Editor’s note: On Friday, The Post conducted an email debate between Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and former congressman Tom Perriello, Democratic candidates in Virginia’s 2017 gubernatorial election. The questions were asked by Post editorial board member Lee Hockstader. The transcript has been edited for style and clarity.
Lee Hockstader: Polls suggest many primary voters are struggling to decide between the two of you, which might reflect the civility of your race or how narrow the policy differences are.
Dr. Northam, you’ve suggested you’d work better with the Republican-controlled legislature than your opponent, by dint of your experience and relationships in Richmond, but it seems a stretch to think GOP leaders in the General Assembly will allow any Democratic governor to claim a major victory. Mr. Perriello, you’ve made a case for yourself as a younger, very liberal candidate with what you call “bold” ideas, but a lot of those ideas — like soaking the rich with a tax hike to provide two years of debt-free community college for any Virginian — are simply non-starters for Republicans, no matter how much you campaign in conservative parts of Virginia.
What can each of you say to sharpen the distinctions between you so voters can understand how you would govern differently? Why are you a better bet than your opponent?
Ralph Northam: With over a decade of experience working in Richmond, I’ve developed relationships with leaders of both parties. In fact, one of my first experiences in the legislature [was] to lead the fight to pass a smoking ban in restaurants. While it failed the first time, I learned some lessons after taking a licking, brought Republicans to the table to talk about the benefits for Virginia. The very next year, we passed the ban and then-Gov. [Timothy M.] Kaine signed it into law. The way we got it done was to explain how much it was hurting our economy and costing our health care. We were able to succeed despite Big Tobacco’s efforts.
I led similar efforts to establish firm guidelines for dealing with concussions in Virginia’s student athletes. As a pediatric neurologist, I could leverage my expertise, and my colleagues respected that experience because of the relationships I established.
Having been a member of Kaine’s climate change commission, I led the charge to gather bipartisan support for resiliency to combat sea-level rise. I’ve continued that leadership under Gov. [Terry] McAuliffe’s administration.
Finally, I educated people on both sides of aisle on the transvaginal ultrasound bill, and because of my conversations, we were able to remove the transvaginal portion of the mandate.
So, I’ve got a proven record of bringing together bipartisan support and doing what’s in the best interest of Virginia, and I can do the same as governor.
Tom Perriello: The track record of solving problems within the confines of Richmond hasn’t worked. What I’ve done — both here and abroad — is bring people together, from the grass roots, to solve problems that pundits and observers said were impossible. I think that’s a useful skill set. The “Virginia Way” stopped working for average Virginians a long time ago; what we need is a new way that builds solutions directly among the people, across region and race.
That’s why in this campaign, I am the only candidate to offer a fully paid-for plan that guarantees universal pre-K and two years of truly free community college. I designed this plan not inside my own head; these are ideas I’ve heard at more than 350 public events across Virginia, including many in Trump country. I’m the only candidate from either party who’s rejected Dominion’s campaign contributions. I’m the only candidate clearly opposed to two fracked-gas pipelines that would cut across Virginia. I was the first candidate to call for a living wage of $15 an hour, to put fixing our criminal-justice system and ending the racial wealth gap on the table, to say Virginia should join an interstate climate alliance to confront climate change, and to call for enshrining the right to choose in our state constitution. This is about being bold and leading on the major issues affecting Virginia. I think leadership is about identifying the problem and solutions and building a political coalition to make them happen. I find voters across the political spectrum responding to our willingness to put policy details and real tough decisions on the table.
Hockstader: Dr. Northam, doesn’t Mr. Perriello also have a proven record as a leader?
Northam: I believe it’s a matter of experience in Richmond, a health-care provider and veteran versus experience in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. The politics of getting things done in Richmond can be very complicated, and it takes someone who has spent the time to know the issues and develop the relationships with key members of both parties to make progress.
Perriello: I bring executive experience from outside of Richmond and outside of politics to the table, like Govs. McAuliffe and [Mark R.] Warner did, and people have seen that leadership in this race where we’ve set both the tone and policy agenda.
Northam: While it’s easy to say that from someone who has not been in Richmond, I believe there are Democratic leaders across Virginia, including Sens. Kaine and Warner, and Gov. McAuliffe, who would say that we’ve made tremendous progress, and understand there is more to be done.
Hockstader: Mr. Perriello, hasn’t Dr. Northam, to use your words, also identified problems and solutions?
Perriello: We appreciate that Dr. Northam has agreed with many of the policy positions that we’ve led on and introduced into this campaign. I believe that our campaign, talking about both needing to be a firewall against the hate and bigotry of the Trump administration and enacting a bold agenda of turning a cycle of debt to a cycle of opportunity in Virginia, has been unique in this primary. I also am the only candidate who’s identified exactly how I will pay for my full agenda, and we find that voters across the political spectrum appreciate that a great deal.
Northam: Since he has not been in Richmond, he may not be aware that I have been fighting for things like gun safety reform, preventing offshore drilling, reproductive rights and pre-K for years.
My proposals, like my G3 program, will improve the economy, train the workforce, and are fiscally responsible. This can get done in Richmond. My total proposals equal $67 million and can be funded through comprehensive tax reform and economic growth, and are not reliant on a billion-dollar tax increase that will not pass the General Assembly.
Perriello: There is no scenario in which proposals like truly universal pre-K, raising teacher pay and paid leave cost only $67 million. A billion-dollar revenue plan did pass under a Republican governor with your support. So what is the distinction when this is for a progressive working-families agenda? To be clear: We don’t raise taxes by a billion dollars; the plan includes spending cuts, tax reform and closing loopholes for big corporations as well.
Hockstader: Dr. Northam, would you care to respond to your opponent’s skepticism regarding the cost of your program proposals?
Northam: I’m proud to have used all the tools available to Virginia, including securing a federal grant to fund the program. While there is more work to be done, we were able to open up 13,000 more new pre-K slots in Virginia last year. That’s a good start.
The only way to address these solutions is to have the relationships and bipartisan coalition necessary to get the job done. I took a key role in the transportation plan that was passed, and as governor I plan to be part of the solution to creating a floor in the gas tax with bipartisan support. We must make sure we adequately fund Virginia’s transportation system.
You have laid out policy proposals for well over a billion, and a tax increase of over a billion dollars; what’s left for transportation?
Perriello: My proposal is not a billion-dollar tax increase, and suggesting it is sounds more like something that would come out of Ed Gillespie’s mouth than a Democrat’s! It includes major spending cuts and closing loopholes that benefit corporations to level the playing field for small businesses and invest in education.
Northam: I think we can both agree that Ed Gillespie’s tax plan is a farce and nothing more than a giveaway to the rich.
According to your campaign, your plan increases revenue by more than $1.1 billion.
Hockstader: Would either of you support removing and relocating the statue of Robert E. Lee in the Old Hall of the Virginia House of Delegates? How about the statue of Stonewall Jackson on the grounds of the state Capitol? If so, why? If not, why not?
Northam: I believe these statues belong in a museum but that the decision belongs to local communities. In this instance, the power rests in the General Assembly, and it’s a worthy conversation for us to have.
In order to be a more inclusive society, we need to elevate the parts of our complicated history that have all too often been ignored.
This means memorializing people like Barbara Johns and Oliver Hill, but also men like Samuel Wilbert Tucker, who was the leading attorney for the NAACP in the state of Virginia in the ’50s and ’60s and coordinated the sit-in at the Alexandria library in 1939. Or Mozella Jordan Price , who became supervisor of African American schools in Appomattox County in 1919 and served until 1963.
We need to remember the painful aspects of history and not omit them simply because they are difficult to discuss.
It is why the 400th anniversary of the arrival of African slaves at Fort Monroe is so important to commemorate, and we must do so in a way that helps spur a conversation about the more painful parts of our history.
Perriello: I strongly support the valuable conversation we are having about how we memorialize, and frankly understand, our past. In my home town of Charlottesville and Albemarle County, a majority of human beings during the Civil War were black. And it is important that we not discount their lived experience by three-fifths. I have worked on truth and reconciliation commissions in other countries, and often it is the process of these decisions — the conversation — that is as important as the outcome. I have called for a commission on racial healing and transformation, building on tremendously valuable local initiatives to look systematically at these questions.
Growing up in Virginia, our textbooks gave Reconstruction less than a page, but it is one of the most profound moments of our history. We cannot understand today’s racial wealth gap — where the median net worth of an African American family is one-eleventh that of the median white family — but jumping from slavery to today with a brief stop at Jim Crow. We must understand that most of these memorials were put up not after the Civil War but during moments of racial progress for African Americans. This does not need to be seen as a zero-sum game but as a great puzzle that we ask all Virginians to solve about our past to form a fuller picture for our future.
Hockstader: Mr. Perriello: remove Stonewall and Lee from the Capitol or not?
Perriello: I personally believe the right outcome will be to move them, but I have learned as someone who has done transitional justice professionally that designing a truly inclusive process and addressing all these issues together, rather than one-off, is more effective for the ultimate goal of healing, transformation and a truly accurate history.
Hockstader: You’ve both proposed a minimum wage of $15 an hour, more than double the state’s current rate. Some economists would say that’s at odds with each of your stated goals to juice Virginia’s growth rate, which currently stands at 48th among the states. Your responses?
Perriello: Actually, economic data clearly shows that raising the minimum wage is a growth strategy. One of the greatest barriers to real growth over the past two decades has been the myth of trickle-down economics. In dozens of past experiences of federal and state minimum-wage increases, job creation has risen and small business has benefited, including the restaurant and hospitality sectors that claim concern. This is because no successful business looks at only one side of their ledger sheet — costs — they look at the net between costs and revenue. When the working and middle class have more disposable income, it is our greatest indicator of real growth.
This is also about something our conservative allies can appreciate, which is that raising the minimum wage reduces welfare rolls. It moves more people off of public assistance and into taxpaying jobs. Over recent decades, welfare benefits have not gotten effectively better but the benefits of working have gotten far worse. Just keeping with inflation would have us at a $10-an-hour minimum wage, and if wages had kept with productivity, it would be at $22 an hour. What studies have shown repeatedly is that a mother going to work for less than $15 an hour will typically lose money by going to work, largely due to child-care costs, transportation costs and lost benefits. We need to make work pay to grow the economy, and that is something liberals and conservatives should agree on.
This is why a more conservative state like West Virginia has raised the minimum wage but a gerrymandered legislature here in Virginia has not.
Northam: Virginia’s minimum wage is pegged to the federal minimum wage, which right now is $7.25 an hour and hasn’t risen in nearly 10 years. That means that right now Virginia’s minimum wage provides less than 40 percent of a living wage for an adult, and one-fifth of a living wage for an adult Virginian with two children.
The facts are clear: Our economy can afford a $15 minimum wage if it’s phased in responsibly over time. Today, our low-wage workers earn less per hour than someone working at their level did 50 years ago. That’s just unacceptable, especially considering our economy has grown dramatically over the past 50 years.
Oftentimes, I hear critics tell me that a $15 minimum wage is not needed in rural Virginia. Yet they leave out the lack of transportation options available to them and the higher expense of driving in those areas. We should be mindful that folks across Virginia are consumers, and more money in their pockets means more money they can spend at our businesses.
Hockstader: Another question for both of you: As you know, there’s no legal definition of a sanctuary jurisdiction, but Arlington County seems to qualify: Its sheriff won’t honor ICE detainers to hold undocumented immigrants in jail past their release date unless ICE secures a warrant issued by a court.
Do you regard Arlington’s stance as admirable, and would you encourage other localities in Virginia to emulate it?
Northam: I believe Arlington’s stance has been defended by Attorney General [Mark R.] Herring in 2015. His opinion stated that detainer request are optional. This mirrored the decisions by other states and local governments, and President [Barack] Obama’s Department of Homeland Security. Arlington is well within their legal bounds to take this action. I should add that I was proud to break a tie when Republicans tried to scapegoat immigrants for political gain. They knew full well there are no sanctuary cities in Virginia, but they put up a bill to scare immigrant communities. That’s not right. I was glad to put a stop to it.
Perriello: We support Arlington and others using all options for non-cooperation with the unconstitutional and unconscionable directives of the Trump administration. Within the bounds of the law, I will ensure that Virginia uses all powers possible to remain an inclusive state that ensures the dignity and security of all who live here. This includes discouraging the 287(g) partnerships that blur the distinction between deportation agents and local law enforcement in ways that undermine public safety. The day President Trump threatened to cut off funding, I called this out as an empty threat at odds with the anti-commandeering jurisprudence of our Constitution. Circuit courts have now reached that same conclusion. We must ensure safe, dignified spaces — particularly our schools, houses of worship and clinics — and make sure families do not go to bed at night terrified they may be separated at any moment from their children.
Hockstader: Arguably, there are at least two sanctuary counties: Arlington and Chesterfield. Do you admire their policies and would you like to see them proliferate in the commonwealth?
Northam: There simply are no sanctuary cities in Virginia. Cities and counties have the authority to release prisoners who are eligible for release, and Arlington and Chesterfield are exercising that authority. The attorney general has ruled that federal detainer requests are optional, and I support his opinion.
Hockstader: In response to the opioid epidemic, from which three Virginians die daily, would you support Virginia bringing a lawsuit against drug manufacturers like the one Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine announced this week?
Perriello: Yes. I have repeatedly called out Big Pharma for their role in this crisis, including during multiple visits to clinics in Southwest Virginia. I showed my willingness to stand up to the drug lobby during the fight for Obamacare, including my vote for an early, stronger version that allowed Medicare to negotiate cheaper prescription drug rates. This is also why we support the use of medical marijuana as a more effective element of care that does not come from Big Pharma.
Northam: This is a multifaceted challenge. As a provider, I’ve been traveling around educating other providers, as well as those in training, to ensure proper management of both acute and chronic pain. As lieutenant governor, I’ve led Virginia’s effort to combat this crisis. This includes increasing funding for community service boards so that we now have same-day access, giving the public through the commissioner of health a blanket prescription for naloxone to reverse the deadly side effects, and working with Attorney General Herring to stop the influx of opioids, as those are now being laced with fentanyl and carfentanil.
Attorney General Herring has made some moves forward on this. I appreciate the spirit of Attorney General DeWine’s lawsuit, and if Attorney General Herring believes there is a case to be made, I would support his decision.
Hockstader: Turning to a local issue central to the concerns of many Northern Virginians, how would you fix Metro and help meet its anticipated need for at least $15 billion in additional capital funds over the coming decade? Specifically, would you support a regional sales tax in which Northern Virginia would be assessed in coordination with suburban Maryland and the District of Columbia?
Northam: I don’t think there is any question among leaders in Virginia, D.C. and Maryland that we need to fix Metro and find a dedicated revenue source for the system. It is an economic driver for the entire region, and one of the biggest economic drivers in Virginia.
However, as you well know, the complex political landscape across differing local and state governments makes this reality hard to achieve. So the first thing we need to do is create an unprecedented level of transparency and accountability for the governance and operation of the system. Restoring trust for riders, residents and policymakers is the only way we can change the current dynamic.
Second, as with tax reform, the legislature is going to reject any dedicated funding plan they feel is forced upon them. To prevent that, I will use the LaHood commission report to guide negotiations with Republicans in Richmond and Northern Virginia stakeholders to find a fair agreement on funding Metro, and to work with our neighbors in D.C. and Maryland.
I’ve long worked with Republicans and Democrats to ensure we have the necessary funding for transportation, even campaigning in 2007 that new revenue was needed to fix a transportation system that hadn’t seen investment since 1986. I wanted to break the gridlock in Richmond and on our roads. I think I’ve done a little of both by supporting bipartisan transportation packages.
I know this can’t be done without working together. There’s no one in the race better equipped than me to do that, because I have the record of delivering results for Virginia.
Perriello: WMATA has both governance and revenue problems that are being greatly exacerbated by the current safety problems and service disruptions that have substantially reduced ridership. I would support this or other initiatives that would produce the necessary investments in our regional public transportation options. I have lived for the past six years in Alexandria and understand these problems both as a consumer and as a manager. When I worked at the State Department, members of my team wouldn’t know on any given day if they were going to make it into work by 7 or 9 a.m., or make it home by 7 or 8:30 p.m. from work. When I oversaw the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review for President Obama, we looked at the transportation challenges in Northern Virginia as a national security threat, both because of the vulnerabilities it introduced and because it is getting harder to recruit and retain top national security personnel as costs rise and quality of life is eroded based on traffic. We have to ensure the region can tackle this problem.
Hockstader: So you would support a regional sales tax, Mr. Perriello? In your view, is any other means of raising substantial sums of new revenue preferable to a regional sales tax? And would you support scrapping binding arbitration — do you see that as part of the governance problem to which you refer?
Northam: Fair compensation and benefits for workers must be respected. Ultimately, we need to build a system of transparency and accountability within Metro. However, without out a dedicated revenue source, any other reforms will not be enough.
Perriello: Here, we disagree. I think the “solutions” coming out of Richmond on transportation have not come close to getting the job done. It has produced gridlock in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads and disastrous toll deals for tunnels. The “Virginia Way” approach stopped working with the radical gerrymandering years ago, and Virginians are paying a big price for it. Political change comes from building consensus and support across Virginia that we then take to Richmond.
To your question, Lee: As I said above, yes, I would support the regional sales tax. Our preference is for whatever revenue source and governance reforms can garner sufficient support to solve the problem.
Hockstader: Would you support a dedicated regional sales tax, Dr. Northam?
Northam: I agree with my friend [state] Sen. [George L.] Barker, who said, and I paraphrase, that we need a shared approach with states and localities, and localities having a big stake. The panel that recommended the regional sales tax made a mistake by not involving local political leaders. We need substantive discussion and debate in order to achieve consensus. In Virginia, the entire commonwealth needs to be on board, and they won’t be if they are dictated to. We can’t hamstring ourselves before we start the discussion in Richmond. It should be an option, but the discussion in Richmond and across Virginia needs to happen first.
Hockstader: Gov. McAuliffe released the outlines of a climate plan last month that calls for pricing carbon dioxide emissions and joining with other states to trade pollution credits. Do you support this idea, and is it appropriate to act on it without the legislature’s consent? How would you flesh out the plan?
Northam: Yes, I support it, and applauded him when it was announced. I think Gov.McAuliffe was well within his authority to make that decision. In light of Donald Trump’s idiotic and disastrous decision to leave the Paris agreement, it’s even more important for states to lead. This is why I announced today that I would bring Virginia into the United States Climate Alliance, and I would continue Gov. McAuliffe’s carbon reduction executive directive.
Perriello: We strongly support Gov. McAuliffe’s decision as vital for protecting our climate and for ensuring Virginia stops falling behind on the clean-energy jobs and businesses of today. Virginia has the second-most-vulnerable coastline in America, and the ecological treasure and economic driver of the Chesapeake Bay stands at risk. We must pursue strong measures under this new rule to make Virginia a leader on climate and clean energy. That’s why I was the first candidate to commit to the new interstate climate alliance and the only candidate to refuse donations from Dominion Power and oppose two fracked-gas pipelines in Virginia. These positions, interestingly enough, are widely popular among third-party and Republican voters we meet across the state, who see a monopoly approach to energy production as long out of date.
The private sector can help drive solutions, if we create a modern framework of incentives. I have spent much of my life advancing these common-sense reforms, including through the cap-and-trade bill in Congress and new energy business investments in Southside Virginia. We have fallen behind North Carolina on solar energy and risk losing the wind industry to Maryland because our utilities have too much power in Richmond. Dominion is full of good, smart people stuck in a very bad monopoly business model. We should be creating the space for farmers and small-business owners to take over the energy production of the future. It creates more jobs, more efficiency and more local business.
President Trump’s disastrous move to pull out of the Paris agreement only reinforces the importance of strong state leadership on fighting climate change. I will ensure that Virginia becomes a leader on climate sustainability, distributed energy production and smart-grid technology.
Hockstader: Final question: High-quality charter schools have proved to be a successful alternative for many students, particularly children at high risk. It is one reason that they were promoted by the Obama administration. So explain why you want to continue to keep them out of Virginia when there are schools in many communities that have so consistently failed their students — many of them in predominantly black and low-income areas — and when there is no hope of change or improvement.
Perriello: The only problem with this question as posed is, well, evidence. The performance of charter schools has simply not exceeded performance within the system, despite years of investments. There have also been many legitimate concerns raised in how these have proceeded. Vouchers are also a plan that often make policymakers feel good about the few cases they appear to help, instead of focusing us on how to fix the system as a whole. We need to recruit and retain good teachers, which is why I’m the only candidate who has put revenues on the table to improve teacher pay, increase counselors in schools and add universal pre-K. Early-childhood development is a far more effective investment in quality outcomes. We are also expanding options to restore career and technical training programs in high schools, and I’m the only candidate to provide two years of apprenticeship programs, trade school or community college education.
The evidence does, however, show one clear trend, which is that schools in areas of concentrated poverty are far more likely to be underperforming. Instead of blaming the teachers and principals, we should ask why we have not done more to reduce poverty. In Virginia, we pay poverty wages of $14,000 a year to countless struggling parents. I meet parents every week who work two full-time jobs for less than $30,000 and add another 10 hours of commute time to get to a community with quality schools where they can afford to live. Every one of them would rather be at home helping with homework and cooking a healthy meal. These are not bad parents. They are exceptional parents who are finding ways to keep the lights on for their kids in an economy that is crushing the poor and working class. Some of the solutions to our education performance must be found outside the classroom, in restoring the broken promise of social mobility and economic security for all Virginians.
Northam: I grew up on a small farm on the Eastern Shore. My opportunities began with my public school education. Knowing that, it’s one of the reasons I have been a big supporter of public education in Virginia. My wife, Pam, was a K-5 science teacher, so she has been a major influence on me as well.
It’s one of the reasons I was proud to support raising teacher pay in the state Senate and as lieutenant governor. But teacher pay in Virginia ranks 30th in the nation, while we rank 10th in per capita personal income. If we’re going to recruit and retain talented, good teachers, we have to step up to the plate and put our money where our mouth is and say we’re going to make K-12 education a priority. I’ve also been proud to work on reforming Standards of Learning so that we teach our children how to think creatively rather than multiple-choice tests. This will go a long way toward helping children and educators.
I have also been involved as part of the Children’s Cabinet modifying our high school curriculum to emphasize vocational and technical training, preparing our students for higher-paying, high-tech STEM-related 21st-century jobs.
With regards to charter schools or vouchers, we need to make sure that we fund K-12 first before we move on to other things like charter schools.
The fundamental reason charter schools have not moved forward on a wider scale in Virginia is because every proposal to come through the General Assembly would limit the local school board’s authority to grant the charter. Making sure these decisions are left to our local leaders and those closest to the communities is vital. Second, the charter proposals seen in Virginia would ultimately divert much-needed funding from school divisions, often those that are in the most need.
We’d be better off revising Standards of Quality formulas to better eliminate disparities among different regions across the commonwealth and so that every child in Virginia has the same opportunity to quality education regardless of where they live.
Finally, I am proud that we secured federal dollars to fund 13,000 pre-K slots for low-income children. With the goal of universal access to pre-K, tax dollars can be better spent expanding access to all Virginia children.
Hockstader: Thank you to you both. We appreciate you joining this forum today.