The Weekly Ringer

The University of Mary Washington Student Newspaper

UMW hosts Joshua Cole and Lee Peters III as they face off in 65th District House of Delegates debate

7 min read
Joshua Cole and Lee Peters III sits in seperate tables in front of the Fredericksburg community to debate on current issues

Joshua Cole and Lee Peters III debate current issues to Fredericksburg community | Charlie Li, The Weekly Ringer


Associate Editor

The University of Mary Washington hosted Virginia’s 65th District House of Delegates debate on Wednesday, Sept. 13, in Seacobeck Hall. Democratic nominee Joshua Cole and Republican nominee Lee Peters III faced off just one week ahead of early voting opening in the district.

The debate was sponsored by UMW’s Student Government Association, The Free Lance-Star, the Fredericksburg Regional Chamber of Commerce and the League of Women Voters of the Fredericksburg Area. Adele Uphaus, a reporter at The Free Lance-Star; Ted Schubel, the director of WFVA Radio News; Rosalyn Cooperman, professor and chair of the UMW Political Science and International Affairs Department; and Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor and director of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies moderated the debate.

Each candidate was allotted two minutes for an opening statement followed by nearly an hour of question and answer. Audience members had the opportunity to submit questions before the start of the debate. 

Cole, a pastor born and raised in Virginia’s 65th district, became the first Black person as well as the youngest person to ever be elected from the Fredericksburg region to the General Assembly in 2019. He began the debate with an opening statement that emphasized his previous experience and directly called out his opponent.

“I’m the only qualified and experienced person on this stage tonight who plans to go back to Richmond to keep fighting for our families and pushing back on strong-willed politicians who want to make Virginia their next launching pad for their own political agendas,” he said. “I’m the only person on the stage tonight who will keep fighting for women’s health care rights. My opponent was handpicked to be the yes-man of Virginia Republicans in Richmond.”

Peters is a Marine Corps veteran and law enforcement officer. As part of his service career, he oversees programs such as the Crime Prevention Unit and Juvenile Services. He asserted a need for safe communities in his opening statement.

“Some of the things we’re going to talk about tonight are going to be very important to this region because we all want a safe and prosperous community. We want a place where our kids can grow up, we want a place where I can raise my family,” Peters said. “My lady over here is a principal in Stafford County, I want safe schools. I want someplace where we know that we can be safe.”

Throughout the debate, there was some consensus amongst the two candidates. Both agreed that public schools need greater funding to retain teachers and that higher education is inaccessible due to its cost. They both highlighted the importance of mental health services, and Cole went as far as to compliment Virginia’s Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin and his efforts to expand these programs.

“I want to give props and honor where honor is due. I want to celebrate Governor Younkin for the great work he’s done with mental health funding and making sure that when I get to Richmond, I will continue to help fund that and put that in the state budget as well,” he said.

An issue where they differed, however, was abortion access. Peters advocates for a 15-week abortion ban, while Cole hopes to enshrine Roe v. Wade in the Virginia state constitution.

“As I’m knocking on doors and talking to people, Republican women have told me that they are pro-life, and they are as pro-life as they come, but they do not want a ban in Virginia,” said Cole. “I don’t remember the ‘50s and the ‘60s before Roe v. Wade, but they do. They remember the alleyways and they don’t want Virginia to go back to that. We are the last state in the south [with legal abortion access]. As your delegate, I will fight to make sure the current laws are upheld, and make sure that the decision belongs between a woman and her doctor.”

Some members of the audience picked up on rising tensions as the candidates differed on policy.

“I think that despite the general goodwill shown by both candidates, there was tension in the crowd that was unnecessary and inappropriate,” said Jenny Wolfe, a senior political science major. 

Both campaigns agreed ahead of time to maintain an orderly debate. At the start of the event, Farnsworth provided the audience with a disclaimer that emphasized the importance of decorum. 

“The idea here though, for us is to focus on the issues of policy. So we have worked out terms where people will be respectful of the candidates,” he said. “Both campaigns have agreed ahead of time that we will not have interruptions, or heckling or comments or applause during the debate itself. We will have applause after the opening statements and after the closing statements but during the question and answer period let’s keep everything in an adult fashion..”

Despite this, tensions rose as both of  the candidates made remarks that attempted to disparage their opponent. Peters called out Cole for his previous comments that directly targeted Republicans.

“Have you noticed that since I’ve started this debate, I haven’t said ‘Republican’ or ‘Democrat’ once. I’ve said ‘the people of the 65th,’ I’ve said ‘the people of the city.’ That’s who we’re looking to represent,” Peters said. “I am not going to split this room, and I’m not going to split hairs saying ‘Democrat,’ ‘Republican.’” 

Cole doubled down on his statements.

“I may sound partisan tonight because I want y’all to understand that I’m not smiling in your face to try to backstab you in the back when I get to Richmond,” he said.

As the debate concluded, each candidate was given two minutes for a closing statement. Cole used this time to highlight his previous experience and track record in the General Assembly again.

“If you want American freedoms to be protected, an experienced lawmaker to keep fighting for us, to increase our pay, fund our schools and educators, bring innovative ideas for traffic and infrastructure to our region and assure that no abortion ban comes to the Commonwealth, then I ask that you send me back to Richmond,” he said. “I’m asking that you allow me to honor you with my faith. My faith that we can make this Commonwealth a beacon in the south yet again, faith that we can make Fredericksburg a regional economic power, faith that we can restore the dignity of the public school system yet again, faith to believe that women do have their own decision making about their body, and faith to know that together, we fight together and together we can be better together.”

Peters touched on the need for community safety and reasserted previous points made in the debate about supporting mental health services and representing all constituents, regardless of party affiliation.

“I want to make Virginia safe. I want to make the 65th safer. I want to support our mental health programs because they are important,” he said. “I want to make sure that we have true investments in our community to make the Fredericksburg region a powerful place to live and work. I want to make sure that the people are represented. Everybody in the 65th should be represented in your voice.”

Following the debate, UMW students and other members of the community encouraged attendees to register to vote if they were not already. On tables outside of the room where debate took place, attendees could scan QR codes that lead to a pledge to vote. 

Cathie Fisher Braman, president of the League of Women Voters of the Fredericksburg Area, recognized the positive opportunities presented by hosting these events on the UMW campus. 

“The benefits of hosting this event at the UMW campus is that it connects us to the students as well as the whole community,” she said. “UMW is an important part of the Fredericksburg area and this allows us to interact with everyone of all ages.”

Several UMW students were in attendance. Even those who may not be voting constituents in the district showed up for the opportunity to learn more about leaders in their community and the political process.

“These events allow students to have more of a voice in their community,” said Jaylyn Long, a senior biomedical sciences major and president of SGA. “They will have more of an understanding of the leaders in their community and hopefully have a deeper connection to their community, especially students like me who are not from here.”

Nathan Francis, a senior political science major was also in attendance. He found it interesting to be able to relate real-life politics to the subject matter he has been discussing in class.

“I attended the debate because I was interested in seeing how the candidates were going to argue their sides,” he said. “Being in my 4th year of political science, I have gotten the academic side of politics but to see it with the representatives of this area in our state legislature is a special opportunity.”

Kate McDaid, a UMW alumnus and field organizer for NextGen who attended the debate and encouraged other attendees to register to vote, affirms an importance of civic engagement.

“It’s important for students to attend these events so they know exactly who they’ll be voting for in November,” she said. “The candidates have literature and websites, but knowing they act with potential future constituents and those who oppose their viewpoints, while also having to think on their feet to answer debate questions shows their capability, their accountability, and their preparation for an election position.” 

Callie Harkins attended the entirety of the event.