Virginia’s Democratic gubernatorial candidates Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and former U.S. Congressman Tom Perriello answered questions Tuesday night about their records—including Perriello’s vote for the anti-choice Stupak Amendment—at a progressive forum in Arlington.
“I personally don’t believe that we can stand for economic justice without standing for reproductive justice,” Perriello told the crowd, responding to a question about whether he agreed with U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) that anti-choice candidates have a place in the Democratic Party.
Sanders, who endorsed Perriello in April, has been criticized for his support of Heath Mello, a Democratic mayoral candidate in Omaha, Nebraska, who co-sponsored abortion restrictions as a state legislator. Sanders made no concessions even after Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez called pro-choice views “non-negotiable” for Democratic politicians.
“If we are talking about both the sovereign and constitutional matter of a woman’s right to choose, it is clear to me,” Perriello said. “But it’s also something that if we’re talking about one of the great challenges of our time being this collapse of the middle and working class, the idea that we would limit affordability and access to choice is not something that I think should be part of a progressive agenda.”
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Noting that he doesn’t “tell other candidates [in the state] how to run,” Perriello said reproductive and economic justice were “intrinsically part” of his platform. “We’re trying to get strong on it as we go,” he said. “But for me, those things are not severable. They must be part of a genuinely progressive agenda.”
Perriello called his recent vow to introduce a constitutional amendment to protect abortion rights “a medium-term strategy” when asked whether such a measure was achievable in Virginia’s Republican-held legislature.
Virginia does not have a law on the books that would criminalize abortion care should Roe v. Wade be overturned, but it has Republican majorities in both legislative chambers that have introduced more than 75 measures to limit reproductive freedoms since 2010. The state constitution says amendments must “be agreed to by a majority of the members elected to each of the two houses,” before facing a second vote after the next general election. Only if it again passes would it move to a ballot measure to be decided upon by voters.
“With the ascension of Justice Gorsuch to the Supreme Court we’re now one justice away from Roe v. Wade itself being overturned, and as you know well, changing the constitution in Virginia doesn’t happen quickly,” he said. “So I don’t think we put all of our eggs in that basket, but it is one piece I think that needs to begin to move forward.”
Perriello expressed hope that the upcoming election could flip the Virginia State House or close in on its GOP majority, making a constitutional amendment easier to pass. He said he had learned from the pro-choice community to “to take an expansive sense of what’s possible.”
One audience member asked Perriello how reproductive rights advocates could trust him, noting that some of his campaign staffers had “gone after” advocates on Twitter for bringing up his vote for the anti-choice Stupak Amendment during his time in Congress. Perriello replied, “We can all benefit from a deescalation on Twitter both within the campaigns and more generally.”
“On the issue of the Stupak vote I’ve been very clear from day one and before, both that I both took that vote—which is obviously a matter of public record—and that I regret that vote,” Perriello said, adding that he was following through on a campaign promise to constituents to uphold the Hyde Amendment’s ban on most federal funding for abortion care.
“That was a balance I tried to strike. I struck the wrong balance .… I think [the vote] was a very good reason for people to criticize me,” he said. “I’ve been very open about that. It was a bad vote.”
“I do not believe that a right to choose is meaningful unless there is affordable and dignified access to that choice,” Perriello added, vowing to continue Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s promise to be a “brick wall” against GOP efforts to erode reproductive freedoms in Virginia.
Northam has the backing of reproductive rights advocates such as NARAL Pro-Choice America and local affiliate NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia. Tarina Keene, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, has pointed to the lieutenant governor’s unequivocal support for reproductive rights and his record of fighting abortion restrictions as a state senator.
Another attendee confronted Perriello about an interview with Slate in which he said he fought against TRAP laws in Virginia. “I was fighting for years at the grassroots level and I never heard your name,” the attendee said. “I never saw you at the Board of Health, and the Center for American Progress (CAP) was not actively involved in the fight in Virginia.”
Perriello told Slate in February that he “engaged actively after my tenure in Congress in fights against TRAP laws and other efforts to limit reproductive health access in Virginia and around the country.”
“When we were at the Center for American Progress we did push back against the ‘War on Women,’” said Perriello, referring to his work at the left-leaning think tank’s action fund. “I raised money to run a set of reports about Ken Cuccinelli’s impact on women and tried to use those throughout the 2013 election cycle to defeat Ken Cuccinelli and promote Terry McAuliffe within the bounds of a 501(c)(4) organization.”
“But I want to be absolutely clear that the credit in these fights belongs to you and those activists who worked day in and day out to fight these laws,” he continued. “I want to be a partner in those fights. I’ve tried to find opportunities at CAP and elsewhere to do this, but certainly want to continue to learn and be a better partner going forward.”
Northam also faced questions about his record. Referencing a February Washington Post article that reported Northam had “voted to bar municipalities from fingerprinting concealed-carry permit applicants and for a ‘castle doctrine’ bill to allow homeowners to shoot intruders,” one voter asked for an explanation of those votes.
“I don’t remember specifically the first bill you referenced,” Northam said, “but I do remember the castle doctrine, and that stands for ‘the castle is your home.’ And I’ve always thought that people inside their own home … should be able to protect themselves if they so choose.”
Northam added that the National Rifle Association has given him a D rating in the past.