Democrat Jessica Foster has said that the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment bill in a committee led by Del. Mark Cole was “a defining moment” in her decision to challenge him for the 88th District House seat in November

Friday night, the Fauquier County lawyer had the chance to go head-to-head with Cole, who is seeking his 10th two-year term, during a debate at the University of Mary Washington’s Lee Hall.

Cole chairs the House committee on Privileges and Elections and was unchallenged in the Republican primary.

He had a statement passed out minutes before the debate began to explain what had happened to the ERA bill. The handout, he said, was to counter errors “advanced by a party intent on dividing our community.”

The statement said that motions to get the ERA resolutions out of subcommittee failed, as did a motion made at the full committee to put it on the docket. It added that the deadlines for ratification by the states, which had been extended several times, had expired, so any action by the General Assembly would be invalid.

When the candidates were questioned about their stance on the Equal Rights Amendment during the hour-long debate, Cole said that he is for equal rights for all, but the way the amendment was written raised a number of concerns, including those regarding abortion rights.

“To be lawfully considered, Congress needs to submit it again with new language,” he said.

Foster countered that the deadline for the ERA’s passage isn’t mandatory, and is being used as an excuse.

“That doesn’t justify why the committee wouldn’t allow it to go to the House floor,” she said. “He’s killed it 11 times. I believe it’s because he thinks women like me are a threat.”

Applause broke out among the roughly 150 people in the audience, including six women wearing bright green Vote for Jess Foster T-shirts. Moderator Stephen Farnsworth, director of UMW’s Center for Leadership and Media Studies, had to remind people not to clap until the candidates made their final statements.

Cole and Foster answered questions on a number of other issues as well, including gun control, abortion and the minimum wage.

Foster is an attorney with a Manassas law firm she co-owns, specializing in representing juveniles and domestic abuse survivors. She said that Virginia has some of the laxest gun control laws in the country, and favors universal background checks and protective orders that would allow law enforcement to take guns away from those deemed an extreme risk.

These are common sense steps that are supported by responsible gun owners, such as her father and husband, Foster said.

Cole said that he thinks that current laws are “mostly sufficient.” If someone makes a threat or is mentally ill, they’re already prevented from getting a firearm. He said that none of the laws that Gov. Ralph Northam had proposed during the recent special session would have had any effect in Virginia, and that passing a red flag gun law would be “going down a slippery slope.”

Foster countered by saying due process would still be involved, just as it is with domestic protective orders.

On the question of abortion, Cole said that he has sponsored legislation to make it harder to get a late-term abortions, and people need to stop thinking of abortion as a form of birth control.

“We can debate when life begins,” he said, “but after a few months, it’s a live child.”

Foster said that she trusts women to make their own medical decisions without interference “from men in Richmond,” and that bans won’t stop women from seeking abortions. She said that the way to counter the need for abortion is to provide free contraception and education, and to pass laws so women can take medical leave after they have a baby.

“There are many things that we can do to address abortions,” she said.

When asked their stance on raising the minimum wage, Foster said that Virginia hasn’t raised it above $7.25 for years. A person making that much would earn $12,050 a year in an area where an apartment rents for around $1,600 a month and day care costs about $800 a month.

“In the city of Fredericksburg, a living wage is $17 [an hour]. We’re not looking at that, but we need to look at what people can live on,” she said.

Cole said that every time the minimum wage is increased, businesses cut back on their employees’ hours and inflation goes up. He added that minimum-wage jobs are mainly for people just entering the workforce, those who want a second job and retirees who still want to work.

“No matter what you raise it to, it’s no longer a living wage,” he said. “In the long run, it raises prices and makes us less competitive.”

“Most of us don’t make $200,000 and have two houses like you do, Mr. Cole,” Foster shot back.

Cole later said that he wished he made $200,000, to which Foster replied that he makes $140,000 as Spotsylvania’s deputy county administrator, $40,000 as a representative and gets other perks.

“I think that comes to about $200,000,” she said.

The debate was the third of four legislative race debates sponsored by UMW’s Democratic and Republican student organizations, the Fredericksburg Regional Chamber of Commerce, The Free Lance-Star and the League of Women Voters.

The last debate, between candidates for the Senate’s 17th District, will take place Oct. 29 in Room 346 of UMW’s Monroe Hall. The race pits incumbent Republican Sen. Bryce Reeves of Spotsylvania against Democrat Amy Laufer of Albemarle County.

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Cathy Jett: 540/374-5407

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