RICHMOND — When Virginia Democrats gathered Saturday in the state capital, they had a ready-made mantra: We’re welcoming and inclusive. Donald Trump is divisive and dangerous.
Again and again, elected officials and activists at the state Democratic convention reminded 1,455 party loyalists about what they believe is at stake in the presidential contest in November — and in the governor’s race next year.
“I can’t believe what I read in the newspaper and see on the news about the other side,” Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam said. “We will work together to defeat Donald Trump in 2016!”
The speech served to rally Democrats and elevate the pediatric neurologist to party standard-bearer-in-waiting as he builds his gubernatorial campaign.
He received the formal endorsement of statewide officeholders Gov. Terry McAuliffe and U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Timothy M. Kaine on Saturday morning. Attorney General Mark R. Herring gave Northam his support last year.
Three Republicans are in the hunt for their party’s nomination for governor: GOP strategist Ed Gillespie, U.S. Rep. Rob Wittman and Corey A. Stewart, who is chairman of the Prince William Board of Supervisors and chairman of Trump’s Virginia campaign.
Stewart has enthusiastically parroted the celebrity billionaire’s anti-immigrant platform. But Northam noted that Gillespie and Wittman failed to denounce statements Trump made about an American-born judge with Mexican parents, which House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) called “the textbook definition of a racist comment.”
Democrats agree on Trump as their common rival, but they remain divided between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders — a split that revealed itself at the convention.
As Herring recited a litany of Trump’s controversial comments about Hispanics, Muslims, immigrants and women, he teed up a full-throated rallying cry for Clinton.
“Luckily, we have a great alternative,” he said. But before he could tout Clinton, activists yelled: “Bernie Sanders!” and then broke out into a chant of “Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!”
Others espoused the party’s message of unity.
“If you’re for Bernie, hug a Clinton-ite. If you’re for Clinton, hug a Bernie-ite,” U.S. Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) said. “The stakes, my friends, this year are as high as they’ve been in our lifetimes.”
Even Connolly was temporarily derailed by Sanders supporters with “Bernie” signs.
In between hoots and claps for candidates, convention-goers at the Greater Richmond Convention Center elected 33 national delegates of the total 95 delegates that the party will send to Philadelphia in July to formally nominate Clinton. Sixty-two delegates were chosen at congressional district conventions this spring.
Clinton easily won the Virginia primary on March 1 by nearly 30 percentage points, earning her about two-thirds of the state’s delegation.
Many Sanders acolytes who mingled with Clinton fans in Richmond said they would ultimately vote for the former secretary of state in November, but they said they remain committed to the senator from Vermont until he drops out.
“The primary is over. On to the general election,” McAuliffe told the cheering crowd. “We are going to elect the first woman president of the United States of America!”
As Clinton turns to selecting a running mate, the speaker Saturday night at Democrats annual Jefferson Jackson fundraising dinner was U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, who has been mentioned as a potential vice-presidential pick for Clinton, as has Kaine.
At the convention, Virginia Democrats also held a mini-rally for McAuliffe’s recent order restoring voting rights to about 200,000 felons and played a video by the Atlantic exploring the move.
Levar Stoney, McAuliffe’s former secretary of the commonwealth and a candidate for Richmond mayor, defended his former boss: “What is wrong is wrong, and Governor McAuliffe did the right thing.”
Democrats widely support the blanket order, which is being challenged in court by Republicans. Prosecutors have drawn attention to the imperfect implementation of the policy. It inadvertently streamlined the process felons must complete to regain their firearms rights; database errors also mistakenly restored rights to felons still in prison or on supervised probation.