CHARLOTTESVILLE — Highlighting how they differ both from each other and their opponent’s political parties, Democrat Leslie Cockburn and Republican Denver Riggleman spoke to a crowd of about 150 at the University of Virginia on Friday.
Hosted by the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at Garrett Hall, the historic and small space was filled to the brim to hear the nominees for Virginia’s 5th Congressional District speak. Though not the first time the candidates have been on stage together, this was the first time the two have spoken together in Charlottesville.
The district, stretching from Charlottesville to Southside, includes Franklin County and parts of Bedford County.
Structured similarly to a forum in Madison County last week, each candidate was asked their thoughts on issues ranging from immigration to health care and was given a chance to rebut the other.
Though running as a Republican, Riggleman has continued to position himself as more of a Libertarian, supporting businesses and the rights of individuals and breaking in opinion from some federal regulations. A co-owner of the Nelson County-based Silverback Distillery, Riggleman said he got into the race to combat government oversight.
“I’m running because I had lobbyists and cronies try to control what we were doing when we were building our distillery in the 5th District,” he said.
Cockburn, a former investigative journalist, continued to paint her campaign as the antithesis to President Donald Trump’s administration, repeatedly critiquing his policies and morals.
“When you do the kind of work I was doing, when you go into war zones where no one wants to go, to talk to people who don’t have a voice, you realize you need to speak truth to power no matter the cost,” she said.
Despite being from different political parties, the candidates found some common ground on a few issues. Notably, both support campaign finance reform and believe that corporations hold too much sway over the political system.
To negotiate lower drug prices, large pharmaceutical companies need to be held accountable, Cockburn said.
“I have said that I will not take any corporate PAC contributions, and I have not,” she said. “You need to do that in order to hold people’s feet to the fire.”
For the last several years, Riggleman has supported state legislation that would change the way distilleries are taxed. During that process, he said he saw the unfair sway that large donors and corporations can have over politicians.
“We cannot allow corporate interests to buy our votes,” he said. “If we attempt any kind of reform, we have to see how we can try to control that kind of spending to keep candidates from agreeing to issues just because they have hands in their pockets.”
However, the two remained on separate sides of most issues, including immigration.
Though both agreed that the process for legal immigration should be easier, Riggleman said he believes in securing the U.S. border. Coming from a business standpoint, he said migrant laborers can help farmers in states along the southern border who have difficulty finding workers.
Cockburn disagreed with a border wall, expressing her disgust with how the Trump administration has separated undocumented children from their parents. Pointing to a detention center in Farmville, she said Hispanic people she has spoken to are fearful for their safety.
“This is wrong, it is immoral, it is a crime against humanity,” Cockburn said. “We have a president that believes immigrants are criminals.”
Another major issue the candidates disagreed on was gun control.
Cockburn, who said she grew up hunting, is in favor of banning assault weapons and bump stocks, a firearm attachment that allows more rounds to be fired and was used by Stephen Paddock to shoot nearly 500 people and kill 58 in Las Vegas last year.
Riggleman, on the other hand, said he does not support changing the Second Amendment or banning bump stocks.
“The bump stock did not do that; it was the person with multiple weapons in the room that actually killed people,” he said.
In contrast to the Madison County forum, the candidates shied away from confronting each other on personal matters. Riggleman, who has in the past claimed that Cockburn does not live in Rappahannock County, did not bring up her D.C. home. Cockburn similarly did not mention Riggleman’s expansion of Silverback Distillery into Pennsylvania, which she has used to accuse him of not creating local jobs.
UVa student Andrea Hiit, one of the few to secure a ticket to the debate, said she attended to learn more about the candidates. She and fellow student Alexandra Siller displayed their “Support Denver” stickers as they watched the debate.
“I don’t know the issues super well yet, but I just updated my registration to vote in Virginia,” Hiit said.
The next debate between the candidates is scheduled for 7 p.m. Oct. 8 at the Dickinson Building at Piedmont Virginia Community College. Attendance is free.
The election is Nov. 6.