Virginia Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D), vying to be the next governor, is often called low-key. Genteel. Even dull.
Not so Friday night at the annual St. Patrick’s Day fundraiser for U.S. Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) that drew about 1,200 people — and every Democrat running for statewide office — to the ballroom of the Kena Shriners Temple in Fairfax County.
In fiery remarks that sometimes bordered on shouting, Northam twice denounced President Trump as a “narcissistic maniac” in a four-minute speech frequently interrupted by cheers from a crowd decked out in green hats, ties and shirts and a smattering of blue Northam stickers.
“We have a fight on our hands, and I want to let you know tonight, I’m ready for the fight,” Northam said. “We need to make sure that that narcissistic maniac doesn’t come anywhere close to Virginia, and we need to make sure together that we take Virginia to the next level.”
Northam, 57, is fending off an unexpected primary challenge from former congressman Tom Perriello, who is pitching himself as the bolder progressive better suited to energize voters in an election that’s shaping up to be an early barometer of how voters are responding to Trump.
Northam’s newfound aggression may be paying early dividends. He crushed Perriello in the event’s straw poll, wining 78 percent of the vote.
“People have been pleasantly surprised by how good Northam has become at speaking,” said Todd Smyth, a 52-year-old computer developer from Fairfax.
The results aren’t entirely surprising; the fundraiser attracted older, longtime party activists wary of Perriello, who has largely been out of Virginia politics since he lost his congressional seat in 2010. Northam has spent years methodically building a network of support across the state, and has won the endorsement of nearly every state lawmaker and elected federal official.
Perriello, 42, is betting he can tap into the energy of Virginians who are newly energized by the Trump administration, including those who have never before been engaged in politics.
He’s reaching out to local grass-roots Indivisible groups, which have been formed across the commonwealth to protest Republican policies, as well as appearing at protests against the Trump administration.
“We are igniting something across the commonwealth of Virginia we’ve never seen before,” said Perriello ahead of the straw poll vote, his remarks partially drowned out by the chattering of an inattentive crowd. “We will be that firewall against Trump’s agenda and hate, and we will fight for the economic opportunities and basic justice for every Virginian.”
Connolly, the only Democrat in the congressional delegation who has yet to endorse a candidate, says Perriello should be worried that his candidacy has prodded Northam to display a new level of passion.
“When Tom got in, I told Ralph, this is an opportunity to show fire in the belly. . . . Ralph actually had this audience more than Tom. Tom gave this professorial sort of talk tonight, very professorial, very erudite, very valuable. But Ralph appealed to the hearts,” Connolly said.
“If Tom is going to win, he has to catch the anti-Trump wind and persuade people that he’s got the anti-Trump energy,” Connolly said.
While Perriello faced a cool reception Friday, several Democratic activists said they’re happy the contested primary has injected energy into what was originally shaping up as a coronation for Northam.
“Both candidates are basically evolving left. . . . It’s very lively, it’s making people pay attention,” said Sandra J. Klassen, a progressive activist who led Virginia Democrats backing Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) at the Democratic National Convention. “This is clearly a result of what happened in 2016. There is a populist revolution afoot.”
In an interview, Northam said his charisma Friday night wasn’t out of character.
“As people get to know me a little bit better, they see I’ve got a lot of fire in my belly and have been in tremendous fights all my life,” Northam said. “It’s good to have competition. So I think it fired up my team, it probably put a little heat under my fire.”
And fired-up candidates are what many Democrats are seeking.
“Before Trump, I was really tired of all the fighting and I wanted someone who could compromise,” said Liz Milner, a 60-year-old library worker from Fairfax County who said she’s become more politically active since the election, including protesting the federal travel ban outside the Trump hotel in the District. “But I don’t see ground for compromise anymore.”
Others said Northam, a pediatric neurologist, shouldn’t entirely abandon his country doctor manner, which they see as an antidote to Trump’s bombast and showmanship.
“A little bit of civility and genteel is sorely lacking right now, and we have kind of a legacy of civility and gentility in Virginia,” said Susan Burke, a retiree in Fairfax.
The winner of the June 13 Democratic primary will take on one of three Republican contenders: political strategist and former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie, Prince William Board of County Supervisors Chairman Corey A. Stewart and state Sen. Frank W. Wagner (Virginia Beach).