Va. governor hopefuls Northam, Perriello clash in Norfolk debate

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The candidates each cast themselves as Democrats who can win the race for governor in conservative Virginia in a debate in Norfolk Tuesday, with Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam detailing policy moves he's already made in Richmond and former U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello calling for bolder new ideas.

The two clashed over who was the most in favor of cracking down on gun violence, the most likely to protect access to abortion and the most committed to promoting renewable energy to address sea-level rise.

And they clashed over a basic approach to government.

"The first question that should be asked is, 'How are we going to pay for it?'" Northam said.

"I don't think the first question was how do you pay for it, I think the first question is how do we address the problems that plague the state," Perriello shot back.

Northam said the next governor needed to be practical and realize tax increases were never going to happen in Virginia. Perriello said his tax reform proposal — a half-percentage point increase in the rate people earning more than $500,000 and a full percentage point increase for people with incomes over $1 million — would help pay for education and mental health improvements.

"Virginia deserves a leader that No. 1 knows how to win," Northam said, summing up his claim to the Democratic nomination in the June 13 primary.

"We can't afford to change things on the margins," Perriello said.

Both men said they'd push for universal background checks for gun purchases and a return to the one-gun-a-month cap that former Gov. Douglas Wilder pushed through in the 1990s. Perriello said he favored limits on high capacity magazines and Northam called for an assault weapons ban.

"I'm the only candidate who's never had an A rating from the NRA," Northam said, repeating earlier criticism of the support Perriello won from the National Rife Association in his unsuccessful 2010 bid for re-election to Congress.

He also reiterated criticism of Perriello's vote in Congress for an amendment that would have blocked payment for abortion through subsidized Obamacare plans.

Perriello said his experience representing Southside Virginia convinced him that he could create consensus on gun control measures. He also said he would protect women's access to abortion and support universally available contraception.

Asked about ethics reform in the wake of the scandal over former Gov. Bob McDonnell's acceptance of gifts from a businessman seeking favors, both called for a crackdown on Virginia's lax campaign finance laws.

"We should be appalled at how we finance our elections," Perriello said, calling for either public funding of campaigns or caps on donations.

"It's been the wild, wild west," Northam said, adding that he would ban corporate donations and cap individual donations at $10,000.

Perriello repeated his opposition to Dominion Energy's Atlantic Coast Pipeline, while Northam noted he had pushed for the Department of Environmental Quality to do site-specific permitting, to focus on the impact the line could have on streams and other sensitive areas, as opposed to the blanket permit the agency would normally do.

Democrats avoided the common pattern of a lieutenant governor-versus-attorney general contest for the gubernatorial nomination last September, when Attorney General Mark Herring decided to seek re-election rather than run for governor, while endorsing Northam.

But in January, Perriello announced he would run against Northam, saying he wanted to run to send a message that Virginia rejects the ideology and attitudes of President Donald Trump.

Northam, an Eastern Shore native who works as a pediatric neurologist in Norfolk, was elected lieutenant governor in 2013 and was first elected to the state Senate in 2007.

Perriello was elected to the House of Representatives from the fifth district in 2008 but was defeated in the 2010 election by since-retired Rep. Robert Hurt.

The debate in the Norfolk studio of WHRO-TV was the fourth of the five they have scheduled ahead of the June 13 primary.

Cathy Lewis, who hosts HearSay on WHRV-FM, moderated.

Republican candidates Ed Gillespie, Corey Stewart and Frank Wagner have finished with their series of debates.

Ress can be reached by phone at 757-247-4535.

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