FAIRFAX, Va. – It’s St. Patrick’s Day, a Friday night at a Shriner’s Hall. The cream of the Northern Virginia Democratic establishment is here, and while they’re not exactly drunk, they’re on their way to killing four kegs of Harp and a couple of cases of Guinness. Lieutenant Gov. Ralph Northam is working the crowd of 1,200 buttoned-down post-Millennials. Actually, the crowd is working him, surging towards him not long after he enters the building. His staffers indulge in a beer or a glass of wine, but he doesn’t. The first rule of running for office is never be photographed holding a drink, even on St. Patrick’s Day, and people are taking a lot of photographs.
This fundraiser, hosted annually by Representative Gerry Connolly, is unquestionably friendly territory for a candidate who has made an appearance for the past four years straight—basically ever since Northam started running to succeed his boss, Governor Terry McAuliffe. “I have a lot of friends in here because I’ve been doing this for a while,” he says.
Northam, 57, has locked up the endorsement of nearly every politician who matters in Virginia, starting with McAuliffe, who sports an approval rating above 50 percent and in the 80s among Democrats. Both of Virginia’s Democratic senators, former vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, have backed Northam. As has every Democrat in the state legislature and every Democratic congressman save Connolly, who is remaining neutral.
In a normal election year, that would add up to a free pass to the general election in November. But this isn’t a normal year. The Virginia governor’s race, which by a quirk of the election calendar is the first big contest after the presidential vote, has historically been seen as a referendum on the new occupant of the White House. And that occupant is Donald Trump, which explains the presence at Connolly’s party of another candidate, Representative Tom Perriello.
Perriello, 42, caused a stir when he announced in early January that he would challenge Northam for the Democratic nomination. At least on paper Northam was his opponent. On the campaign trail he sounded like he was running against Trump, frequently calling his GOP presidential campaign “viciously racist” and pledging to make Virginia a “firewall” against Trump. Perriello’s attacks, combined with a bank of goodwill with the former Obama administration, turned the one-term legislator into the darling of the DC establishment and earned him profiles in the Huffington Post, Yahoo!, and FiveThirtyEight. He has received the endorsement of seemingly the entire Obama-era White House staff, including Dan Pfeiffer, Neera Tanden, David Plouffe and John Podesta, who says Perriello is offering a “blueprint” for the future of the party. Last week, he got the backing of the father of the populist progressive moment in Democratic politics: Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.
But on this evening in mid-March, none of those illustrious liberals are milling about in the Shriners Hall, waiting for the results of the straw poll that is the featured entertainment of the party. Instead, there are a slew of activists and legislators ready to tell reporters about how Northam has helped them. Perriello says he doesn’t expect to make much headway with this crowd—and he turns out to be right, as Northam runs away with 78 percent of the vote. But winning over party insiders, Perriello insists, is not part of his strategy: “We’re focused on reaching the people who aren’t already core Democratic voters.”
A straw poll win like this one normally would indicate Northam cruising to victory in November. But the peculiar dynamic of this primary—two uneven progressives leaning on two very different constituencies—has already introduced some surprises into the race. On Tuesday, a Quinnipiac University poll showed Perriello leading Northam 25 percent to 20 percent with more than half still undecided. The conflicting messages from the polls—the straw poll and the Quinnipiac results—expose a fundamental question about the Democratic primary: Who will show up in the second week of June? The same ol’ Democratic party regulars or newly energized progressives? A popular narrative casts Perriello as a crusading liberal and Northam as a cautious centrist, but both men have records that have moved from middle to left over time. And their records might not matter as much as the president’s. Will primary voters care more about tunnel tolls or Trump’s travel ban? Whose endorsement matters more in the Old Dominion: home state Gov. McAuliffe’s or that Democratic socialist from Vermont? Perriello is banking on lighting a fire under a segment of the electorate that hasn’t been a factor before. Northam, a genial but by his own assessment “unassuming” politician, it would seem, is just trying to keep the president at bay long enough to make it to the general election.
None of this was supposed to matter. Northam had worked over the past decade to build a solid Democratic record. He wrote the law banning smoking in Virginia restaurants. He worked with the families of Virginia Tech victims on gun control, and with the families of sick children on legalizing medicinal cannabis oil. He stoked a national uproar over a Republican bill to force “transvaginal ultrasounds” before a woman got an abortion. And he had his boss clearing a path for him. McAuliffe had brokered an agreement between Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring to avoid a primary in 2017. Democrats were prepared for six months of watching Trump supporter Corey Stewart hammer former RNC chair Ed Gillespie in a GOP primary when, unexpectedly Perriello left his State Department job and jumped into the race on January 4, weeks before Trump was even inaugurated.
Perriello’s justification for his confounding move went something like this: Northam is just too cautious and bland for a moment when Democrats need to be on offense. “The whole reason that I think the establishment of the party made a mistake was to make that decision at all before we knew what the political landscape would be,” he says. “The plan that had brought together to [nominate Northam] would’ve made perfect sense if Secretary Clinton won.” Northam would’ve wooed swing voters, while Representative Bobby Scott, the likely candidate in a special election to replace Kaine, would’ve excited liberals. “The result is to put Democrats’ chances of holding the governorship at risk.”
Perriello has suggested Northam’s anointment came from a back-room deal, which makes the lieutenant governor bristle. “That’s an insult,” Northam said. “There was no back room, because if there was, there was a lot of people in that back room.” For the past decade, Northam had been traveling the state, attending civic meetings and political events. He had gone to 180 events in the past four years. “This isn’t something you pop up overnight.”
Northam’s roots are definitely conservative in a state that adores its traditions. He grew up on the rural Eastern Shore, separated from mainland Virginia by the Chesapeake Bay. The county was still poor enough that Northam didn’t play basketball on hardwood until high school. Northam’s father was a commonwealth’s attorney and a county judge, but his upbringing wasn’t particularly political.
Dennis Custis, Northam’s high school history teacher, remembers taking Northam to the state’s model General Assembly program in Richmond. “I never saw a more nervous kid giving a speech,” Custis said. He was salutatorian and his classmates voted him “Most Dignified.” But Custis insists Northam was no golden child: “He was not destined for stardom.”
He was bound for the Virginia Military Institute, a deeply conservative—and physically demanding—institution that produced 15 Confederate generals. Northam tried to quit during his Thanksgiving break freshman year but his father wouldn’t let him. “Even if you were brought up in a pretty disciplined environment, it’s nothing compared to VMI,” said Mike Strickler, a long-time VMI spokesman who is backing Northam’s bid for governor. Northam went onto lead the prestigious Honor Corps and was a battalion commander, essentially the second-highest ranking cadet. “The whole process is to break you down, and build you back up with the rest of your class,” Northam says.
He served as an Army doctor during Operation Desert Storm, and left as a major, moving back to Virginia and starting work as a pediatric neurologist. Northam can sometimes sound like an Unfrozen Caveman Lieutenant Governor when discussing his life before politics. In an interview, he twice referred to himself as “unassuming.” But it was during his pre-political life Northam made two decisions that might hurt his run for governor: He voted for George W. Bush in 2000. And again in 2004.
“Politically, there was no question, I was under-informed,” Northam says now about his votes for Bush. He said as the president of VMI’s honor corps, he couldn’t lie when a New York Times reporter asked him if he supported Bush. “My honor is very important to me,” he says. . He credits his wife with moving him since then in a more liberal direction politically. At the same time, Northam says he can’t remember if he backed Democrats in any governor or Senate races. And rumors about his political leanings before his career persist: there’s a running joke in Richmond that the first Democrat he ever voted for was himself.
Adding to the questions about Northam’s political leanings is a 2009 incident in which then-state Sen. Northam reportedly considered switching parties. But both Northam and a Republican with knowledge of his negotiations with GOP state senators say things never got that far. Northam was frustrated with Democratic leaders over funding for a hospital in his district, and came close to striking a deal with Republicans that would’ve given them control of key committees in the legislature. The deal fell apart after then-Gov. Tim Kaine—now a Northam backer—intervened.
“I’ve never considered switching parties,” Northam said. “I’m content and happy to be in the Democratic party.”
Now, the Perriello campaign thinks Northam’s departures from Democratic orthodoxy should matter at least as much as Perriello’s own heresies on abortion rights and gun control. (Perriello voted for the Stupak Amendment to Obamacare, which would’ve barred federal money from covering abortions, and the NRA endorsed him for reelection in 2010. Northam’s campaign has attacked him over both.)
“Part of the problem that Ralph has is that Ed Gillespie”—the likely Republican candidate in November and a former top aide to George W. Bush—“has these enormous vulnerabilities of eight years of bankrupting the country, screwing over seniors, screwing over communities of color,” Perriello said in an interview. “Ralph Northam has a hard time delivering those blows because he voted for George W. Bush twice. You’re going into a battle with a well-trained political operative with one hand tied behind your back.”
Northam thinks Perriello is overstating the liability presented by his Bush votes.
“People care about what I’ve done for Virginia for the last 10 years,” he said. “I don’t think the average person cares about who I voted for 17 years ago.”
Perriello, for his part, is eager to trumpet his voting record—at least part of it.
In mid-March, as the GOP plan to replace Obamacare was going down in flames in Washington, Perriello held a town hall in Charlottesville. The son of a pediatrician, Perriello grew up just outside the city and bypassed the University of Virginia for Yale, where he earned a bachelor’s and a law degree. He worked prosecuting war criminals in Sierra Leone and the Balkans, then returned home and upset a GOP incumbent in 2008. This is the heart of the district he represented until he lost reelection, moved to Alexandria and took a job at the ultra-liberal Center for American Progress, and then returned to Africa and worked to negotiate peace in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for the State Department. The town hall was a celebration of the 7th anniversary of his vote to pass Obamacare.
At the town hall, which was held in a church-turned-homeless shelter, Perriello’s rhetoric combines wonkiness with the touchstones of the progressive resistance movement that has emerged since Trump’s election. He mentions the Women’s March, Indivisible groups (which were co-founded by former staffers of his), intersectionality, transitional justice and automation. He sounds like a mixture of Black Lives Matter position paper, a Brookings Institution seminar and an old copy of WIRED magazine come to life. He fends off questions from two young women in the crowd about his record on gun control and abortion.
But the biggest applause of the night from the audience of 300 comes when Perriello criticizes his own party.
“The Democratic party has been a huge part of the problem and has been utterly complicit in a climate-destructive, job-destructive policy here in Virginia.” When he says he’s the first statewide candidate to refuse to take money from Dominion Power, which he calls “the largest contributor to both political parties is Dominion Power,” the applause turns rapturous.
The anger aimed at the utility stems from a controversial pipeline project set to transport natural gas from West Virginia to the Atlantic coast. It’s has become sort of a local version of Keystone XL, drawing intense opposition from liberals and landowners. Perriello has used it as wedge issue, attacking Richmond politicians in both parties as a single corrupt bloc beholden to a government-backed monopoly that stymies clean energy jobs and buys influence with campaign donations.
Asked if he thinks Northam is part of that corrupt system, Perriello stops short of making the point explicit, leaving campaign finance records to connect the dots. “I think one step is not accept campaign money from state-regulated monopolies in order to be able to unleash job growth, particularly in clean energy, all across Virginia.” Dominion Power has donated nearly $100,000 to Northam’s campaigns over the years.
For his part, the lieutenant governor says there’s not much the state government can do to stop the pipelines, which fall under the jurisdiction of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. “Anybody that’s running for governor and says they’re going to stop the pipeline, they’re pandering,” Northam says, noting he’s pushed to protect the environment during the pipeline’s construction.
The next morning, Northam convenes a roundtable of local small business owners and state legislators in a conference room in a municipal building in Portsmouth. This is listed as a campaign event but it seems more like an unremarkable meeting in the daily bureaucratic grind. Compared to Perriello’s boisterous town hall, the crowd is paltry, just a few scattered onlookers and local media members.
Northam has come to talk about high tolls for a tunnel connecting Portsmouth, home to a number of major military facilities, to the much larger city of Norfolk across the Elizabeth River. In this part of the state, there might not be a hotter issue, and Northam knows that voters here might go to the polls on the strength of this controversy alone. The legislators tell horror stories about a man who owes more than $25,000 in tolls and fees, and about residents passing up job opportunities to avoid the toll. Northam politely nods and takes notes. There’s a noticeable ease in the way Northam quizzes the legislators, all of whom he has known for years. At the end, Northam proposes a very process-driven solution: “I think what we’re going to do after this meeting is form a task group of leaders, both political leaders and community leaders, and look at see what we can do to remedy it.”
The delegates, who know changing the contract with the tunnel’s private sector operator won’t be simple, accept it. They trust Northam to help them find a solution: “Ralph’s been on top of this for a long time,” said Delegate Steve Heretick, one of the assembled legislators.
As for Perriello? “I met Tom Perriello two weeks ago,” Heretick says, who grabbed lunch with the former congressman. “I don’t consider myself a must-go-to guy, but I expect to know the people who are running for governor. [Perriello] is still trying to figure out who we are and what we’re about.”
Loyalty to Northam is pervasive among Democratic legislators. The extent of that loyalty, as well as its limits, becomes apparent in late March, when Northam and Perriello, along with a slew of Democratic party officials, consultants and other functionaries, gather at an airport hotel ballroom in Roanoke for a “rural retreat.” They had come to discuss how to improve the party’s performance among Trump-backing voters in the state’s southwest corner and elsewhere.
Sam Rasoul, the local delegate, is the General Assembly’s only Muslim member. He ran for Congress alongside Perriello in 2008 and won his delegate seat in 2014. He knows and likes Perriello, and can even sound a bit like him in critiquing the Democratic party. “I think that we’ve lost trust with the American people,” Rasoul says. “People realize Democrats are just as bought off as Republicans. And so when we claim to be the party of the people, it’s very difficult for them to make that distinction.” But “sounds like” doesn’t necessarily equate to “votes for.” Rasoul says he is “basketball buddies” with Northam and endorsed him after getting to know him personally. “Virginia Democrats can’t go wrong with either one of them as the nominee,” he says.
In his speech, Northam leans into standard Democratic pitches to rural voters: expand broadband access in rural areas, combat the opioid epidemic and expand Medicaid. The crowd has heard these lines before, and the applause is polite.
The next morning, early on a Sunday, over an uninspiring buffet breakfast, Perriello spends the first four minutes of his 18-minute speech harranguing Trump, then pivots to his proposal of two years of free community college, which he argues appeals and aids both the party’s base of minority voters and the rural voters they’re trying to reach. He says he’s ready for this political moment because “My district was in a recession before it was cool.”
“People care a lot less about whether you’re on the left or right then if you’re helping them move up or down,” he says.
The crowd eats it up. In this staggered performance separated by less than 24 hours, the contours of a fight over the party’s priorities emerged clearly. It’s not a fight Northam or Richmond Democrats expected to be fighting when Clinton’s win was a shoo-in last fall, but it’s one that will become even sharper when Northam and Perriello appear side by side at their first debate later this month.
In the first days after Perriello’s entrance into the race, Northam was caught flat-footed by the anti-Trump energy that Perriello so quickly commanded. It took a few days before Northam began calling the president a “narcissistic maniac.” Now he can’t stop. He repeats it almost as a mantra, pledging to keep Trump’s politics “on the other side of the Potomac.” Meanwhile, he can’t capitalize on his rural, military background to reach out to conservative voters until after the primary. If this makes him seem vulnerable, Richmond isn’t buying it.
State Senate Minority Leader Dick Saslaw has emerged as the foul-mouthed id of an establishment annoyed by Perriello’s presence in the race. He argues Perriello’s anti-abortion votes make it impossible to win the primary: “Not only did he vote for the Stupak Amendment, he wrote the mother—-er.” As for Perriello’s hopes of expanding the electorate, Saslaw scoffs. “That’s sheer f—ing fantasy. If he had Mike Bloomberg’s money, maybe he could make it happen. But this whole thing is a joke. Ralph will win this thing by 30 or 40 percent.”
The endorsement of Sanders, who was crushed in the Virginia presidential primary by the establishment-backed Clinton? “That’s worth two votes,” Saslaw retorts.
State Senator Barbara Favola is more diplomatic though no less sharp, arguing the endorsement of the Virginia establishment will outweigh Sanders’ backing. “My e-mail list is all in Virginia,” she says. “The people I’m going to talk to…can actually vote in Virginia.”
What about concerns Northam isn’t activist or bold enough for the moment? “[Northam] isn’t a firebrand and he’s not going to be. A firebrand doesn’t always get things,” she says, adding: “Virginia isn’t one of those states that votes for the flash in the pan.”
Northam is similarly dismissive. “This race is taking place in Virginia, not Vermont,” he says.
A few days later, Sanders rallies with Perriello at George Mason University, a commuter school in vote-rich Fairfax County. Despite being on a college campus, the crowd doesn’t skew especially young. The night is not without its hiccups: Sanders butchers Perriello’s last name when endorsing him, calling the former congressman “Tom Perrioli.” But the crowd loves both speeches, and while the presence of several Sanders fans from Maryland and D.C. validates the establishment’s critiques, there’s also plenty of Virginia voters who Perriello is inspiring to get more involved.
“I like that he’s bringing more of a progressive viewpoint to the Democratic party in Virginia,” said Anthony Miller, a 30-year-old media analyst who supported Sanders in last year’s primaries. He isn’t sure if he’s voted in state primaries before. “For me at least, Ralph [Northam] seems like more of the establishment,” he adds in a way that doesn’t sound like a compliment.
Perriello has some good news to deliver. The pipeline he opposes—the one Northam had accused him of “pandering” over—is going to have to go through a more stringent environmental review. “Never let the pundits tell us what’s possible or not possible here in Virginia,” he says to a roar of approval.