HAMPTON, Va. — As Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam reached the exit after speaking to the congregation at New Hope Baptist Church, greeter Erwin Jones reached out and opened the door.
Northam shook his hand. “I need your support,” he said, mentioning the June 13 primary for the Democratic nomination for governor.
“Well, you’ve got it,” Jones replied.
This was the second largely African American church that Northam had addressed Sunday morning, and Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott, Virginia’s first black congressman since Reconstruction, was speaking at a third on his behalf.
Days away from the primary, no voters are more coveted by Northam and his Democratic opponent, former congressman Tom Perriello, than African Americans.
Northam, the establishment favorite, is banking on help from pastors, black community leaders in his native Hampton Roads and every African American state lawmaker to turn out voters.
Perriello, the insurgent, has tapped into the national energy of the Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) movement to attract young black voters who typically don’t come out for primaries. He has touted his close ties to former president Barack Obama and toured black-owned businesses, including a day this week making the rounds of Richmond barbershops.
The prevailing approach could unlock the nomination.
Math alone tells the story: The overall Virginia electorate is roughly 20 percent black, and those voters have overwhelmingly favored Democrats. If the white vote is split between the Republican and Democratic primaries, African Americans could easily account for a third of the Democratic turnout.
Winning the black vote by a healthy margin “is likely to be an advantage that would be very difficult to surmount,” said longtime Virginia political scientist Bob Holsworth. “I’ve thought from the very beginning that the African American community was going to be a very key player in this nomination.”
Many African American voters, like the rest of the electorate, are only now beginning to focus on next week’s primary, which is sneaking up in a late spring otherwise dominated by dramatic political news out of the Trump administration in Washington. Among some community leaders, there is real division about the best way to approach what all see as a crucial vote.
“I think we are seeing more engagement probably than usual,” said Jer’Mykeal McCoy, political engagement chair of the Urban League of Greater Richmond. “But the $5 million question is, will anti-Trump sentiment turn to anti-Trump votes in the ballot box?”
His group, which is nonpartisan and does not endorse, has hosted a flurry of voter education events leading up to the primaries, including a forum that all five candidates running for governor from both parties were invited to attend. Only the two Democrats showed up.
Perriello and Northam share similar views on many issues, and both have slammed President Trump for running a campaign that they call racist and divisive. But they approach black voters differently.
A policy wonk, Perriello can describe government’s role in a legacy of discrimination in the 20th century that shut black Virginians out of the federal workforce, higher education benefits for soldiers and housing loans. He says that history has left Virginia’s average white family with 11 times more wealth than the average black family, and he’s proposing a slew of policy changes to help close the gap.
After a group of torch-bearing protesters convened in May to defend a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in a downtown Charlottesville park, Perriello returned to that park to call for an end to Lee-Jackson Day as a state holiday recognizing the Confederate leaders. He proposed a statewide commission on “racial healing and transformation.” And he said his privilege as a white person kept him from understanding the pain the statue caused as he walked by it growing up in Charlottesville.
Northam tends to talk about race in broader terms, emphasizing a sense of inclusiveness and overall social justice. He preaches growing the economy so that all have access to good jobs, and he notes that all families want good schools and neighborhoods free of gun violence.
He puts heavy emphasis on the actions Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) has taken to restore voting rights for felons who have served their time, pledging to keep up an effort that has already added more than 156,000 people — many of them African American — to voter rolls.
And he, like Perriello, decries the “school to prison pipeline” that disproportionately traps young African American males in a spiral of punishment.
But where Perriello spouts policy and statistics, Northam, a pediatrician, takes a relational approach, emphasizing his work with children, his membership in a predominately African American church on the Eastern Shore and his endorsements by black politicians.
The contrast suggests drastically different choices to some community leaders.
“Tom takes the bull by the horns, but Ralph dances around the issue,” said JaPharii Jones, president of a Black Lives Matter group in Hampton Roads. “People are conscious and woke, and if you sit and talk with Tom, it’s easy.”
Urgent times demand a break with tradition, said Duron Chavis, 37, who is well known in Richmond for his work in urban agriculture. With the Trump administration undermining environmental protection efforts, threatening immigrant communities and inflaming racial tensions, he said, this is not the time to expect minority voters to make a safe choice.
“Every election cycle, we get into a conversation of what’s it going to take to get out the black vote. But I think we need a conversation about what it’s going to take to get white America to stand up and stand against some of these egregious acts taking place in our government,” he said.
Chavis said he understands that Perriello would face a steep challenge in working with Virginia’s Republican-controlled legislature, but he said that just puts the onus back on voters to hold lawmakers accountable and “create a strong tide of change.”
That’s a gamble that Roderyck Bullock, a 43-year-old disabled former educator from Richmond, is not willing to take. As an active Democrat, Bullock said the idea that a new wave of progressives inspired by Sanders can succeed in Virginia is dangerous.
“I don’t want anybody or anything to do with Bernie Sanders. He’s trying to divide the Democratic Party. He’s trying to divide the black community,” Bullock said.
What Perriello says may sound good, he said, but it’s empty because of the reality of governing with Republicans. “He’s not going to be able to get done any of the things he’s saying he’ll get done,” Bullock said. “We don’t have time for games. We got people’s lives at stake. The black community is crumbling at the very core.”
Northam has been working with the black community for years, Bullock said. But Perriello, with those campaign ads featuring images of himself with Obama in 2010, seems to be “pandering to the black community and pandering to the progressives and millennials,” he said.
Obama campaigned with Perriello in his unsuccessful bid for reelection after a single term in Congress, and the association carries power among many black voters. So much so that Northam called former U.S. attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr. and appealed to him to prevent Obama from endorsing in the primary, according to a Democrat with knowledge of the call who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss it. The call was first reported by the New York Times.
Northam’s campaign acknowledged only that he spoke with Holder “about the campaign and his long-standing support for President Obama.” Messages left for Holder were not returned. So far, the former president has stayed out of the race, although 30 officials from his administration and campaign are backing Perriello.
Perriello often name-drops Obama, just as Northam invokes McAuliffe’s restoration of voting rights for felons as he makes the rounds of black churches.
Voters seem to be savvy about both. After Perriello barnstormed a string of black barbershops in Richmond’s north side this week, at least one set of barbers seemed glad of the attention but wary.
The Obama ads? A stretch, said Fleming’s Barber Shop employee Jerome Robinson, 46. “Of course that’s what he’s leaning on.”
“It’s what I would do, too. . . . A lot of us automatically assume that since Obama worked with him, he’s got our best interest at hand,” Robinson said.
Similarly, Northam’s talk of voting rights may be claiming a little more credit than is due, said fellow barber William Lyons, 65.
“You know, McDonnell did that,” Lyons said, referring to former Republican governor Robert F. McDonnell, who also restored rights to felons but in far smaller numbers.
“McAuliffe just carried it on.”
So even though the barbers agreed to let Perriello put a campaign sign out front, they haven’t made up their minds.
“Here at the barbershop, we’ve got to be impartial. We cut everybody,” Lyons said. “I’m going to vote, but we’re going to do some research first.”