(From left to right) Michael Walsh, Eli Galiano, Reilly Flynn and Jory Woods debate with each other. 

The College Democrats and College Republicans squared off for the fifth annual Dukes Debate Tuesday night to discuss their parties’ official policy positions and promote the General Assembly election next week.

Jory Woods, a junior political science major, and Reilly Flynn, a sophomore English major, represented the College Democrats, while Eli Galiano, a senior political science major, and Michael Walsh, a senior political science major and State Sen. Mark Obenshain’s political director, constituted the College Republican opposition.

The debate kicked off with healthcare, an issue also at the forefront of the national debate stage. Zach Hill, the Chief Political Correspondent for Breeze TV and the evening’s moderator, said Medicaid has expanded to cover over 400,000 Virginians in the past year.

Flynn opened with his assertion that healthcare is a “human right,” and said he thinks it’s “disgusting” that 44 million Americans are uninsured. Flynn said the Republican party has consistently “undermined” efforts to expand medical coverage.

Galiano said Democrats’ insistence on universal health care would cost $34 trillion and “bankrupt the country.” Galiano said healthcare isn’t a right, which he said he believes was an intentional choice by the Framers to prevent creating a government “powerful enough to do God’s work.”

The debate stage also tackled women’s rights. Walsh said he was “proud” of the House of Delegates for refusing to pass the Equal Rights Amendment last February. He said equal rights are already guaranteed in the state constitution and labeled it a “back way” to constitutionalize abortions. 

Woods, however, said he was present for the ERA’s failure in the House of Delegates and believes Virginians will be “ashamed” of that outcome. He also said debate participants didn’t offer enough varied perspectives to discuss the issue to the extent it deserved.

“I’m frustrated that it’s two white guys against two white guys,” Woods said. “This debate really didn’t include voices that should have been there, so I don’t consider the conversation on the Equal Rights Amendment to be valid.”

Woods said he hopes next year’s Dukes Debate will feature a more diverse panel.

When debaters addressed gun control, Walsh said Virginia Beach’s new policies — which entail banning magazines of more than 20 rounds, silencers and open-carry in municipal buildings — wouldn’t have prevented the mass shooting there last May. Galiano proposed federal funding for resource officers in every school, hospital, church and movie theater across the country, but he’s opposed to prohibiting military-grade assault weapons.

“You have Beto O'Rourke saying, ‘Hell yes, we’re going to take away your guns,’” Galiano said. “That’s absurd. That’s like saying, ‘Hell yes, we’re going to take away freedom of religion.’”

Woods said gun violence is an “epidemic affecting every community,” and legislators aren’t doing enough to stop it.

“I think we agree that we want the good guy to have the gun ... but we also don’t want the bad guy to have the bigger gun,” Woods said.

The two parties also discussed their solutions to confront climate change. Flynn, originally a Norfolk resident, said the city floods daily and is the most vulnerable city in the country to rising sea levels after New Orleans. He said climate change is an observable and “legitimate existential threat” that requires immediate action.

Galiano, however, said policymakers should use “sober, calm reasoning” to address the issue. He said the average surface temperature on the planet has increased one degree in 100 years. Galiano insists that the issue is “not catastrophic” and that the nation should rely on innovators in the private sector like Elon Musk to solve the issue.

Walsh said carbon emissions have decreased since President Donald Trump announced his intention to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement in 2017. He also announced his support for pipelines in the area.

“We can’t just have a knee-jerk reaction and just stop … and not expect there to be economic consequences,” Walsh said.

Flynn, however, said Virginians shouldn’t be supportive of any infrastructure that encourages the use of fossil fuels. He also said that climate change will primarily impact poorer communities.

Walsh said event attendance more than doubled the previous year’s, potentially the result of a sharp increase in JMU voters. The average student vote rate at JMU more than tripled from 2014’s voter participation rate of 8.8% to 2018’s increased turnout rate of 32.8%.

The 26th District House of Representatives Democratic candidate Brent Finnegan was also in attendance. He said he came to support Woods and Flynn, who’ve been canvassing for him.

“It’s important that students get to hear both sides and the issues that are at stake in this election,” Finnegan said. “I’m supportive of public debates. I really wish that my opponent had agreed to a debate.”

Each party surrendered the floor with a plea to JMU students to vote next Tuesday.

“If we’re not talking about our issues as young people, then no one else will,” Woods said. “We need to be loud in talking about the issues that are affecting us, and that needs to be followed up with actually showing up at the ballot boxes.”

Contact Brice Estes at estes2ba@dukes.jmu.edu. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.