WASHINGTON — As the race for governor of Virginia picks up, the two Democratic candidates are debating who is more progressive in addition to specific issues that could shape the June primary and November general election.
“If you talk to Virginians around the commonwealth, I think most people are focused on having a job that they can support their family with, certainly having access to affordable and quality health care, making sure that their children have access to a world class education, and being able to live in a community that’s safe,” Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam said in an interview this week.
His primary opponent, former congressman Tom Perriello, has shaped his campaign around more national issues.
“I think it can be a really privileged perspective to think that Donald Trump is not a local issue in Virginia,” Perriello said in a separate interview. “We’ve seen the dehumanization of the most vulnerable, whether that’s refugees or transgender teenagers; these are very local issues.”
Perriello won a U.S. House seat that included the Charlottesville area in 2008, lost it in 2010 and has since lived in Alexandria while working at the State Department under the Obama administration.
“I think there are a couple things people in Virginia want right now: They want to make sure Virginia remains a firewall against the kind of hateful politics that we’re seeing from Donald Trump in Washington that was soundly defeated by Virginians at the polls, and they also want a positive vision of an inclusive economy that doesn’t leave any regions of the state or communities, including communities of color, behind,” he said.
With the primary in just over three months, polls have suggested that few voters know enough about either candidate to have a strong opinion.
“I think as this campaign unfolds, people will get to know me, they’ll understand my resume, where we want to take Virginia, and the fact that we have been very successful with economic development in Virginia,” Northam said.
Turnout in the last three governor’s races has been between 40.4 percent and 45 percent, far below the 70.79 percent to 74 percent turnout in presidential election years since 2004.
“I think it’s a mistake for Democrats to just assume that anti-Trump energy is inherently pro-Democratic Party energy; we have to earn that,” Perriello said.
He said he hopes Democrats will be able to flip a significant number of seats in the house of delegates, where Republicans today have a 66-34 majority.
“If we turn out in state elections, we can run the tables on the delegate seats and local races. If we have a candidate at the top of the ticket who is passionate about these issues and can speak to the fullness of our coalition, if we can build those bridges to where the energy is and make them excited about this campaign, I think we could see a very different legislature next year,” Perriello said.
Northam said the “tremendous, tremendous consequences” of the election range from women’s health, gun rights, the environment and the economy to the 2021 redistricting process. House Republicans blocked a plan, supported by a number of Senate Republicans during the General Assembly session that ended Saturday, that would have established a nonpartisan redistricting system that might have reduced political gerrymandering.
The district lines drawn in 2011 have been the subject of court fights, including a Supreme Court decision Wednesday that sent a challenge to districts established based on the number of voting-age black residents back to a lower court.
Northam, who represented Norfolk and the Eastern Shore in the state Senate before winning statewide office four years ago, has tied himself to current Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe.
“I think we’ve planted some very good seeds in some fertile ground, and those are going to grow to fruition,” Northam said of economic development efforts.
He said his background as a pediatric neurologist could help Virginia navigate the uncertainty at the federal level surrounding the next steps for health care policy.
Perriello also promised to follow McAuliffe’s lead on several issues, including consistent vetoes of bills from the heavily Republican house of delegates tied to issues such as restricting abortion.
Perriello has not always voted that way. He voted to restrict abortion funding as part of the Affordable Care Act.
“I did pledge in a conservative district that I would respect the Hyde Amendment in the [Affordable Care Act], which was an unfortunate pledge, but I did keep it, and I have similarly pledged that I will remain the brick wall Gov. McAuliffe has been, vetoing these regressive bills against women on affordability and access to reproductive services. That’s something that’s going to be very important to me, and since I’ve kept my word on that in the past, I will continue to keep my word on that,” Perriello said.
Northam has an issue or two of his own that do not fit neatly into the progressive mantle for which the two candidates are vying. For one, Northam voted for George W. Bush.
“I didn’t pay that much attention to politics [at the time], but I can tell you, knowing what I know now, it was the wrong vote then. The Bush administration’s values are certainly not in line with what I believe in,” Northam said.
“I don’t think people are worried about who I voted for 17 years ago. They’re going to be more worried about how we move Virginia forward, how we make sure all Virginians have good jobs and can raise their families in Virginia,” he added.
Both Perriello and Northam said more investment in transportation is needed to help Northern Virginia remain an economic driver for the state.
“We are very concerned about Metro in Northern Virginia; it’s just a vital part of your all’s economy there, and so we are looking for transparency; we are looking for good management; we are looking for safety in the Metro system, and Virginia will be at the table — we plan to be at the table, but we’re not spending any more taxpayers’ money until we get those things straight,” Northam said.
Perriello, who says he did not use Metro even when he lived very close to the Braddock Road station because he didn’t feel it was reliable, said that the state needs to focus on making the region affordable, improved telework and improved public transportation to keep the highest-quality professionals in the area.
“The number of toll roads, while it’s been positive to get some development going, really does become quite a morass out there as you’re going around, so I think we need to think bigger about how we can use public transit and rail here in Northern Virginia,” Perriello said.
Education, jobs and Northern Virginia
Northam and Perriello have each introduced plans for debt-free community college in the state.
Northern Virginia has long complained that the region does not get enough support from Richmond. Perriello believes one way to address those complaints is to increase growth elsewhere.
“I think part of the solution, frankly, is to help develop parts of the state that have been a net drain economically on the budget, but have great potential to be part of the clean energy future, part of decentralized food production and other things that I think could actually create some synergies between Northern Virginia and, say, some of the southwestern parts of the state,” he said.
Perriello says he has declined to accept money from Dominion Power, one of Virginia’s most powerful lobbyists, and hoped some of the growth he seeks could be tied to clean energy jobs, criminal justice reforms and the proposals to expand access to community colleges and apprenticeships.
“I think when Democrats run on a status quo message we lose, and when we run on a change message we win, and that’s because there are these deep challenges in the economy — and this isn’t about Gov. McAuliffe or President Obama or even President Trump. We’re seeing a reconsolidation in the economy; we’re seeing the challenges of automation, and people are feeling less sense of even sovereignty over their own futures,” Perriello said.
He called trickle-down policies, which promise lower taxes on wealthier people will boost the economy, a “lie.”
“Growth is actually based on the purchasing power of the working and middle class; when people have more money to spend they tend to spend it and spend it locally,” Perriello said.
Northam said he believes the state is in a good position to promote high tech jobs in fields such as cybersecurity, drones, biotechnology and data analysis with increased job training.
“Our probably largest challenge in Virginia is that we have always been dependent on the military and government contracting, and we always will be, but those resources aren’t what they used to be,” he said, citing the threats of federal budget cuts, sequestration and other changes.
Northam, who served in the Army, also raised the importance of addressing veterans’ issues, including homelessness and job opportunities.
Polls show that voters may know even less about those running for the other two statewide offices: lieutenant governor and attorney general.
Registered Democratic candidates for lieutenant governor are former federal prosecutors Justin Fairfax and Gene Rossi and former Joe Biden chief of staff Susan Platt; Republican candidates for lieutenant governor are Del. Glenn Davis, state Sen. Jill Vogel and state Sen. Bryce Reeves. For attorney general, Republicans are set to nominate either former prosecutor John Adams or Virginia Beach attorney Chuck Smith to challenge Democratic incumbent Mark Herring, who has no challenger for the nomination.
WTOP will also speak with the Republican candidates in the run-up to the June 13 open primaries. The Republican candidates for governor are former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie, state Sen. Frank Wagner, Prince William County Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart and distillery owner Denver Riggleman.