The Virginia primaries are the first statewide elections in a governor’s race since Donald Trump became president. All eyes are turned on the Commonwealth of Virginia. This is your time to send a strong message to D.C!

Two Democrats are locked in a tight race for governor of Virginia heading into the June 13 primary. Polls show that both Tom Perriello and Ralph Northam lead their Republican opponent by double digits. Riding a rising anti-Trump tide, whoever wins this primary election is the strong favorite in a race that could spell disaster for future Republican political hopes.

Ralph Northam

Ralph Northam is the current Lieutenant Governor of Virginia and former state senator. He’s long been a vocal advocate for LGBTQA rights, among other progressive issues “If you sit down, and have a little bit of an understanding of science, and talk with people who are in the LGBT community, you realize that they’re just like the rest of us.”

Northam is a pediatric neurologist. He’s also a veteran and graduate of Virginia Military Institute. His upbringing in Nassawadox, on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, undoubtedly helped shape who he is and his values. The son of a nurse and a judge, his involvement in medicine and politics seems to have been inevitable. He frequently notes that he went to public school during desegregation when other white parents were shipping their kids off to private schools.

Many point out that Ralph Northam, 57, still has that accent that pegs him as a Virginian. His grandfather was a surgeon, his father a judge and his mother a nurse. It was from his mother, he says, that he “learned to give back.”

Politics didn’t become a calling for him until 2007 when he was elected to the state Senate. “I had a lot of frustration with insurance companies, and I was spending a lot of time on the phone getting things authorized for my patients,” says the physician.

The environment was an even bigger factor. “I grew up on the Chesapeake Bay, it was literally my backyard, and I watched the demise of the bay over my 50-plus years,” he says. “I ran in a very conservative district that people said I could never win. I ran on the same Democratic progressive values I run on today.” He lists protecting the environment, marriage equality, women’s reproductive rights, responsible gun ownership, and economic opportunities for all as his top issues.

Northam has taken flak for voting for Republican presidential candidate, George W. Bush—twice. “I was under-informed politically,” he admits. “Knowing what I know now, it was the incorrect vote.”

There is a morality to that admission of the ballots he cast in the privacy of a voting booth. “I did tell the truth,” he says. “My honor is very important to me.”

Honor is a theme that dates to his days at Virginia Military Institute, where during his senior year he was president of the honor court. Following his time at Eastern Virginia Medical School, he served as a physician in the U.S. Army for eight years and treated soldiers from Desert Storm. He left the Army in 1992 as a major.

Northam often mentions that he’s a veteran, and that’s a theme that plays well in conservative parts of Virginia. In 2009, Senate Republicans attempted to woo him to their side of the aisle, which would have given them a state majority, but Northam rejected the GOP. That same year, he got legislation passed that banned smoking in restaurants in tobacco-friendly Virginia.

He says he’s someone who can win statewide, as he did in 2013 “with more votes than anyone has ever gotten in an off-year election.” Says Northam, “We need someone who knows how to win in rural Virginia. We need someone with the backbone to lead the resistance.”

Tom Perriello 

Perriello is running for governor of Virginia on a platform of progressive populism, taking a bold stand on economic issues, and if his message resonates, he will provide a solid foundation for Democrats in 2018 and 2020.

While some Democrats want to abandon Appalachia and Rural America to focus on voter engagement in the suburbs and changing demographics, Perriello appears to view this particular group of constituents as essential to the party’s long-term comeback. “The answer is to do the difficult work of addressing their problems,” said Perriello in an interview before a candidate forum in rural Bristol, Virginia.In western Virginia, the Rust Belt, and thousands of towns that dot the landscape of the Midwest and rural south, years of economic stagnation, job loss and despair are what got Donald Trump into the White House, “But when the smoke clears, Trump’s incompetence and lack of attention to jobs is going to create an opening,” says Perriello.

Perriello’s economic plan includes universal pre-K, equal pay, and increasing the minimum wage, but he also recognizes that the Democratic party needs bolder ideas. His election will be one of the first tests of the Trump presidency; not whether a Democrat can win an already blue Virginia, but whether a Democrat can appeal to Americans who are suffering under crushing economic despair. “To not acknowledge the pain when three Virginians are dying every day from the opioid crisis is not to live up to our progressive values,” says Perriello.

As a former special envoy to the Great Lakes Region of Africa during the Obama administration and a former president of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, Perriello is both wonkish and a soft-spoken man from Virginia. “They say I sound like a think-tank, and that people out here won’t get it,” says Perriello about criticism that his focus on economic consolidation is too complicated to find appeal. “But voters are the ones losing the jobs. They understand exactly what’s happening to the economy and they’re the ones bringing it up to me.”

To unite white working-class voters with working-class minorities who stayed home and didn’t vote last November, Perriello is proposing two years of free community college, trade school and apprenticeship training. “Trump wants to divide communities of color and rural communities,” says Perriello. “But when you look at the biggest consumers of trade school and community college, they’re first and second generation immigrants and kids from rural communities.”

Perriello won a congressional race in southern Virginia by making progressive politics relatable to rural and conservative voters. He used his mailing list to direct supporters to make calls opposing the Republican Affordable Healthcare Act and released an ad crushing an ambulance to symbolize the stakes. His self-deprecation and underdog persona are reminiscent of former Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone, who was also very popular in the heartland.

In this volatile political climate, the electorate wants authentic candidates who will clean up a broken system. And to win back Congress and the White House, Tom Perriello’s supporters believe that Democrats must capture the spirit of this populist mood. “We do think we can win back Trump voters, and nonvoters, but only by standing for stronger progressive values will we appeal to those who feel like the two parties are not responsive,” says Perriello.

This past Monday, Perriello called for a statewide commission on racial healing and transformation, and for removing Lee-Jackson Day from the calendar of state holidays, the latter of which Northam also supports.

In front of the Lee statue, Perriello repeated a theme about his state: “Virginia is the birthplace of American democracy, and it’s also the birthplace of slavery. Each generation makes a decision about which one defines us.”

The Yale-educated son of a physician recognizes his privilege, and how he has tried to use it to help others. When discussing the human rights work he did in Sierra Leone, a place with one of the worst records in the world, he states “I learned I could use the structural privileges I have of race and gender and class to help everyone have a voice.”

Perriello sees himself as bringing a new generation of ideas to a Democratic party that’s seen to be out of touch. “Many of the leaders in both the Democratic and Republican parties are about 25 years behind the curve,” he says. “They’re just waking up to the idea that globalization created pain and inequality. Both parties have been behind the curve of the dynamics that gave rise to Trump in the first place.”

Automation and technology, he says, are going to strip one-third to one-half the jobs in Virginia over the next 15 years, Perriello says, and “re-monopolization” will mean fewer businesses in fewer places. “Donald Trump was right in many ways to call out the economic pain in communities, but he was 25 years out of date about the cause,” says Perriello, in blaming it on “globalization and any minority he could find.”

Perriello’s upsetting the state Democratic applecart did bring some blowback in the first month of his campaign from people who previously had been allies. He says he received two responses when people found out that he was running for office. Privately he was asked, “What are you doing?” The other reaction: “Thank God.”

The platforms 

Listening to Perriello and Northam on the campaign trail, one is struck by how alike they are on the issues. Both support a woman’s right to abortion. Northam voted against the General Assembly’s notorious transvaginal ultrasound bill in 2012, which even conservative Governor Bob McDonnell rejected as too extreme, and that earned him NARAL’s endorsement.

Perriello has gotten heat for his vote in support of the Stupak Amendment, which banned federal funding of abortion in the Affordable Care Act. “There are insinuations I was not pro-choice,” he says. “I’ve always supported Roe v. Wade. Stupak was a vote I’ve long regretted.”

The environment is a big issue for both candidates, and it’s also where they differ. The most notable issue is the future of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which aims to bring fuel down from West Virginia to North Carolina, with the Commonwealth’s rural center being bisected by the project. Perriello has found support from the Western-side of the state where progressive activists have been vocal and persistent against its construction.

Northam points out it’s not a state decision, and that if the project happens, it should be done with transparency, with environmental responsibility and with respect for property rights.That position got him interrupted at The Haven, where two pipeline protesters read a script from their cellphones, demanded his support and were joined by a handful of others who chanted briefly before leaving. Northam responded courteously.

But Northam, who has long fought for the Chesapeake Bay cleanup, has taken a different approach.Rather than aiming to shut the project down, Northam seems to be taking a wait and see position. Because the project crosses state lines, and with Trump in office, it seems increasingly unlikely the Commonwealth alone will be able to fully stop the project, even at the Governor’s request. Instead, he said, there needs to be “transparency and science in the decision-making process.”

Earlier this year, Northam sent a letter to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality which requested the governing body require site-specific permits every time the proposed pipeline crosses a stream, river or other body of water.

“I‘ve done what I can to make sure it’s done environmentally responsibly,” he said. “We have to do what we can at the state level, but if someone stands up as a candidate for Governor and says ‘I’m gonna stop the pipeline in Virginia,’ they’re pandering.” For now, it seems like the project is destined to linger in bureaucratic limbo despite a Fall 2017 estimated start date.

When it comes to the issue of Dominion Resources, a state-regulated utility, and Virginia’s biggest political donor, Perriello has cast himself to Northam’s left by refusing to accept campaign cash from them. Northam on the other hand owns stock in Dominion and has taken more than $100,000 from the group and its executives. Perriello pledged to accept no donations from the power company or any other public utilities.  

Northam has garnered endorsements from many of the state’s Democratic establishment; from Governor McAuliffe, to Senator Tim Kaine, to Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, and a gaggle of other Democratic state legislators.

Formerly a part of the Obama administration, Perriello’s  “populism with a brain” strategy has won him the endorsement of Obama staffers, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.

Northam’s response, when asked about Perriello’s entrance in the race, is gentlemanly, and he notes the “unwavering support” he has from state Democrats, “If we run a good, smart coordinated campaign, we can win the statewide and pick up a number of delegates as well,” he said. “If we do, I think it’s going to be a good day for Democrats – we gotta vote. That’s the bottom line.”

Perriello has similarly framed the primary race as a fight against Trump rather than Northam, and we at Together We Will fully agree with both candidates on this stance. “I believe this isn’t just about the governor’s race,” says Perriello. “It’s a chance to redefine the political landscape for a generation.”

The Virginia, primary will take place on June 13,  the gubernatorial election will be on November 7. These elections will be a chance for Virginia to make a statement about the current administration.

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What You Can Do

All eyes are on this race nationwide as a referendum on the Trump era that could portend future Republican losses in 2018 and 2020. No matter who you vote for on June 13th, both candidates hope that those who care about progressive values will show up again in  November.

Together We Will Virginia and their coalition partners have a motto “don’t post about it vote about it.” They have partnered with all the local grassroots groups in the area and created district teams to work with the candidates on canvassing, phone banking, stuffing envelopes, whatever they need to turn their protest energy into political power. Send a strong message to D.C. by joining them to ensure that a Democrat wins the Virginia governor’s race. Visit their coalition page on Facebook.

For Additional Information

Azadeh Ghafari is a co-founder and Political Strategy Director of Together We Will, and believes in leveling the political playing field for forward-thinking candidates. She seeks to build powerful movements dedicated to electing progressives into office. Azadeh earned a dual bachelor’s degree in history and political science and a minor in economics from UCLA. She went on to earn her dual master’s degree in public policy and social work from USC. Her political areas of interest are higher education reform and tax code analysis. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D in the field of education policy.

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