The first of five Democratic Primary gubernatorial debates between Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam and former congressman Tom Perriello was held last Saturday night at Sidney Lanier Middle School in Fairfax. The two contenders have only a little more than a month to go before a June 13 primary election.
Heading into the debate, the candidates were pitched as opposites on few key issues and that held true for the hour-long session.
Northam and Perriello openly agreed on what to do regarding most topics: dedicate funding to Virginia’s public schools and make higher education more affordable, grant unrestricted abortion access, enforce tighter gun control laws, revise how campaigns are financed and invest in the environment.
They also agreed on issues specific to Northern Virginia such as using state funds to bring the Metro up to speed, dilute traffic congestion and redirecting state-mandated aid to in-need schools. All were identified as areas of focus in both candidates’ prospective term. Above all, they shared a mutual distaste for President Trump.
Tone and methodology, however, is what may distinguish the two and decide votes come June 13. Thus, with style and tactics weighted heavier, their contrasting approaches took center stage.
A pediatric neurologist, war veteran and seasoned Virginia politician, Northam let his resume do most of the talking while conveying an understanding of the crowd through shared experiences. He touted his reputation as a “winner” in Virginia’s Republican-dominated General Assembly and referenced his progression through the ranks in state politics when appropriate.
At the same time, Northam’s wife is one of Virginia’s underpaid teachers and he’s seen the Chesapeake Bay deteriorate while growing up on the eastern shore. His policy plans weren’t covered in great depth, but Northam assured Virginians he was more in tune with their wants and needs.
“I’m the Virginia establishment; [Perriello’s] the Washington establishment,” Northam said. “This race is about the Commonwealth of Virginia and I think people across the state are really recognizing that.”
Northam’s strategy wasn’t aggressive, but meshed well with the casual mood set by moderator and NBC 4 reporter Tom Sherwood. Perriello joined in some of the joking, although he spent most of his time laying out his vision of economic revitalization.
Perriello’s proposed tax reform would make preschool universal and ensure two years of community college or trade school are state-funded. As a result, more citizens would receive higher paying jobs (and subsequently, enter higher tax brackets). That fits into his grander scheme of bolstering the middle class by equipping them with more disposable income.
It’s not far off from Northam’s education plan, which requires a year of community service post-education as collateral, but Perriello says it’s a part of a “fundamental change” to economics and believes voters agree.
“Primary voters … see us leading the race, and not just in the polls but on policy.” Perriello said. “We’re trying to be a ‘Greatest Hits’ album – take the managerial experience and policy depth of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, the understanding that the system is corrupt and inequality is crushing from the Bernie world and the focus on a hopeful message from Obama, who was my political mentor.”
Little blood was drawn between the two candidates. When prompted by Sherwood to ask each other a question, Perriello was caught off guard and slow-pitched Northam a question about what everyone could learn about the Democratic party from his experience.
Northam wasn’t as forgiving, pegging Perriello about accepting “dark money” from hidden campaign donors and alluding to his former relationship with the National Rifle Association. The former congressman denied accepting money from the NRA for his campaign and reminded everyone he called it a “nut-job extremist organization,” assuring the crowd he’s been off their payroll.
Perriello swung back later when he questioned Northam’s stance about the ecologically insensitive Atlantic Coast pipeline being built by Dominion Power, a state-regulated monopoly with a history of influence in Virginia politics in both parties, and how those ties factored into a letter Northam sent to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. Northam deflected the question by stating, “I’m not going to stand up here on the witness stand,” and emphasized the importance of maintaining a working relationship.
That was the extent of the any harsh words on stage. Post-debate Northam singled out Perriello’s inconsistency on gun control, abortion rights and the environment to the News-Press. Perriello told the News-Press he’ll handle any new points of contention at today’s (Thursday) debate in Roanoke, but otherwise will continue to champion his reformed tax code as the answer to Virginia’s problems. With just over a month to go before the primary, both aim to keep making impressions on undecided voters.
“I know both candidates. [Perriello] is a smart guy and could win this nomination. [Northam] has upped his game. He’s very articulate, very knowledgeable and does have that smoothness Perriello doesn’t,” said Loren Hershey, a 40-year resident of Fairfax County in attendance. “I think Perriello will help to change the politics of Virginia for the better, but I don’t think he’ll win the governorship.”