Local / Politics / Virginia

Democrats’ debate for Virginia governor a study in nuance

Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam responds to a moderator during the Democratic debate with former U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello, Tuesday, May 16, 2017 at WHRO-TV in Norfolk, Va. (Stephen M. Katz/The Virginian-Pilot via AP)

NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — Democratic hopefuls for governor of Virginia clashed Tuesday over proposed gas pipelines and each other’s past positions on gun rights at their penultimate debate in Norfolk on Tuesday, May 16th. But the forum was mostly a study in policy nuances within the Democratic playbook.

Both Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and former congressman Tom Perriello said they would consider decriminalizing marijuana and also agreed on the need to expand Medicaid and fight sea-level rise by limiting carbon emissions.

The contenders also blasted Republican Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ new policy to pursue stronger charges against drug suspects, saying it would disproportionately hurt minorities in Virginia.

Virginia’s governor’s race this year is being closely watched as a possible early referendum on President Donald Trump’s presidency. Both parties are holding primary elections on June 13.

The clearest moment of disagreement among the two Democrats emerged over the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline, although the stance of either man was nothing new. Perriello opposes it. Northam says it needs oversight.

Northam said it’s important to consider property owners’ rights and environmental issues. But he said the state “will use science and transparency if the pipeline moves forward.” He also addressed offshore drilling and fracking — the hydraulic fracturing technique for extracting oil and gas from rock by injecting high-pressure water or other substances underground.

“I think people need to also look at my record,” he added. “I’ve fought against offshore drilling. I’ve fought against fracking in Virginia as well as uranium mining. I’ve lead the charge against sea-level rise.”

But Perriello countered by saying, “You don’t lead the fight against sea level rising by making a $6 billion, 50-year investment in fossil fuel infrastructure … This is like someone coming to you, right when digital cameras were taking off, and saying you should bet your pension on Eastman Kodak.”

Northam also took opportunities to attack Perriello’s history of getting high-marks from the National Rifle Association as a congressman.

“Let me remind the viewers that I’m the only person running for governor this year that has never had an A-rating from the NRA,” Northam said.

Perriello represented parts of southwest Virginia in Congress from 2009 to 2011, but he has since distanced himself and has called the NRA a “nutjob, extremist” organization.

Overall, the two men were mostly in agreement during the debate. For instance, each mentioned the idea of a state commission to examine issues of race in Virginia in the aftermath of protests in Charlottesville over the planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

The gubernatorial race is one of the few 2017 campaigns that could shed light on the electorate’s mood. Current Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe is barred by state law from seeking a second consecutive term.

Several Republicans, including former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie, Prince William County Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart and State Sen. Frank Wagner, are seeking the Republican nomination.