The two candidates vying for the Democratic party’s gubernatorial nomination took vastly different approaches to their fourth debate on Tuesday in Norfolk, with Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam primarily sticking to his record in the General Assembly and Tom Perriello striking a combative tone against President Donald Trump and Republicans.
Northam has staked much of his candidacy on his ability to get things done in Richmond, where Republicans control the General Assembly. Perriello has focused much of his candidacy by saying he could better stand up to the Trump administration.
Virginia is one of two states electing governors this year, and the race is seen by many outside the commonwealth as a potential referendum on Trump’s popularity and the future direction of the Democratic party.
Perriello used his opening statement at WHRO-TV’s studios in Norfolk to attack Trump, referencing the firing of FBI director James Comey and the revelation that Trump shared classified intelligence with Russia that was provided by another nation.
“President Trump in recent weeks has demonstrated a willingness to obstruct justice and a reckless willingness to share intelligence with some of those who are not exactly our allies,” he said. “These are incredibly serious charges.”
Following the debate, Northam told reporters he wanted a special prosecutor appointed to investigate Trump. But he said the state’s Democratic U.S. senators and other congressmen could focus on that, and he was more interested in Virginia-specific issues and highlighting the differences between him and Perriello.
During the debate, Northam dismissed Perriello’s plan to raise taxes on the wealthiest Virginians, saying it simply isn’t feasible in the current political climate in Richmond. Touting his ability to win elections, Northam also said — if he wins his party’s primary — Republicans couldn’t say he wants to raise taxes during the general election.
Perriello scoffed at the notion that taxes couldn’t be raised, saying Virginians are willing to ask those who make more than $500,000 a year to pay more for universal pre-K education and two years of free community college as a means to economic development. Perriello often repeated that he’s the only candidate who has released a plan to pay for all the programs he would like to implement.
Perriello, who is from Charlottesville, referenced the locally unpopular tolls between Norfolk and Portsmouth as an example of what happens when the state fails to make the investments it needs. Northam, who lives in Norfolk, said better leadership is needed to make sure private-public partnerships such as the one that resulted in tolls on the Midtown and Downtown tunnels work better.
Throughout the debate, the two candidates rarely addressed the other’s platform and background directly. One exception, though, was Northam’s repeated reference to Perriello receiving an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association when he was in Congress. As he mentioned in the debate, Perriello has since earned an “F” rating and called the NRA a “nut-job extremist organization.” Both candidates said they’d support universal background checks for gun purchases.
One of the other differences highlighted by Northam is that Perriello supported the Stupak-Pitts Amendment while he was in Congress, which said nothing in President Barack Obama’s health care law could pay for abortions. Perriello has since said he regrets that vote and would like to see a constitutional amendment protecting abortion in case the Supreme Court ever overturns Roe v. Wade.
Northam touted his endorsement from NARAL Pro-Choice America and his opposition to Republican efforts in the General Assembly to make abortions more difficult to obtain.
”I have unequivocally been pro-choice. We don’t need someone who’s going to be multiple choice,” Northam said.
The Democratic and Republican primaries are June 13.
The Democratic winner will face the Republican winner, either political strategist Ed Gillespie, Prince William Board of County Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart or state Sen. Frank Wagner of Virginia Beach.
WHRO said Republicans were invited to have their own debate but declined the invitation.