Candidates Face-Off on Pipelines and the NRA in First Democratic Gubernatorial Debate

May 1, 2017


Virginia Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam during a Senate session in Richmond. Now a candidate for governor, Northam has tried to shed his image as the genteel pediatric neurologist who calmly presides over the slow moving state Senate in favor of a more aggressive politician.
Credit Steve Helber / AP

Democrats are only weeks away from selecting their candidate for governor, and Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam and former Congressman Tom Perriello debated for the first time over the weekend. 


Northam made a pitch he was the right choice to take on leading Republican candidate Ed Gillespie because he is the only candidate in the race who has won statewide. 


“As I talk to people, they’re looking for a leader in Virginia that knows how to win statewide," said Northam. "They’re looking for a leader that will stand up not only to president Trump but also to probably our next competition, Ed Gillespie.”


Former Congressman Tom Perriello framed his case in a larger argument about a changing economy. 


“This new economic era of automation and consolidation is threatening the middle class in that you will always see the rise of weak leaders like Donald Trump, who will try to divide us on race or region amidst that scarcity," he said. "And you’ll see weak leaders like Ed Gillespie who can’t show one iota of moral leadership to distance themselves from the hate and bigotry of the Trump administration.”


The candidates also clashed with each other about their past positions on guns -- not necessarily their position on gun control, but money from the National Rifle Association. Northam criticized Perriello for changing his position on the NRA, a group that once endorsed his campaign for Congress. 


“That was since 2010. You served in Congress from 2008 to 2010. That was after the Virginia Tech tragedy. What has changed about the National Rifle Association between 2010 and 2017?” probed Northam.


But Perriello responded that times have changed. 


“Well, you know, you and I have both have all done guns. You know that. You were a deciding vote after Virginia Tech on something that prevented Fairfax and other communities from being able to demand fingerprinting on concealed carry permits. That was a deciding vote," challenged Perriello. "There was never a moment where I was a deciding vote for the NRA.”


Northam criticized Perriello for accepting $6,000 from the NRA while campaigning for Congress.


But campaign donations also proved to be a sore spot for Northam, who has accepted $5,000 from the chief executive of Dominion and took more than $20,000 from the corporation last year. Perriello says he will not take money from the energy company.


Dominion wants to build two massive pipelines to carry natural gas through Virginia. It’s an issue that has polarized the Democratic Party, and its two candidates for governor. 


Northam says the multibillion projects could create jobs and boost the economy. 


“Obviously we want the pipeline to be built with science and transparency. We also need jobs in the commonwealth of Virginia,” Northam said during the debate.


Perriello, though, is opposed to the pipelines. He says all that money Dominion plans to spend on the two pipelines in Virginia could be put to better use.


"I've opposed these two pipelines. I believe for a fraction of that $6.7 billion, we could put tens of thousands more people to work on clean energy, energy efficiency, localizing food production and other measures,” said Perriello. 


The primary election is June 13th. 


This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.