Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam pretty much had clear sailing to the Democratic nomination for governor when he announced his run in 2015. Attorney General Mark Herring agreed not to run and Northam had the endorsement of Governor Terry McAuliffe and just about everyone in the state Democratic establishment, as well as a sizable war chest.
Then along came Donald Trump, a tsunami of resistant activism—and former 5th District congressman Tom Perriello.
Perriello’s January announcement stunned Dems across the state, and caused some fissures here in his hometown where people who supported his 2008 and 2010 races were already committed to Northam.
Some see Perriello’s progressivism and Northam’s party anointment as a replay of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders’ fight for the presidential nomination last year. And indeed, Perriello has obtained the endorsement of Sanders, as well as the Democratic Party’s other leading progressive figure, Senator Elizabeth Warren.
Others say that’s too simplistic a comparison.
“No new race is identical to a prior race,” says UVA Center for Politics pundit-in-chief Larry Sabato. “Obviously, Perriello is the insurgent, like Sanders, and Northam has the overwhelming backing from Democratic elected officials in Virginia, like Clinton did. But there are plenty of differences, too.”
Perriello’s energy often comes up when people talk about the 42-year-old. Supporter Dave Norris, former Charlottesville mayor, says Perriello “has a great energy. He’s personable. People know he’s going to push for positive change in Richmond.”
Norris finds it telling that Perriello was the only congressional candidate for whom President Barack Obama showed up in 2010. “People appreciate that he sacrificed his congressional career to assure that tens of millions of people could have health care,” he says. And now Perriello wears his ousting after one term for voting for the Affordable Care Act as a badge of honor.
But Northam and his supporters aren’t backing down. Longtime political observer Waldo Jaquith, a Perriello supporter, notes that rather than changing course when Perriello came on the scene, “for the most part, people I know who committed to Northam have doubled down.”
He describes the race as one candidate who gets grassroots enthusiasm and another who quietly chugs along—and wins. “If I were a bookmaker, I would say Northam is the odds on favorite.”
Follow the money
Cash on hand March 31: $3.1 million
Michael Bills: $200,000
Common Good VA: $110,000
Barbara Fried: $5,000
L.F. Payne: $1,000
Cash on hand March 31: $1.7 million
Sonjia Smith: $500,000
George Soros: $250,000
Avaaz Foundation: $230,000
Alexander Soros: $125,000
John Grisham: $25,000
Dave Matthews: $10,000
However, lieutenant governor isn’t the most high-profile office in Virginia, and although Northam has won a statewide office, says Jaquith, “From my perspective, Northam is super boring. I’m nervous in a Trump era to get someone like Northam rather than someone who gets people fired up like Perriello.”
Northam has state experience going for him, says Sabato, with his years in the Senate and four years as the gubernatorial understudy. “Perriello has never served in any state office,” he says, “But Perriello was a high-profile congressman from 2009-2010, and he has the backing of lots of national Democrats—Sanders, Warren and a host of Obama aides.”
Here’s how tight the race is—and how varying polls can be. One taken May 9 and 10 by the Virginia Education Association, which has endorsed Northam, puts him at a 10-point lead with 41 percent of potential primary voters choosing Northam, 31 percent favoring Perriello and a hefty 29 percent undecided.
But a May 9-14 Washington Post-Schar School poll puts Perriello slightly ahead with 40 percent of likely voters to Northam’s 38 percent. “Every indication we have is that it’s a reasonably close contest,” says Sabato. “Primaries tend to be determined in the final weeks and days, as news coverage and advertising ramps up with the approach of election day.”
Perriello polls well among younger voters. But the big question is, will resistance to Trump send those who normally don’t vote in primaries to the polls June 13?
“My opponent in this primary is not Ralph Northam,” says Perriello. “It’s the people who have no idea this primary is going on.”
Perriello is blunt when asked if he’d be running for governor now had Trump not been elected president.
“No,” he says a month before the June 13 primary. “As someone who’s worked in countries with demagogues and authoritarians, I had a strong understanding that this was not some simple transfer of power from Democrats to Republicans, but a deeper attempt to undermine the rule of law and our concepts about living together across racial and regional lines.”
Later that same day, tiki torch-carrying white nationalists would assemble in Lee Park. “Get your white supremacist hate out of my hometown,” Perriello responded in a brief Twitter skirmish with alt-right leader Richard Spencer.
Northam, too, denounced the white-righters, as did many state leaders. But Perriello had a press conference the following Monday and called for a statewide commission on racial healing and transformation, and for booting Lee-Jackson Day from the calendar of state holidays, the latter of which Northam also supports.
In front of the Lee statue, he repeated a theme about his native soil: “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.
Back in Ivy on May 13, Perriello spoke to C-VILLE in the playroom of the 5,300- square-foot Ivy house where he grew up, before talking to several dozen women in the living room for his campaign’s Women with Tom coalition kickoff, and then dashing off to a forum with Northam at The Haven.
The Yale-educated son of a physician acknowledges his privilege, and how he has tried to use it to help others. He tells the women who’ve come to his mom’s house about doing human rights work in Sierra Leone, a place with one of the worst records in the world. A female leader in Sierra Leone asked him to move there, and when he asked why, she replied, “If you’re standing next to me I’m less likely to get shot, and that would be really helpful.”
From Sierra Leone, says Perriello, “I learned I could use the structural privileges I have of race and gender and class to help everyone have a voice.”
When Linda Perriello introduces her son, she refers to him as “a man of conviction” and notes his “conviction politics.”
Family friend David Shreve calls Perriello’s stance the “politics of possibility.” He, too, dismisses a Hillary/Bernie replay, and says instead, “Tom is very astute at discerning the political movement culture.”
Says Perriello about entering the Virginia governor’s race, “The Democratic party had a theory of winning that made sense with Secretary Clinton in the office.” The shift in the political landscape after Trump won, he says, meant “I gave the Democrats a much better chance to win,” as someone who’s been able to win in red parts of the state, “as well as exciting our base that’s going to need turnout to win. ”
Perriello sees himself as bringing a new generation of ideas to a Democratic party that’s 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 destroy 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 Dem applecart did bring some blowback in the first month from people who previously had been allies, and he says he got two responses. Privately he was asked, “What are you doing?” The other reaction: “Thank God.”
An officer and a gentleman
Eastern Shore-raised 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 her, he says, that he “learned to give back.”
Northam, a pediatric neurologist, frequently notes that he went to public school during desegregation when other white parents were shipping their kids to private schools.
Politics didn’t become a calling 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.
Northam has gotten flak for voting for Republican George W. Bush—twice. “I was under-informed politically,” he admits. “Knowing what I know now, it was the incorrect vote.”
There is a moral 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 back to his days at Virginia Military Institute, where during his senior year he was president of the honor court. He initially wanted to fly Navy jets, but learned his eyesight wouldn’t pass muster for that.
Following Eastern Virginia Medical School, he served as a physician in the U.S. Army for eight years and treated casualties from Desert Storm. He left the Army in 1992 as a major.
Northam frequently mentions that he’s a vet, and that’s a point that plays well in conservative parts of Virginia. In 2009, Senate Republicans wooed him to switch teams, which would have given them a majority, but Northam rejected the GOP siren call. That same year, he got legislation passed that banned smoking in restaurants in tobacco-friendly Virginia.
His response when asked about Perriello’s entrance in the race is gentlemanly, and he harkens to the “unwavering support” he has from state Democrats.
“Let’s let people look at our résumés and where we want to take Virginia,” he suggests.
The differences between the two candidates, he says, are that 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.”
Listening to Perriello and Northam on the stump, one is struck by how similar they are on the issues.
Both support women’s rights on abortion. Northam voted against the General Assembly’s notorious transvaginal ultrasound bill in 2012, which even conservative Governor Bob McDonnell rebuffed as too extreme, and that’s 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. Perriello opposes the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, while Northam points out it’s not a state decision, and that if it 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, and then split. Northam responded courteously.
And of course Perriello has hammered on Northam’s acceptance of close to $40,000 from Dominion, while Perriello pledged to accept no donations from the power company or any public utilities.
Northam, in turn, has pointed out Perriello’s $250,000 funding from George Soros and $200,000 from Avaaz, an advocacy group Perriello helped start in 2007, which Northam calls “dark money.”
Says Northam, “He obviously has a lot of out-of-state support. Mine is in Virginia. I’m very proud to have the grassroots support here. This is a Virginia race.”
Perriello got a $500,000 check from local philanthropist Sonjia Smith, while her husband, Michael Bills, has donated $200,000 since 2015 to Northam. Both declined to comment, but in an April 19 op-ed in the Roanoke Times, Smith said it was all about Perriello’s pro-choice stance.
As for the domestic split in candidate support, on the phone Smith would only say, “You’re not the first to point that out.”
The day after the House of Representatives repealed the Affordable Care Act, Tom Perriello released an ad in which an ambulance is being crushed in the background while he stands in front of it and says, “Republican leaders are trying to do this to affordable health care.”
Says Perriello a few weeks later, “I really did do the ambulance ad in one take.”
Apparently scrap ambulances are hard to find, and it’s even harder to find one in a scrapyard that has a crusher. “But, as luck would have it, we found one locally in the D.C. metro area, sans engine, which is where we also shot the ad,” says Perriello staffer Remi Yamamoto.
“It began raining early in the shoot, when we were practicing,” she writes in an email. “So we were all worried that the ad wouldn’t get shot. But it cleared up, and we were able to shoot.”
Unexpected during the live take was how loud an ambulance being crushed is, “which is why Tom had to speak loudly to be heard over the booming noise of the crusher,” she says.
The ad was shot by Washington firm Putnam Partners, which specializes in Dem advertising.
According to the AP, Northam has spent $1.2 million on TV, more than double Perriello’s $500,000.
Both candidates support free community college. “The American dream as we celebrate it has turned from a cycle of opportunity to a cycle of debt,” says Perriello, with students coming out of college $35,000 to $45,000 in debt, and then being told five years later they need a master’s degree.
And he decries the minimum wage track that adds up to $14,000 annual income and a cycle of poverty “that’s unprecedented in America.” Even at the $28,000 living wage levels, a woman loses money if she has to pay for child care, he says.
Both also support criminal justice reform, and note that cell phone theft in a state where a larceny of more than $200 is a felony sends too many minority offenders on a school-to-prison pipeline.
Northam drew applause at The Haven when he said there are a lot of potential medical uses for marijuana and that he supports its decriminalization, as does Perriello.
And both point to a looming 2021, when the voting district lines get drawn. “It’s imperative we have a Democratic governor,” says Northam. “It’s important to stop the gerrymandering.”
He also points out the 111 vetoes McAuliffe signed for legislation from the GOP-controlled General Assembly that, he says, discriminates against LGBTQ people, immigrants and women’s access to health care. “If we didn’t have a Democratic governor, we’d be like North Carolina,” says Northam.
That state’s bathroom bill was bad for business and led to boycotts. When trying to entice companies to Virginia, Northam says one of the first questions he’s asked is whether Virginia is inclusive. And he wants to say, “We’re progressive, and we’re open for business.”
Northam touts his experience in the legislature in a state where the governor gets one term. “You have four years and you’ve got to hit the ground running,” he says. And that’s where having good relationships in the General Assembly will pay off, he says.
But Perriello maintains that generating excitement with new ideas is the way to keep a Democrat in the governor’s mansion. “By getting in this race, a lot more people are excited—a lot of people who don’t normally vote in off-year elections,” he says. “We have to give them a reason to be excited and provide a firewall against the hate and bigotry of Trump.”
And he disputes a common Democratic practice of running a more moderate candidate as “disastrous, because between two Republicans, they’ll vote for the real Republican.”
“The Democratic party is doing a lot of post-2016 posturing,” observes Charlottesville GOP head Erich Reimer. “This race is going to be a toss-up on whether they are more openly progressive or more centrist.”
House Minority Leader David Toscano signed on with Northam more than a year ago, but he’s not dissing Perriello.
“People support Ralph because he’s been running on the issues a long time,” says Toscano. “I like Tom because of his youthful energy, his enthusiasm and his support for progressive issues and the fact he did a great job as a congressman.”
What Toscano likes is that the race is not a choice between “the lesser of two evils.” He thinks the primary will make whoever wins a better Dem candidate in the fall when he will likely face the GOP’s Ed Gillespie, but in May, the primary race is “really unpredictable and comes down to the last few weeks.”
Perriello demonstrates a knack for channeling the enthusiasm of people galvanized by the election of Trump who have been calling their congressman or attending marches and protests since the election—and for putting it into the big picture.
“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.”
Primary season: The other races
While the Ralph Northam/Tom Perriello matchup is the closest horse race in the Old Dominion, there are actually other candidates on the June 13 primary ballot. The GOP is also nominating a gubernatorial candidate, and Ed Gillespie is the odds-on favorite. Six people—three from each party—are vying for the low-profile lieutenant governor job. Here’s a heads-up before you enter the voting booth.
Former adviser to President George W. Bush, former chair of the Republican National Committee
Claim to fame: Nearly upset Senator Mark Warner in 2014. Campaign contributors include Bush and Karl Rove.
Attorney, chair Prince William County Board of Supervisors
Claim to fame: Trump’s campaign chair in Virginia until he was fired has embraced all things Confederate, including Charlottesville’s statue of General Robert E. Lee.
Claim to fame: He’s been totally overshadowed by Stewart’s antics and Gillespie’s enormous war chest.
State senator for 16th District, which includes eastern Albemarle
Claim to fame: Filed a defamation lawsuit against possibly fictitious Martha McDaniel, who sent out an email to his supporters alleging Reeves is having an affair with an aide, which he denies. He has hired Nicole Eramo’s attorney, Libby Locke, who wants to depose his opponent Jill Vogel because the email came from a cell phone registered to Vogel’s husband.
Jill H. Vogel
Claim to fame: See above. Vogel alleges her computer system was hacked and that she’s the victim of a political stunt.
Delegate/CEO OnCall Telecom
Claim to fame: Davis has been completely overshadowed by the Reeves/Vogel contretemps, but he does have a cool-looking campaign RV, and he’s asked for an investigation of Vogel’s ads against him.
Former assistant U.S. attorney now in private practice
Claim to fame: Ran for state attorney general in 2013; endorsed by former 5th District congressman L.F. Payne.
Activist, former chief of staff to then-Senator Joe Biden
Claim to fame: Endorsed by Rosie O’Donnell and Emily’s List; resolved a nearly $100,000 federal tax lien from 2011, which she says occurred after losing a child to addiction and draining retirement funds to pay for rehab.
Former U.S. prosecutor
Claim to fame: Survived a rare disease, amyloidosis; made 235 convictions in Operation Cotton Candy, a multi-year opioid investigation, and trained opponent Justin Fairfax in the Eastern District of Virginia.
Both candidates for attorney general, incumbent Democrat Mark Herring and Republican John Adams, are the only candidates to qualify for their respective parties’ primaries and will be on the ballot November 7.
Toscano gets a challenger
When David Toscano first ran for City Council in 1990, it was as a member of the Citizen Party. In the 27 years since, he’s gone from radical to Democratic establishment as the House of Delegates minority leader. And he faces his first Dem primary challenger in the dozen years he’s been in the House—one who contends Toscano’s not progressive enough.
UVA instructor Ross Mittiga, 28, who’s working on a Ph.D. on the ethical challenges of climate change, is another candidate spurred to action following the election of Donald Trump.
“After I recovered from that, I realized progressive environmentalists have to focus on the local level,” he says. “Delegate Toscano had a great reputation as a liberal lion of the General Assembly.” It’s the contributions from telecommunication corporations, banking, developers and Dominion Energy that concerned him, he says.
In particular, Mittiga questions a Toscano vote that froze Dominion rates, which he calls a “massive giveaway.” And he says he called Toscano’s office “dozens of times” and couldn’t get his position on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. “Those are things that really bothered me,” he says.
When asked whether he’s in Dominion’s pocket, you can almost hear Toscano, 66, rolling his eyes over the phone. “I’d like to think my record stands for itself,” he says.
The more than $200,000 Toscano was sitting on at the end of March comes from a wide variety of donors. “Does that contribution buy a vote?” he asks. “The good news is I have a record. There are times I’ve supported Dominion and times I don’t.”
He has supported renewable energy and fought against the coal tax credit, he says. With endorsements from the Sierra Club and the Virginia League of Conservation Voters, he says, “my environmental bona fides are pretty good.”
Mittiga has endorsements, too: The Democratic Socialists of America and the local Our Revolution, an offshoot of the Bernie Sanders-affiliated Political Revolution.
“A lot of people are really excited” about his campaign raising environmental issues, says Mittiga. And better yet if he can beat the House minority leader who “has a quarter million dollar advantage over us,” he says.