Republican Ken Cuccinelli's activism on conservative issues such as abortion rights and gay marriage dogged him at a forum before Virginia technology leaders Thursday, while his Democratic foe, Terry McAuliffe, professed deep concern about local taxes that burden business, but couldn't prescribe his own solutions for them.
In their second joint appearance in three weeks, Cuccinelli and McAuliffe -- both of Fairfax County -- were questioned separately for almost two hours in their own backyard, mostly about tax and business initiatives, by members of the regionally influential Northern Virginia Technology Council, a voice for suburban Washington, D.C.'s burgeoning Internet and information technology industry.
The same question posed to both men, however, asked about hard-line conservative stances on issues such as rights for same-sex couples and for abortion that could affect Virginia's allure as a premium location for business, particularly at the doorstep to the nation's capital a few miles away.
Cuccinelli downplayed the activism on such issues, both as a state senator and the past four years as attorney general. It earned him the adoration of the GOP's Christian conservatives and tea party followers, but brought snickers and muffled laughter in Thursday's audience as a result of a follow-up question.
Asked by a woman about “historical pressure on women's health” in Virginia and how he would respond to further GOP efforts to curb abortion rights, Cuccinelli noted his campaign's disciplined focus so far was on issues of jobs and economic development.
“I am a defender of life and families, but it's not like I overdid this,” he said as some in the crowd laughed.
He noted his position on a 2012 bill that would have mandated a vaginally invasive form of ultrasound examination for women before they have abortions, saying he opposed making the procedure mandatory but supported a requirement that if the procedure is done, its results be shared with the patient. The invasive procedure was deleted from the bill in favor of a mandated external ultrasonic exam, and it became law.
Others, he said, have infused conservative social issues into the campaign.
But Cuccinelli defended his decision to use the threat of denying legal representation to state Board of Health members if they adopted regulations that would have blunted the effect of another 2012 anti-abortion bill that holds stand-alone clinics that provide abortions to the same design safety standards as new hospitals. Defenders of the clinics said it would close nearly all of them across the state, and the board proposed exempting existing clinics and applying the rules only to new ones. The panel backed down and the stricter rules were adopted.
Cuccinelli sought to flip the issue around and raise questions about McAuliffe's murky role with an electric-car factory with ties to China that was opened in a Memphis, Tenn., suburb last year over Virginia while McAuliffe was its chairman.
“The last time my opponent had a chance to create a business, it was in that bastion of tolerance, Mississippi,” said Cuccinelli, who the evening before had spent time with Republican former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour.
Both candidates were asked how they'd make Virginia friendlier to business. Cuccinelli noted his plan to cut income tax rates for individuals and businesses and recoup some of the revenue by eliminating outdated tax breaks. But the focus was on three taxes that businesses find onerous but which are a major funding source for cities and counties: ones on machines and tools, inventory, and one businesses pay on gross receipts, not profits.
Cuccinelli acknowledged the taxes are harmful and said he'd empanel an advisory commission to study alternatives, noting that the gross-receipts levy -- the Business, Professional and Occupational License Tax -- dates to the War of 1812.
McAuliffe said he'd leave the issue to city and county governments, offering no guidance nor proposing executive action on his own if he's elected.
“Communities ought to look at these three taxes because they're regressive ... on business,” McAuliffe said. “So if there's a way they could look at it and keep it revenue-neutral and do something else to replace it because it is stigmatizing the ability to start a small business.”
In a region where traffic congestion adds hours to daily commutes, McAuliffe played up his support for Virginia's transportation funding reform law that takes effect in 10 days. The six-year highway construction plan the Commonwealth Transportation Board adopted Wednesday is about $6 billion fatter than the same package adopted a year ago thanks to the more than $1 billion annually the new law will generate.
“This is a big difference in the race. I publicly supported the plan. My opponent tried to stop it at each and every step,” McAuliffe said.
Pressed on whether the transportation funding law would faces repeal if Cuccinelli is elected, the Republican acknowledged his misgivings about it, saying transportation policy needs to be decentralized from Richmond and that local land use decisions must be taken into consideration more in highway planning. But he said he would leave the law alone.
“I have no intention as governor of going back and revisiting that debate, to try to undo what has been done,” he said.
Likewise, McAuliffe rejected Cuccinelli's claims that Virginia's historic right-to-work law, which prohibits compulsory union membership, would be endangered if McAuliffe is elected. The former Democratic National Committee chairman has deep ties to and financial support from labor unions.
“Right to work has been the law here in Virginia for 65 years and I wouldn't change it,” McAuliffe said.