The two Democrats vying to be Virginia’s next governor came face to face with some of their toughest critics at a Tuesday forum in Arlington, billed as a chance for progressives to question the candidates ahead of the June 13 primary.
For Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, that meant a grilling from liberal voters who asked about his acceptance of campaign cash from Dominion Resources, a state-regulated utility and Virginia’s biggest political donor.
For his rival, former congressman Tom Perriello, it meant fielding pointed questions from volunteers for gun control and abortion rights groups concerned about his conservative stances on those issues during his term in Congress.
The forum followed their first, largely genial debate on Saturday where the harshest barbs were reserved for President Trump. But some of Tuesday’s progressive audience members — who the moderator quipped were “revolutionaries” — came with their own acid.
Perriello has cast himself to Northam’s left by refusing to accept campaign cash from Dominion. Northam owns stock in Dominion and has taken more than $100,000 from the group and its executives.
A questioner drew applause by pointing out dozens of Democratic candidates for the state legislature are now refusing to take money from Dominion and asked Northam whether he would support a ban on campaign contributions from companies with business before the state.
Northam said he puts the interests of constituents over corporate interests, citing when he shepherded a ban on smoking in restaurants and opposed offshore drilling. He said he would support comprehensive campaign finance changes but did not offer details.
“Let’s not pick out one corporation that someone has taken a contribution from; let’s do comprehensive campaign finance reform and take care of all of these issues,” Northam said, adding later in the evening: “I’m not out there rustling money from big corporations. My support is grass-roots Virginia.”
The questioner said that he took Northam’s answer as meaning that he would not support a ban on donations from companies with business before the state.
“Well, I appreciate your interpretation,” Northam responded.
About three-quarters of Northam’s donations are smaller than $100, but they make up less than a tenth of his overhaul campaign haul, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project. Meanwhile, half of Perriello’s campaign haul comes from several wealthy liberal philanthropists.
Northam’s campaign has lambasted Perriello on his record on gun rights and for accepting money and an endorsement from the National Rifle Association in his 2010 congressional reelection campaign. Northam made a point to stress that the NRA did not give him money.
Perriello has since repudiated the NRA, calling it a “nut job extremist organization.”
At the forum, a Perriello ally who leads a group of survivors of the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting peppered Northam on his own gun record, asking why he voted in the state Senate to support measures to bar municipalities from fingerprinting concealed-carry permit applicants and for a “castle doctrine” bill to protect from prosecution homeowners who shoot intruders.
Northam said he did not recall his reasons for voting on the fingerprinting bill but stood by the vote on the “castle doctrine” bill because he believes homeowners have a right to protect themselves.
When Perriello’s turn to take questions came, a volunteer with the pro-gun control group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America excoriated him for his absence from local politics in recent years.
Perriello took it as an opportunity to jab Northam for voting twice for President George W. Bush.
“I’m the only person in this race that’s been a Democrat my whole life,” Perriello said. “I voted for Democratic presidential candidates. I devoted my life for three years to trying to defeat George Bush’s agenda while Ralph Northam was voting for him twice.”
Perriello also faced questions from several volunteers from the NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia abortion rights group. The group endorsed Northam in part because Perriello voted in Congress to bar insurers that cover abortion from receiving federal subsidies through the Affordable Care Act.
Perriello has repeatedly apologized for the vote and said he tried to make amends by fighting laws designed to shut down abortion clinics when he led the lobbying arm of a liberal think tank after leaving Congress in 2011. A woman wearing a NARAL shirt who said she never once heard Perriello’s name during those fights demanded to know what he actually did.
Perriello said he raised money to fund reports highlighting the effect Virginia Republicans would have on women’s health during the 2013 election cycle.
“But I want to be absolutely clear that the credit in these fights belong to you and those activists who work day in and day out to fight these laws,” Perriello said. “I want to be a partner in these fights.”
When another NARAL questioner noted the fights raging on social media between his campaign staffers and abortion rights activists, Perriello said, “We could all benefit from a de-escalation from Twitter.”
The forum was organized by unions and progressive groups, including local branches of Our Revolution - the political group that grew out of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s unsuccessful presidential bid. Northam and Perriello are meeting in Roanoke at 7 p.m. Thursday for their second debate, which will be streamed on WDBJ7.com.