Northam throws NRA jab, Perriello counters with Dominion in otherwise friendly first debate

Travis Fain
Contact Reportertfain@dailypress.com

When the opportunity came to draw blood Saturday during the first debate of the Democratic gubernatorial primary, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam took it.

Former U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello didn't, but would counter later with a question Northam wouldn't answer.

Otherwise, it was a cordial, hour-long debate in a packed middle school auditorium in vote-rich Northern Virginia.

The two men hold roughly the same position on a long list of progressive priorities, though Perriello's is the bolder, and more expensive, agenda. He rolled out a plan Friday to raise taxes by more than $1 billion, in part to cover two-years free community college and vastly expand pre-K in the state.

Northam has nearly a decade's experience in the Virginia General Assembly and endorsements from every elected Democrat in state government. He bills himself as the candidate of incremental, and realistic, progress. Both men promise to continue Gov. Terry McAuliffe's habit of vetoing social legislation from the legislature's Republican majority.

Saturday brought the first of five planned debates ahead of the June 13 primary, and several questions in moderator Tom Sherwood asked each man to ask the other a question, something the candidates had not been told to expect.

With the disadvantage of going first, Perriello lobbed a softball, asking Northam about lessons learned during his term as lieutenant governor.

Northam aimed to do damage, asking about dark money campaign donations and about the National Rifle Association. The gun-rights group supported Perriello as a Congressman, but he has since called it "a nut-job extremist organization."

Northam was even afforded follow up as he pushed the connection, and he used it to ask what changed between Perriello's two year's in congress, 2009 to 2011, and now.

Perriello recalibrated and pointed to Northam's vote on a gun bill in several years that removed a locality's ability to require fingerprints from concealed carry applicants. The Northam camp said the bill was about making practices consistent statewide. Northam didn't cast the deciding vote as Perriello indicated, because the bill passed the Senate 26-14.

"There was never a moment when I was a deciding vote for the NRA," Perriello said Saturday.

As the debate wound down, Perriello used some rebuttal time to hit back. He has distinguished himself from Northam over a pair of planned natural gas pipelines, one a Dominion project to bring gas into Hampton Roads. Perriello has also admonished Virginia's political establishment, including Northam, for taking five-figure campaign donations from Dominion, a state-regulated monopoly and Virginia's largest corporate political donor.

Northam has declined to take a yes-or-no position on the pipelines, but he wrote a letter to the state Department of Environmental Quality asking for a more extensive environmental review, which has since been OK'd.

Did you talk to Dominion, Perriello asked Saturday, before writing that letter?

Northam pivoted to his usual talking points on the pipelines: Their construction, and their routes, will be determined by science, and because federal approval is required its not up to the governor to approve them.

"I've had a lot of discussions with a lot of people and I'm not going to stand here on the witness stand," Northam said.

Perriello, roughly half of whose campaign war chest comes from three large donors, including billionaire George Soros, has railed against Virginia's campaign finance rules, which allow unlimited donations. He has promised not to take money from state-regulated utilities, including Dominion, and said Saturday he'd like to see elections financed by the taxpayer.

Northam said Virignia needs an overhaul of campaign finance rules, but did not go into detail. He pivoted to the issue of redistricting reform. Both men are on record supporting independent redistricting to cut down on partisan gerrymanders.

They also both back a number of new gun control measures and both promised Saturday, as they have in the past, to support abortion rights.

Perriello has taken flack from pro-choice groups over his 2009 vote to bar federal subsidies for insurance plans that include abortion coverage. He has said repeatedly he regrets the vote, which he made as the representative of a fairly conservative congressional district in Central and Southside Virginia.

"I strongly support a woman's right to choose," Perriello said Saturday.

"I have led the fight," Northam said, ticking off a number of Republican measures he's fought, first as a state senator and now as lieutenant governor.

Fain can be reached by phone at 757-525-1759.

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