The two Democrats running for governor in Virginia launched their sharpest onstage attacks of each other yet Tuesday as Lt. Gov. Ralph S. Northam and former U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello accused each other of having shaky loyalty to the party.
Perriello confronted Northam directly over his past support for former President George W. Bush, and Northam accused Perriello of being a libertarian in Democrat’s clothing who frequently voted with Republicans during his single term in Congress.
The testy exchange came near the middle of an hourlong televised debate at a union hall in Highland Springs — the third Democratic debate, roughly a month before the June 13 primaries — as Perriello and Northam argued over whose plan for free community college is more feasible.
Running on big ideas but little experience in state government, Perriello has proposed two years of free community college or trade school, universal pre-K and eight weeks of paid maternity leave. Perriello has said he’ll pay for the new programs, estimated to cost roughly $1 billion, by raising taxes on the wealthy and corporations and cutting spending. At the debate, Perriello said he’s the only candidate in the gubernatorial field offering specifics about how he’ll pay for his policy ideas.
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Northam has served in state government for nearly a decade and is backed Virginia’s Democratic establishment. He suggested his proposal for free community college paid back by required community service, with an estimated price tag of $37 million, is more achievable.
“Virginia is a fiscally responsible state,” Northam said. “And to raise taxes ... and some of his other programs go up to close to $1 billion. That’s not realistic in Richmond.”
Perriello responded by saying Northam’s answer “goes to the heart of understanding” why Northam supported Bush in 200 and 2004, prompting “Oohs” in the crowd at the mention of the former Republican president.
“The trickle-down economics that he supported in the past does not create growth,” Perriello said of Northam. “Investment in the middle class and working class is what creates growth.”
Northam tried to respond, saying, “I can’t take an attack like that,” but moderator Bill Fitzgerald of Richmond’s WTVR insisted on moving to another question.
Unwilling to let the remark slide, Northam returned fire as soon as Fitzgerald got the next question out. After saying he doubts voters care which presidential candidate he voted for in elections long past and noting that he “told the truth” about his Bush votes when asked about them by a reporter, Northam unleashed a new line of attack on Perriello.
“In 2009, Mr. Perriello made a statement that he was really a libertarian at heart and the only reason that he switched to being a Democrat was so that he could run for Congress,” Northam said. “He also bragged while he was on Fox News, of all things, that he was proud to have voted with Republicans over 60 percent of the time. So people who live in glass houses shouldn’t be throwing stones.”
Northam was referring to a 2009 Washington Times article that described Perriello as a “libertarian at heart who says he became a Democrat ‘basically when I decided to run.’ ”
Reacting with surprise, Perriello called Northam’s comments “a sad attack” and stressed his background of organizing progressive nonprofits before running for Congress.
“I spent three years building organizations to push back against the George Bush agenda that you were supporting at the time,” Perriello said. “Their attacks on the poor. Their attacks on seniors. Their busting of the budget. I was devoting my life to that 20 hours a day. I think you’re going to need a little better defense than that moving forward.”
The rest of the debate, hosted by a coalition of progressive groups, was a fairly routine discussion of issues that revealed only a handful of policy differences.
Both men promised to resist President Donald Trump, protect minorities, pursue a $15-per-hour minimum wage and reform the criminal justice system. Perriello said flatly that he would oppose charter schools, while Northam said the state’s public schools should be properly funded before further exploration of charter schools.
The candidates were asked for their positions on Virginia’s right-to-work law barring compulsory union membership, a question that took on extra resonance with several labor groups involved in hosting and organizing the debate.
Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who has endorsed Northam, has previously said he would not try to change the law, which he said helps business growth.
Though there have been no serious efforts to end the right-to-work law, Perriello said he would try.
“I think it undermines the middle class and working class here in Virginia,” Perriello said. “And I think that’s an anti-growth strategy.”
Northam said Democrats’ efforts could be better spent on the minimum wage, paid sick leave and improved project labor agreements.
“I think rather than pick fights that we perhaps can’t win right now, we need to talk about how can we help labor,” Northam said.
The Democratic nominee appears likely to face Republican gubernatorial front-runner Ed Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman who came up just short of defeating U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., in 2014. Gillespie is competing for the GOP nomination against Prince William Board of County Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart and state Sen. Frank W. Wagner of Virginia Beach, both of whom are lagging well behind Gillespie in primary polling.
Republicans will also choose their nominee June 13.