The daily going-ons of the White House may portend misfortune, but Virginia is likely a better indicator of our country’s future.
Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam and former Congressman Tom Perriello met in Norfolk for a debate last night, each vying for the Democrat’s spot in the race for governor. With the June 13th primary less than a month away, they hope to ride the wave of activism motivated by a disappointing 2016.
For many activists and voters, it would be easy to see echoes of 2016 in this run-off. Northam was all but guaranteed the nomination before Perriello announced his surprise run in January. Both avoid the comparison, but some voters see Northam and Perriello repeating the conflict between Clinton and Sanders. Their respective styles are definitely familiar.
Tom Perriello got to start the night off with fairly standard comments on the criminal justice system and education. Then he got serious. “President Trump in recent weeks has demonstrated a willingness to obstruct justice and a reckless willingness to share intelligence with those who are not exactly our allies . . . I think that it is important that we see leaders in Washington start to proceed with impeachment and special prosecutor proceedings.”
Ralph Northam had a few things to say about Trump as well. “I would be the first to step up and say that our current president is dangerous. Not only for this country, but for the Commonwealth of Virginia.”
In discussing Trump, Perriello and Northam follow the same themes. But Tom Perriello is comfortable as a firebrand with grand plans, and Ralph Northam is comfortable as the familiar face who can get laws passed. It’s a conflict that made Sanders and Clinton compelling adversaries, and its return to the debate stage was like watching an old episode of a good show (a show that has since jumped the shark). But if we are to choose the best candidate we need to see past that script, and see these men for the complex players they are.
Congressman Perriello’s greatest claim to fame is when he voted for the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, and likely lost his reelection because of it. It was an admittedly bold move, and Barack Obama did not forget it: Perriello earned international work in the state department, and he was the only candidate Obama campaigned for in 2010. He’s now got the endorsements of Senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and a number of other Democrats close to Obama.
For hard-line progressives, though, Perriello doesn’t have an unblemished record. 2010 was also the year the National Rifle Association endorsed Perriello, and his support of the ACA was perhaps undercut by his vote for the anti-choice Stupak-Pitts Amendment. Perriello said he regrets both those decisions and spoke yesterday about the need for universal background checks and pro-choice legislation.
Even if voters forgive him, they will likely wonder if Perriello can achieve all of his goals. Perriello wants to raise taxes on the wealthy and raise the minimum wage to $15. He wants to invest in solar energy and block the construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. He wants universal pre-K education, as well as guaranteed two years of community college for students. He wants to decriminalize marijuana, in part to address the “systemic racism” in the criminal justice system.
For me, it was perhaps Perriello’s fluency with the language of racial justice that most distinguished him from Northam, not to mention Bernie Sanders. Speaking on Virginia’s history of racism and unequal standards, he said, “We must take them head on and address the fact that we continue to have massive structural, racial inequality in this state. We put out a paper on the racial wealth gap, we looked at it both in terms of access to capital, access to housing, as well as how the criminal justice system continues to make this effectively a new Jim Crow state here in Virginia.” His website is somewhat light on details, but what is there and what he said in his debate indicates that Perriello is sensitive to important civil rights issues. Hopefully he can be pressed to elaborate further.
Lieutenant Governor Northam’s impressive career includes two terms as a state senator, eight years as an active duty Army doctor, a history as a business owner and pediatric neurosurgeon, and a doctor at the Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters in Norfolk. He used his medical expertise and state senate position to help ban smoking in most Virginia restaurants, and he is fighting now to legalize medical marijuana, as well as the decriminalization of marijuana. As Lieutenant Governor, Northam claims a role in many important successes of recent years, including a lowered unemployment rate, a growing solar industry, and the addition of 13,000 spots for pre-K students in Virginia. His history earned him endorsements from Governor Terry McAuliffe, Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, and all but one of Virginia’s Democratic congressmen.
Of course, that history means he comes with baggage. Northam is somewhat infamous for having considered switching parties in 2009, which would have granted Republicans a significant boost in power at the state level. He also admitted to voting for George W. Bush twice, a vote he— and every Democrat supporting him— now regrets. And while there’s no chance of him changing allegiances, voters in 2017 may be less interested in compromise when the GOP seems more ideological and scandal-burdened than ever. There’s no guarantee those stories won’t weigh him down on voting day.
But Northam continues to rely on his experience, and it’s a good tactic for him. He boasts a 100% rating from NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, in part because he fought on behalf of a 2016 bill providing long-acting reversible contraceptives like IUDs to low-income women. He’s won sizable margins in past elections, he’s more fiscally conservative than his counterpart, and he supports campaign finance reform. He argues he’s ready to stand against the “recklessness and hatred in Washington.” He can safely draw votes by portraying himself as the reliable progressive.
One odd moment from the debate came from Northam’s closing statement. In addressing racial tensions and violence, he said he maintains hope in part due to babies. “When you look into a baby’s eyes, you don’t see the hatred and the bigotry that we so often see in our society now. You see love and affection and joy. This election to me is about, ‘What are those babies going to grow up to be?’” I appreciate the sentiment, and I am glad for hopefulness. I do hope Northam has plans for addressing racial inequality that mature faster than newborn babies do.
A Case for Optimism
Optimism is hard for some voters this year; our country is headed by a historically-unpopular president, and this week’s news cycle does not suggest he’ll reverse that trend anytime soon. Beyond that, many voters are hurt by the loss of Hillary Clinton, a woman they’ve supported for more than twenty years, or even the primary loss of Bernie Sanders, a candidate who invigorated many young voters. Asking them to gear up for another election cycle is like asking them to return to the dating scene after a bad break-up.
But there is reason to hope for Virginia voters, especially those who will vote for a Democrat in June and November. My hopefulness stems from the fact that we have two qualified, progressive candidates, each of whom are responsive to their increasingly-active base. This last point is especially important: Perriello echoes his constituents when he critiques the White House’s “racist dog whistles,” and Northam has grown bolder in recent months, calling Donald Trump a “narcissistic maniac” in a television spot. These changes alone do not qualify the candidates for our support, but they prove we have their ears.
So, if you are hoping for strong Democratic leadership, it may very well be available in our state. Register to vote (DEADLINE MONDAY), call their offices, and tell them what issues matter most to you. I’d encourage you to ask after racial and LGBT justice; the latter in particular was barely touched upon in the debate. And then, please, vote on June 13. We have good cause for hope.