Beverly Harrison, left, and Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Mount Jackson, make their case to voters during a candidate forum on Wednesday evening. 

EDINBURG – Candidates for Virginia’s 15th House District clashed on Wednesday, coming from opposite ends of the political spectrum and employing divergent strategies to get the upper hand on their opponent.

The forum at Charterhouse School Edinburg was hosted by the Shenandoah County Chamber of Commerce, the Shenandoah County Education Association, the Farm Bureau of Shenandoah County and the Alliance for the Shenandoah Valley.

Beverly Harrison, a Democrat from Woodstock and a former teacher, went on the offensive from the outset, attacking Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Mount Jackson, on everything from his voting record to campaign donors.

“My opponent's funding shows that his primary supporters are businesses and special interest groups,” Harrison said in her opening remarks. “I am not here tonight to personally attack my opponent. But I am here to disagree with much of his voting record.”

Gilbert absorbed the intended criticism, touting his consistency and experience after representing Shenandoah County in Richmond for the last 13 years.

Harrison fired her first salvo in her opening remarks and continued to hammer home the differences between herself and Gilbert.

Responding to a question about bolstering the public school system, Gilbert pointed to his record of providing additional health services for students and approving a study to determine how busy school counselors are in order to improve their work environment.

Harrison noted that Gilbert voted last year to cancel funding for a program that would provide millions of dollars to school districts.

Candidates answered questions about topics ranging from homelessness to education but hot-button issues Gilbert has leaned into over his career dominated the discussion.

A question about the Equal Rights Amendment, which Gilbert has opposed for years, quickly led both candidates to a crowd-stirring discussion about abortion.

Gilbert has long contended that the ERA is a good idea but would make bad law.

“We do not get the luxury, as legislators, of passing ideas into law,” Gilbert said. “We have to pass very precise text that then becomes a statute or a constitutional amendment.”

When courts interpret those statutes and constitutional amendments, Gilbert said the original idea can be pulled and stretched to fit a range of issues it was never intended to address.

Gilbert argued that multiple states that have adopted the Equal Rights Amendment into their state constitutions are now facing battles in their courts over challenges to laws that prevent state dollars from paying for abortions.

The Virginia House of Delegates made national news earlier this year when a Democratic delegate seeking a loosening of abortion laws, told Gilbert a mother would, under her proposed law, be allowed to request an abortion as late as her delivery date.

Harrison stressed that the “third term abortion epidemic” is misleading. In the last 18 years, Harrison said, there have been two abortions performed after the 20-week mark.

Harrison’s broadside on Gilbert’s record and donors continued when moderators asked the candidates a question about restricting “military-style” weapons to the public.

Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democratic, called a special session in July to bring delegates together to talk about the issue of gun violence in response to the Virginia Beach massacre on May 31. Harrison highlighted Gilbert’s leadership in ending that session before it got off the ground.

“[Gilbert] shut down that special session after just 90 minutes, until Election Day,” Harrison said. “Fifty-six days later, the NRA donated over $200,000 to his PAC. That’s not a good optic.”

Gilbert brushed the barb aside, saying he isn’t bothered by questions or attacks on his record or donors.

“I don’t mind supporting and being supported by America’s No. 1 longest civil rights organization,” Gilbert said.

A rare moment of agreement — neither candidate supports hiking the minimum wage to $15 — drew out a rare counterattack from Gilbert who, for most of the evening, appeared content to absorb and parry Harrison’s arrows.

Harrison chastised Democrats for not pushing for a smaller increase in the minimum wage and trying to take a bigger slice of the economic pie than they should have. When she said she would have voted against her party, Gilbert pointed out that Richmond is more partisan than outside observers can see.

“The close nature of the party line in Richmond plays out much differently than it is being put forward to you tonight,” he said. “If you believe people will not fall in line on that issue as a litmus test of the Democratic Party and being the Democratic nominee, you are not paying attention to Democratic politics right now.”

Harrison has limited options for combating  the power of incumbency Gilbert wields in their race other than to zero in on his donors and voting record. With no voting record of her own, she has been careful to emphasize her grass-roots fundraising figures.

Harrison has raised 46% of her funds from donors who have given her $100 or less — the largest percentage of any candidate in the state. In contrast, Gilbert has just 1% of his donations from small-dollar donors, as of Aug. 31. 

Percentages aside, however, Harrison’s disadvantage is clear. Gilbert has the 10th largest pool of money to draw from at $448,098 compared to Harrison’s $30,764, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.

Contact Max Thornberry at mthornberry@nvdaily.com