Youngkin declines debate in part over moderator Woodruff

RICHMOND, Va. — Republican gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin’s campaign announced Monday that the political newcomer would not debate Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe at a perennial event hosted by the state bar association, in part because of the journalist moderator.

Jeff Roe, a strategist for Youngkin, told The Associated Press that the campaign felt veteran journalist Judy Woodruff would not be an impartial moderator of the Virginia Bar Association debate scheduled for later this month. He said the campaign took issue with a $250 charitable donation Woodruff made over a decade ago to Clinton Foundation earthquake relief efforts in Haiti, because of McAuliffe’s close ties to Bill and Hillary Clinton.

“We’re just not going to debate two-on-one,” Roe said.

Roe also said the campaign disagreed with the degree of autonomy that would be granted to Woodruff to choose the debate’s questions and wanted to see a portion of the debate dedicated to economic issues and jobs.

Woodruff, a veteran journalist with deep experience covering politics, is the anchor and managing editor of “PBS NewsHour.” She also worked at NBC News and CNN and has covered every presidential election since 1976.

She’s moderated several national debates, including the 1988 presidential debate between Dan Quayle and Lloyd Bentsen and a Republican presidential primary debate in Iowa in 2012, and has previously moderated several bar association debates.

Earlier this year she was awarded the inaugural Peabody Award for Journalistic Integrity. Peabody, which recognizes excellence in broadcasting, called Woodruff “one of the most trusted broadcast journalists in America” and said she had earned her reputation for delivering “unbiased, fact-based news stories without the hype.”

Sara Just, the executive producer of “NewsHour,” tweeted that the criticism of Woodruff was “outrageous” and that the donation was in response to a bipartisan call from both Clinton and former President George W. Bush for relief assistance.

The event, a Virginia political tradition that offers voters a chance to hear directly from the candidates fairly early in the campaign season, would have been the 10th consecutive gubernatorial debate hosted by the nonpartisan organization.

Yvonne Cockram, executive director of the bar association, did not immediately respond to a request for comment but the group posted a notice on its website saying the event had been canceled.

“The VBA has been grateful to be part of the political conversation in Virginia for more than 30 years. We are disappointed that a statewide debate will not be a part of this year’s program,” the association said.

McAuliffe, who in mid-June announced his intention to participate in the bar association debate, along with four others, said the decision showed Youngkin lacked “courage.”

“His refusal to participate in this debate is an insult to Virginians and shows that Glenn knows just how out of step he is with the people of the Commonwealth,” said McAuliffe, who is seeking a second, nonconsecutive term in office.

After McAuliffe’s campaign announced in mid-June the debates he intended to participate in, the Youngkin campaign was initially silent on the schedule. A spokeswoman then said the candidate would participate in at least one debate and was open to doing two others.

Youngkin’s campaign on Monday confirmed he planned to participate in three debates: one hosted by Hampton University, Liberty University and the Virginia Peninsula Chamber of Commerce in late August; one at the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy in September; and a “to-be-determined host and location in mid-October.”

The Appalachian School of Law event is the only one both men have committed to.

“Glenn Youngkin looks forward to debating career politician and Clinton crony Terry McAuliffe, and hearing him explain his poor performance as governor,” Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter said in a statement.

Woodruff’s donation to the earthquake relief effort, which a PBS ombudsman has previously called a “ mistake,” has been the subject of reporting by Fox News and Breitbart in recent days.

After the initial disclosure of her donation in 2015, Woodruff said on the air that her gift was part of a joint fundraising effort called the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund, Politico has previously reported.

The devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake in 2010 left a death toll ranging from around 100,000 to more than 300,000 people.

Associated Press writer Dave Bauder contributed to this report from New York.