Exclusive: A Q&A With Virginia Democratic Gubernatorial Candidates on Progressivism, Reproductive Rights (Annotated)

Rewire chatted with the Democratic candidates vying for the party’s nomination ahead of the state’s June 13 primary. Their records on reproductive rights in particular have remained in the spotlight.

The Democratic candidates vying for the party’s nomination ahead of the state’s June 13 primary are former Rep. Tom Perriello and Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Few gubernatorial campaigns have caused as much of a stir among reproductive rights activists as the 2017 Virginia race, which comes at a time when debates among Democrats are in part focused on whether a party can call itself progressive if it embraces anti-choice politics. And in the midst of a national-level GOP attack on fundamental health and rights, the next governor of Virginia will play a critical role in determining whether residents have access to the comprehensive reproductive health care they need.

Since he was sworn into office in January 2014, Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) has followed through on his promise to be a “brick wall” against Republican efforts in the state to push through abortion rights, blocking efforts to defund Planned Parenthood and overseeing the repeal of some restrictions. This underscores the importance of the governor’s veto.

Describing the political atmosphere in the state, Tarina Keene, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, told Rewire that it currently has “quite the deficit when it comes to elected pro-choice legislators in the general assembly itself.” Of the 140 state lawmakers, only 53 are pro-choice according to Keene—and they’re all Democrats. “The rest are Republicans and generally have a zero-percent to very low score regarding reproductive health and rights in Virginia,” she said.

“A governor’s veto in this climate means everything,” said Keene in January prior to the group’s endorsement decision. “It is the deciding factor on whether women’s health and rights will advance or be protected, or if we will go backward. It’s a pivotal vote to have on our side.”

The Democratic candidates vying for the party’s nomination ahead of the state’s June 13 primary are locked in a tight battle, so their records on reproductive rights have remained in the spotlight.

Tom Perriello, who formerly represented Virginia in the U.S. House of Representatives, infamously cast a vote in favor of the anti-choice Stupak amendment—which, among other things, would have stopped those who have subsidized health plans from purchasing insurance that covered abortion—during his time in Congress, leading some reproductive rights advocates in the state to question his commitment to safeguarding abortion rights. He has since said that he regrets that vote and vowed to take action to both protect and expand access to reproductive health care in the state should he be elected.

Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, in contrast, has an unblemished record on reproductive rights, advocates say. During his time as a state senator he gained notoriety for his repeated efforts to stand up against abortion restrictions—including a push for forced ultrasounds.

Rewire sat down with both Northam and Perriello in May to discuss their platforms, their backgrounds, and what they think makes them the best candidate to represent Virginia Democrats moving into the general election. We’ll be publishing these interviews in multiple parts. Up first is their responses to questions about reproductive health and rights, and what it means to be progressive. This interview has been annotated to include additional context on some of the points mentioned by the candidates over the course of the conversation.

Former U.S. Congressman Tom Perriello 

Rewire: You’ve been widely described as a progressive candidate, and it’s a term you’ve used yourself. What does that mean to you in specific terms?

Tom Perriello: In the broadest sense, it’s the idea that the arc of the universe bends towards justice, and that all of us need to be part of pushing in that direction. Progressive means that we’re not OK with the status quo, but there are elements of fundamental inequality and injustice that we should push to advance. So, I think it’s a combination of an aspiration, but also a fundamental belief that progress is possible.

Former Rep. Tom Perriello. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Rewire: What key progressive priorities are you looking to bring to Virginia?

TP: Well, I think right now, unfortunately, we have a whole menu to pick from, particularly in the era of the Trump administration. A couple of them, in particular, involve pushing back very strongly against both the structural and overt racism and sexism that has been there for a long time, but has certainly been stoked by the campaign that Donald Trump ran—which I believe was the most racist of my lifetime, and also exhibited both in his personal behavior and his rhetoric this toxic masculinity that really reinforced some of the worst that is in our culture. So whether that is standing up to the neo-Nazi rally in my hometown … or looking at issues from pay equity to continuing issues of sexual assault in Virginia.

In addition to that, we currently have, I believe, a growing economic crisis that hasn’t quite hit the surface yet—but that most Virginians are feeling—which is that we’ve moved from a cycle of opportunity to a cycle of debt. We have some of the highest student debt rates in Virginia combined with some of the highest consumer debt rates, and this tends to disproportionately hit vulnerable communities, including women and communities of color. Nearly two-thirds of minimum-wage workers in Virginia, for example, are women.

So, if we push for a living wage—we’re the first candidate and campaign in Virginia history to call for a $15-an-hour minimum wage—you would see that disproportionately affecting women, because we disproportionately undervalue the work that women are doing. I think right now we have both a crisis of economic opportunity with rising debt, and we have that stoking some of these traditional long-overdue-to-be-healed issues of gender and racism.

Rewire: Shifting to reproductive rights and justice, I’d like to talk briefly about your Stupak amendment vote. Why have you come to regret it?

TP: Because it was a bad vote and a bad pledge. I was very eager to support the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and made a pledge to a very conservative district that we would continue the baseline status quo of having no taxpayer funding for abortion. The problem with that status quo is it’s incredibly unjust, and it means that particularly poor women and women of color disproportionately will not have access to the same rights as others will have and it’ll simply be one that is on paper. 

While I think there were many advances in the ACA I was proud to support, including coverage of pre- and post-natal care and universal contraception, the fact is that it was a compromise that was unjust and so we need to try to continue to work to make sure that our health-care system in Virginia, and frankly around the country, is one that not only guarantees a constitutional right to choose, which I’ve always supported, but that people have an affordable, meaningful, and dignified access to exercise that.

And I think it’s even more true in a collapsing economy. The fact of the matter is for the government or anyone else to tell someone when and if they should have a family or expand a family is one of the most expensive decisions anybody is going to make one way or another. So that is certainly something that should be up to the woman to decide.

Rewire: On the Hyde Amendment and federal funding for abortion care, was that a position that you were personally holding at the time?

TP: Well, it was a standard that the White House set. They said we’re going to protect that standard. There was a lot of debate about what it meant to protect that. Stupak went beyond that quite frankly, which is part of why I voted against reattaching it when it came back from the Senate. We were really trying to find a compromise less than that. But the reality was it was based on the federal employee’s exchange that the women on my staff got their health care from, and the status quo was bad. They could not actually purchase a plan with their own money in the federal employees exchange that covered reproductive services. So you know, in trying to build something really new, the question was what was the precedent, and I think the hope was that we were going to end up with something different or had chosen in the first place to make that fight. But when the White House came out with the pledge, I went and said that to 23 town hall meetings and thousands of constituents that we would meet that standard, and again, it’s something I regret.

Rewire: If you’re elected governor, how will you proactively ensure that reproductive rights are protected and expanded?

TP: I think there are several things, the first is unfortunately defense. Gov. McAuliffe has been a real champion in having to use the veto pen over 112 times, including many of those to block restrictions on a woman’s right to choose. I’ve made very clear that I will continue that pattern of blocking any effort to limit a woman’s right to choose through the legislature. Obviously, we would prefer to be on offense, which may depend on what the legislature looks like next year. There has been some room for bipartisan improvement around the issue of expanding access to contraception, including [long-acting reversible contraceptives] (LARCs) and other elements that are out there that I think have been very successful in other states. So we’ll look for opportunities like that.

Obviously, appointments are very important to the health board and others to make sure that these are people who are driven by science and evidence and not by ideology and ensuring that our laws wherever possible are read in a way that ensures our clinics stay open and our providers stay open.

I think it’s also partly about how we can use the bully pulpit on this issue, and I want to certainly be a partner and an ally to movement groups that have been doing a great job of expanding and shifting the dialogue on this.

One of the things that I spent a few years doing was starting progressive faith organizations to push back against the religious right, and spent several years of trying to shift our moral discourse in the country, which I think has been way too obsessed with anything related to sex and sexuality over to issues of poverty, inequality, and hate. Many of those organizations have continued, both interfaith and single-denomination, to push back and say, look, you know ultimately the morality of our communities is how we treat the least among us—the most vulnerable, the poor. And while we may not always agree, between the right and the left, on what that is defined as, I think that is an important conversation for us to be having.

[In a follow-up question to Perriello’s campaign after this interview, Rewire pressed the candidate on one of the faith organizations he co-founded, called Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, which opposes abortion. When questioned about Perriello’s role in founding the group and how it could be squared away with the Democratic candidate’s claim that he has always supported abortion rights, a spokesperson for the campaign told Rewire that “Tom has always been pro-choice.”]

Rewire: One of your policy positions is that if elected you would try to change the state constitution to protect abortion rights. What is your response to people who say that those proposals are not viable and are being used to whitewash your history on abortion rights?

TP: We’ve talked to people in the community about whether it was a good idea before we moved forward with it. I think that one of the things I try to do is listen first, and people were encouraging of the idea. This happened in the context of Justice [Neil] Gorsuch ascending into the Supreme Court and the awareness that we’re now one justice away from a Court that could overturn Roe v. Wade itself. I’ve always supported Roe. I’ve marched for Roe many times in my life. My opponent in this primary voted for George W. Bush twice [who] was the most anti-choice president in history, really.

Virginia has a long process for changing the constitution, which is why I think people whom I’ve talked to and advocacy groups have said we need a short-term strategy and a medium-term strategy. We don’t want to just be reactive. And I think you don’t put everything, all your chips, on this slot, but I think that one of the issues is that in addition to doing the things that we can to resist regressive moves by both the Trump administration and the Republican legislature in Richmond, we want to make sure that that is enshrined as much as possible in the Virginia Constitution.

It is a multi-year process in Virginia so I think that beginning that process can be a valuable way to drawing attention and advocacy to what is under threat and also being ready if we do come to that situation, which would be obviously very unfortunate.

We have a balance, we have a shift, going on over the last few years in progressive causes from a federal focus to a state focus. And we’ve seen over the last 15 years or so that in many ways that the front line of attacks have been on the state level on voting rights, on a woman’s rights to choose, and otherwise, and a lot of our infrastructure has been at the federal level, but I think we need to make sure that we’re taking a multi-faceted approach at the state level to try to be ready for any scenario that comes.

Rewire: There has been a lot of controversy within the Democratic Party lately about if there should be a litmus test for candidates on abortion. Do you think there is room in the Democratic Party for politicians who oppose abortion?

TP: I personally don’t think you can separate the issues of economic justice and reproductive justice. I think that there are few issues more fundamental to the economic decisions that a family is going to make than when and if to have a family and expand a family, and people need to make those decisions for all sorts of reasons. And I think this is not just a constitutional matter of their right to do so but also the economic reality of where we live. So for me, I think we need a Democratic Party that is more aggressive about how serious the economic challenges we face today are and how serious the structural issues of race and gender are today. I think that the future of the Democratic Party is very much one that sees those as united.

Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam

Rewire: You’ve spoken at length about your record on reproductive rights and opposition to targeted regulation of abortion providers (TRAP) laws in the state of Virginia, and about how your medical background gives you specific insight into these issues. Can you speak a bit about that?

Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (NBC12 News / YouTube)

Ralph Northam: Sure. Well you know, I’ve been taking care of patients over 25 years now. I’ve taken care of children and adolescents up to 21 years of age, and so obviously I’ve had a lot of conversations with women regarding their reproductive health. Since I’ve been in the [state] senate starting in 2008, I have watched these continued attacks on access to women’s reproductive health care and so, I have led that fight. I’ve been there. It started with, as you mentioned, a couple of pieces of legislation. I think most people remember the infamous [transvaginal] ultrasound bill. I stood up on the floor of the senate and educated folks that it was an invasive procedure and … certainly not necessary.

You mentioned we had the TRAP laws that were intended to shut down women’s reproductive health clinics across Virginia. And one of the things that really bothers me about those … Republicans who were fighting to [pass these laws] said that they were to protect women. I can just tell you as a pediatric neurologist, the procedures that I do in my office, the procedures that a gastric neurologist or plastic surgeon does in their office are much more dangerous than those that are done when an abortion is done.

I always sort of emphasize to people, if you’re doing it for the safety of women, you know, am I going to be next or other providers going to be next? The overall pattern of what we see in these pieces of legislation—whether they be the ultrasound bill, the TRAP laws, or the personhood bill, or the 20-week abortion bill—they’re not to protect women. They’re to shame women when they make a decision that really should be between them, their partner, and their provider. So I remind people that there’s really no excuse for a group of legislators, most of them men, to be telling women what they should or shouldn’t be doing with their bodies. So I have led that fight. I have always been pro-choice, and I will continue to as the next governor.

Rewire: How do you think your medical background will help inform how you govern should you be elected?

RN: Well, again, I’ve taken care of patients for over 25 years, so I know how important access to health care is for people. Whether it be taking their child to the pediatrician, or going to the emergency room when they have chest pains, or in the case of having access to reproductive health care—these are all very important things.

Some other areas that I’ve led on are access to LARCs, which are long-acting reversible contraceptives. For two years I’ve had in a budget TANF money, which is temporary assistance for needy families, that will increase access and use of long-form contraceptives. So access to reproductive health care I think dovetails nicely to what I’ve been trying to [do] over the years in locations across Virginia, and what I’ll continue to do.

Rewire: You mentioned access, and I’m wondering what specifically you would do as governor to help expand access to reproductive health care?

RN: We’re in a very vulnerable position right now with our president, who is threatening to defund Planned Parenthood—a lot of women go to Planned Parenthood for access. There’s tremendous inequality today with men’s access to health care and women’s. For example, contraception, as we’ve already mentioned. So we’re in a position in Virginia where we need to make sure that all Virginians have access to health care, and one of the things I have fought for is Medicaid expansion. We have forfeited over $5 million a day, just since January 2014 [that is] over $10 billion, we have given away to … states that we compete with. So, it’s going to take some leadership to bring people to the table and make sure we have the resources that we need. We need somebody at the table who understands access to health care—as a doctor I do understand that.

Rewire: Your campaign site includes women’s health and LGBT equality under the “economy for everyone” tab. Why did you include them there? Do you view those as economic issues?

RN: Absolutely. Reproductive freedom leads to economic freedom. And so we have prided ourselves in particular on being inclusive. You asked about the LGBTQ community—we have been a brick wall in legislation that discriminates against the LGBT community.

If not for Gov. McAuliffe and myself [who] stood firm, we would be just like North Carolina. At the same time, we need to treat women with equality and welcome women to the Commonwealth of Virginia and be inclusive. So all of these things are very important to our economy. They’re important for human rights and equality, but for our economy in particular.

Rewire: Following up on one of the topics you mentioned, you said you stood up for progressive values. I’m wondering what do progressive values mean to you? What does the term progressive mean?

RN: Well first of all, it means economic opportunity for all Virginians, no matter who you are, no matter where you are in Virginia. That’s very important. Everybody deserves a good job, and that’s something I have fought for.

Progressive values are responsible gun ownership. That’s another significant difference between Tom and me.

I have a ‘D’ rating [from the NRA].

I have always fought for responsible gun ownership. I’m the only candidate, by the way, on both sides of the aisle running for governor who has never had an ‘A’ rating [from the NRA]. I don’t think you get an ‘A’ rating from the NRA because of progressive Democratic values. So guns are important.

Access to women’s reproductive health care is important. Jobs are important. Environmental issues are important, which I’ve been unwavering on. Supporting the LGBT community—I’ve stood side-by-side to support marriage equality in Virginia. All of these things are important as progressive Democratic values and I’ve been unwavering on those. I’ve been in public service for ten years.

Rewire: You mentioned reproductive rights as a progressive value. Do you think there is a place in the Democratic Party for politicians who don’t support abortion?

RN: No.

These interviews have been lightly edited for clarity.