Northam, Perriello, fight over liberal street cred at union hall debate

Travis Fain
Contact Reportertfain@dailypress.com

The Democratic hopefuls in this year's governor's race sparred Tuesday over their progressive credentials, poking at weaknesses in the other's resume.

Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam voted for President George W. Bush, twice, something former U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello brought up unbidden.

Perriello has taken heat from the left for an abortion vote he took during his one term in Congress, and for the support he once enjoyed from the National Rifle Association. Tuesday, during a live televised debate at a union hall in metro Richmond, Northam said Perriello was a Libertarian before 2009, and only became a Democrat to run for office.

"That's not true," Perriello shot back.

"I've got it," Northam replied. "I'll show it to you after."

Northam's press staff didn't wait that long, emailing reporters a 2009 Real Clear Politics piece that said something similar: That Perriello was a Libertarian at heart who became a Democrat "basically when I decided to run."

Northam also noted that Perriello went on Fox News, of all places, during his unsuccessful re-election campaign and said he'd voted with his Republican colleagues 60 percent of the time. The question during that interview, posed by his opponent, essentially accused him of having an overly liberal voting record.

On Tuesday, Perriello shot back at Northam that he campaigned for Doug Wilder, Virginia's first black governor, as 9th grader and spent his life fighting for progressive values.

"He literally had Dukakis posters on his bedroom wall," spokesman Ian Sams said after the debate.

Other than this back-and-forth, which has played out at times before in this campaign, the debate focused on policy, where the two men differ only in scale on most issues.

Perriello's is the bolder, and much more expensive. He would seek an estimated $1.1 billion in new tax revenue to pay for free community college, universal pre-K and a new paid family leave requirement in the private sector.

Northam supports all the same ideas, but has pitched a more graduated strategy, partly because Republicans hold a majority of the General Assembly. His community college proposal clocks in at $37 million, according to the campaign, and he has not put a timetable or a cost on his own calls to expand pre-K.

"I think we have to be realistic in Virginia," Northam said.

But Northam also said he believes the private sector will help fund both community college subsidies and universal pre-K, dangling a potentially massive increase in free or cheap education without going into detail.

"And we can do this ... without raising taxes in Virginia," Northam said.

Perriello wore his proposals on his sleeve.

"I think leadership is about saying you can't get something for free," he said.

The candidates differed on Virginia's Right to Work law, which limits union power in labor negotiations. Asked if he'd try to repeal the statute, Perriello said yes. A constant critic of trickle-down-economics, and a proponent of using government incentives to help low-income workers and the middle class, Perriello called the law "an anti-growth strategy."

Northam tacked back to pragmatism, saying he'd look for other ways to help labor and noting that he fought GOP efforts last year to write the Right to Work law into Virginia's constitution.

"We have to be realistic ... rather than pick fights," he said.

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

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