Democrat Wayne Powell came out swinging Monday and remained on the offensive throughout the first debate in the race for Virginia’s 7th congressional district seat, accusing U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of abdicating his role as a leader of Congress and repeatedly slamming him for his lack of military service, while the visibly agitated six-term incumbent labored to furiously fend off the flurry of attacks.
Mr. Powell’s campaign has vowed to frame Mr. Cantor to both his constituents and the entire country as an unapologetic partisan irrevocably beholden to large corporations and special interest groups — and the former Army colonel wasted no time in lobbing grenades at the Republican incumbent Monday evening in Richmond before a national audience on C-SPAN2.
“He never talks about working people — he only talks about business people,” Mr. Powell said in the hour-long forum hosted by the Virginia Chamber of Commerce. “These people are suffering — I’ve seen them all the time … you’re so far removed from reality, I don’t think you even know what a small business is except for a hedge fund.”
Mr. Powell is the first general election debate opponent Mr. Cantor has faced since 2002, when he squared off against former Georgia Congressman and “Dukes of Hazzard” star Ben L. “Cooter” Jones.
“What most Americans believe is we all have a fair shot at earning economic success,” Mr. Cantor said. “We have a terrible economy. We want to help people. How do you help that single mom here in Goochland, that working family in Henrico? How do you help them? You help them by creating more jobs and opportunity. You do that by allowing for small business people to have it a little easier and get government out of the business of making it so difficult.”
Mr. Powell also laid the blame of the looming defense cuts that came out of a deal to raise the nation’s debt ceiling last summer squarely at the feet of Mr. Cantor.
“Perhaps if you’d been part of that ground force known as the U.S. Army, you’d be more familiar with why the sequester is a bad idea in the first place,” Mr. Powell said. “You’ll pivot and you’ll say it’s all the president’s fault, but it’s not. It’s your responsibility. You’re the leader of the Congress.”
But Mr. Cantor said that it was President Obama, not Congress, who was at fault for “forcing” the sequester — also making sure to thank Mr. Powell for his military service.
Still, perhaps the most heated exchange during the debate came when Mr. Powell said Mr. Cantor voted for a bill that would have allowed members of Congress to continue to get paid in the event of a government shutdown when he voted against one that would ensure military members would continue to get paid.
“How could you, in good conscience, vote to continue your own pay but at the same time stop paying our servicemen and women that you voted to send into combat in Afghanistan?” Mr. Powell asked.
Mr. Cantor said that ad hominem attacks were precisely what was wrong with Washington, bristling when Mr. Powell interrupted to prod him to answer the question.
“Nobody — and I, in particular — ever want to deny the pay to our men and women in uniform, and frankly that’s what’s at stake with the sequester right now as well, OK?” Mr. Cantor replied. “And we’ve got to make sure that we live up to our obligation, because without them, we wouldn’t be here. And I thank you for your military service, Wayne, and I thank your son for what he’s doing for all of us. And that does not go unnoticed … but I can tell you every day, I go to Washington and try and address the needs of our veterans.”
He pointed out that the House has voted this year to increase the veterans’ budget by 4 percent — a measure the Democrat-led Senate has not taken up.
“As expected, you didn’t answer my question,” Mr. Powell replied. “That’s all right, because I think we already know the answer.”
“If you haven’t put the uniform on, you don’t know what it means,” he continued. “And you haven’t.”
Mr. Cantor called the debate a “robust discussion,” and “a debate, though, frankly, that has been peppered, unfortunately, [with] what is wrong with politics today, and that is just a rash of personal attacks … and, as we saw, repetitive disregard for honesty and truth.”
Mr. Powell, by coin flip, got the last word.
“Twelve years is long enough,” he said of Mr. Cantor’s tenure in the House. “And if you can’t think of what Mr. Cantor’s legislative accomplishments were over the last 12 years, then you’re not alone.”