way it would be to have access for all children to pre-K education,” he said. Early education, regardless of family’s resources, gives everyone a “fair start,” he added.

Jackson said he has three objectives: creating jobs to ensure everyone has an opportunity to work; improving the quality of education, including parental choice; and ending the violent deaths of young people in cities. Calling himself a “ruffian” in his youth, he said, “I want to help those young people to fulfill their potential.”

In Virginia, the lieutenant governor is elected independently of the governor, so it’s possible Jackson or Northam could serve with their political opposite — Jackson with Democrat Terry McAuliffe or Northam with Cuccinelli.

Both men professed confidence their party’s nominee would win. But each said they would find a way to serve with a governor who didn’t share his political party.

Northam said he has worked with Republicans in the Senate and could do it as lieutenant governor.

“I don’t play the political game,” he said. “I’m there to do what’s in the best interests of Virginia, and I’ll continue to work with both sides of the aisle.”

Jackson said he too would seek to find common ground.

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Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sszkotakap

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