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Monday, May 1, 2017

Northam, Perriello face off in primary debate

Left to right: Virginia Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, moderator Tom Sherwood, and Tom Perriello.
The Democratic candidates for governor – Ralph Northam and Tom Perriello – faced off in a debate April 29 that highlighted a few differences, on guns and proposed pipelines, for example, but for the most part, the candidates presented similar views on most issues.

Both came out strong against the Trump Administration.

Northam vowed to “stand up to the narcissistic maniac on the other side of the Potomac River” and “stand up against hate and recklessness.” He said it’s important to harness the energy of the resistance to restore a Democratic majority in the statehouse.

Ralph Northam greets supporters before the debate.
Perriello said one of his main goals is to “fiercely resist the agenda of hate from the Trump Administration.” He called Trump “the most overtly racist president” and said he would not comply with any acts of the Trump Administration that are unconstitutional.

Northam, the current lieutenant governor who had served in the Virginia Senate (2008-14), clearly has more experience in government and has been endorsed by Virginia’s governor and two senators, and Democratic leaders in the statehouse. Perriello served one term in the U.S. Congress (2009-11), representing the Charlottesville area, and later served in the Obama Administration as a special envoy to Africa.

“People want someone who knows how to win,” said Northam, noting that he was elected to the Senate in a conservative district in the Tidewater area. As an example of his ability to work with both sides of the aisle, he touted his success in taking on the tobacco industry when he secured passage of a bill banning smoking in restaurants.

The winner of the Democratic primary will be on the ballot in November, along with the winner of the Republican primary, who is most likely to be Ed Gillespie, former chair of the Republican National Committee. Both primary elections are June 13.

The debate, at Sidney Lanier Middle School in Fairfax, was moderated by NBC4 political reporter Tom Sherwood and was sponsored by the Fairfax County Democratic Committee and the Virginia chapter of Emerge USA. Here’s what the candidates said on several key issues:


Both candidates support raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads have been too dependent on the military and government contracting, so the economy needs to be diversified, Northam said, citing such areas for growth as cybersecurity, biotechnology, data collection, and unmanned aerial systems.

Perriello spoke about making higher education affordable and supporting workforce development programs at community colleges. That’s an investment that drives growth, he said, while investing in corporations “creates consolidation that stifles growth.” 


As a pediatric neurosurgeon who treated toddlers with gunshot wounds, Northam said he has seen the damage caused by gun violence first hand. He called for more restrictions on guns, including a ban on assault weapons, universal background checks, and limiting gun purchases to one a month. 

Perriello, who in the past had a positive rating from the National Rifle Association, called the NRA “an organization of survivalists” and a “nut job.” He supports stricter background checks and vowed to continue Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s practice of vetoing “terrible legislation that makes gun laws more permissive and communities less safe.”

Tom Perriello (left) speaks to audience members after the debate.

Northam called for higher pay for teachers, more funding for prekindergarten and school support staff, and reform of standardized testing.

Perriello favors moving from a K12 to a preK14 approach to include universal preschool and two years of tuition-free higher education, such as trade school or community college. Considering the economic benefit of having two years of postsecondary education, he said the return on investment to taxpayers is $400,000 on a $10,000 investment.

When Sherwood asked about their positions on a 25 percent limit of out-of-state students at Virginia state-supported colleges, both candidates agreed that Virginia residents should have a priority in admissions. That isn’t happening now, Northam said, because the state is underfunding higher education.

Northam recommended that students receive free tuition at community colleges in return for spending one year in public service. Perriello said free tuition should be seen as an investment, not a handout.


Perriello said he strongly supports women’s right to choose, saying they need “meaningful and affordable access to that right.” That right should be in the Virginia Constitution, he said, vowing to be a “brick wall” against the antiabortion bills introduced in the General Assembly.

Northam noted that he led the fight in the Senate against the “personhood” bill, transvaginal exams, and other anti-abortion bills. “These pieces of legislation are to shame a woman in a decision that should be between her, her doctor, and her partner,” he said.


“Watching the demise of the Chesapeake Bay is what drove me to politics,” Northam said. During his time in Richmond, he supported funding to restore the health of the bay and opposed offshore oil drilling, fracking, and uranium mining.

Regarding the two natural gas pipelines proposed by Dominion Virginia Power, he said if the pipelines are built, it should be done “with transparency and science.”

Perriello opposes the pipelines. He called climate change “the existential threat of our time” and urged massive increases in monitoring clean air and water at the state level.

Both candidates spoke about the need to promote renewable energy.


Sherwood noted that Northam has been criticized for accepting donations from Dominion Power, while most of Perriello’s campaign funds are from a few wealthy donors. Northam charged Perriello had received funds from the NRA in the past, and Perriello said he is not accepting donations from the NRA during this campaign.

Both called for comprehensive reforms in campaign financing. Perriello said state-regulated monopolies should not be allowed to contribute to candidates and said his refusal to take money from Dominion is a chance to break the utility’s “stranglehold preventing clean energy jobs.”

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