Exclusive: Virginia’s Democratic Gubernatorial Candidates on Wage and Environmental Concerns, Part 3 (Annotated)

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Exclusive: Virginia’s Democratic Gubernatorial Candidates on Wage and Environmental Concerns, Part 3 (Annotated)

Ally Boguhn

Former U.S. Congressman Tom Perriello and Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam talk about pay equity, family leave, and health and environmental concerns in the third and final installment of our series of Q&As with the candidates running for the Democratic nomination in Virginia’s June 13 gubernatorial primary.

In the third and final installment of our series of Q&As with the candidates running for the Democratic nomination in Virginia’s June 13 gubernatorial primary, we talk with former U.S. Congressman Tom Perriello and Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam about pay equity, family leave, and health and environmental concerns.

Rewire sat down with Perriello and Northam in May to discuss the candidates’ platforms, their backgrounds, and what they think makes them the best candidate to represent Virginia. As with the first and second installments, this interview has been annotated to include additional context on some of the points mentioned by the candidates over the course of these conversations.

Former Congressman Tom Perriello

Rewire: As governor, what would you do to improve wages, not just in the aggregate, but for low-income people specifically?

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TP: We are the first campaign in Virginia history to push for a $15-an-hour minimum wage, and that’s not picked randomly. And it’s not just aspirational—$28,000 a year is what that means. Our current minimum wage is a poverty wage.

In fact, most people, particularly most mothers, lose money by going to work for less than $28,000 a year because of child-care costs and transportation costs. In addition to that, we have called for and fully paid for in our tax reform plan eight weeks of paid family leave because we have far too many people, disproportionately women, who will have to care for a sick kid or an aging parent and lose their job, which is then going to send them further down the wage scale. In addition to that, we need to push for pay equity. I voted for the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in Congress.

We also need to look at some of these issues of salary transparency, where being asked your salary when you go into an interview can disproportionately affect women coming in with lower salaries to those jobs.

Rewire: Your paid family leave policy would “guarantee workers up to eight weeks of leave at two-thirds of their pay so they can care for a new child or a severely ill family member,” according to your campaign’s website. How would you work to put this policy in place?

TP: We need to really challenge the right on what it means to be pro-family. Some of the cultures in Europe that they’re most critical of frankly have policies that are much more pro-family than those who use that kind of rhetoric here, but stand against things that help cover families for the things they need most—which is to be able to afford to take a few days off and care for a kid, or these other issues of frankly making a living wage.

When it comes to these issues, we need to go straight into the red counties in Virginia and make the case for why paid medical leave is both pro-family and pro-growth. Ultimately, what happens is a lot of people drop out of the workforce, because the choice is don’t work at all or literally work in a job you cannot take a day off from. Then you’re going to end up not working. We’ve gone straight into red counties—of course, I represented a very conservative district in Virginia. We’ve taken half a dozen trips deep into coal country already on this campaign, and I think we’re seeing very changing attitudes in those places among at least rural conservatives. They want us to start treating addiction as a health problem and not a criminal problem. They want to see issues of paid medical leave and a living wage.

So I think part of how we do it is not to assume that far-right legislators are actually representing their constituents—we go straight to their constituents and make the case, and often they can then put pressure back and say, what the heck are you guys doing? This makes no sense to be blocking Medicaid expansion that is crucial for our working families as well as paid medical leave.

Rewire: So would you say there is a chance to get that through a Republican-dominated state legislature?

TP: Well of course my first hope is that it won’t be a Republican-dominated state legislature because we will have a wave election this year, but I absolutely reject the premise that we can’t get these things through a Republican legislature. I’ve just seen that when we give up our sense of what’s possible too quickly, then people ask the question: Why are we in this game at all if we’re not in it too make a difference?

I think that there is a sea change right now, on attitude, on a number of fronts, including criminal justice reform and paid medical leave. The concerns of so many families out there in red districts that are getting pinched between caring for kids that haven’t yet found employment and caring for aging parents. One of my concerns is, in a recent national poll, most Americans said that they think that Democrats only care about rich people. The fact of the matter is, when we go out and show that we are the ones caring very boldly for the ones struggling on the margins of the working and middle class, we do better with those voters, because often for reasons that may not be fair they think we only care about rich people.

Rewire: Northam’s paid family leave policy would offer a tax credit while yours would mandate a policy. Why did you decide on your policy?

TP: Right now we need real change, and not change around the margins. I think this is a bit of a generational shift; that those who sort of catered to, or are looking at this from an earlier era, it seems like basically things were working for the middle-class and we just needed to tweak around the edges for those who were falling behind. I think that unfortunately, for my generation, there is an understanding that actually the tectonics aren’t right. My father, who went through college, got a scholarship, did work-study, came out debt-free—that same kid today is going to come out with about $40,000 of debt and be told within five years that they are going to need a master’s degree to stay competitive and take on another $25,000 in debt. Those are the very years that you used to spend saving for a down-payment on a house and getting on a cycle of savings. Instead, we’re getting on a cycle of debt.

Same thing with the issues of employment today. If we pay a poverty wage of $14,000 a year and then tell people that if you miss two days of work, you’ve just lost the entire margin for paying your bills that month—so what do you do if you’re sick? What do you do if your kid is sick? Right now we need to have a plan that actually works for families. And my experience in negotiating with Republicans before and negotiating in conflict zones around the world is that we end up getting just as much resistance to half of a good idea as we do to a full good idea.

This is one of the reasons I thought the Affordable Care Act (ACA) should have been stronger and why I was excited to vote for the first version of the bill that included a public option. We would have got just as much hatred from the insurance companies. We would have gotten just as many votes from the Republicans, which is zero. But instead, we would have had a bill that was even stronger and would have shown a larger bending of the cost curve going forward. So I think we end up doing better over time when we stand up for things that can make a real difference.

Rewire: What would you say are the greatest health challenges that people in Virginia are facing right now?

TP: We have a range of issues. Certainly affordability [of health care] across the board, in part because Trump and the Republicans have continued to play games with the idea of getting rid of the ACA. We continue to have a lot of the working poor who are not covered because Medicaid expansion has not gone through. We continue to have a legacy of very restricted reproductive justice access: 92 percent of the counties in Virginia have no access to clinics or services and we still have laws on the books that require a woman to get a lecture first and wait 24-hours [for an abortion]. And if you’re in the working poor, that means you’re going to have to take those two days off of work, which again is not going to be paid for without the paid medical leave that we’re supportive of. So we need to try to get these bad laws off the books, we need to continue to try at least to lock new laws from coming on.

We also have issues of access to mental health [care]. We’re hearing this more and more, and … we can build coalitions around this. One of the groups that has become the greatest advocates for addressing mental health has been law enforcement. Because law enforcement feels that too often they end up being the mental health providers of first resort in a situation that is already tragic.

Rewire: Another issue you differ from Lt. Gov. Northam on is the Dominion pipeline. Could you tell us why you don’t support that project?

TP: We have two fracked gas pipelines proposed across Virginia that would cost $6.7 billion and take us exactly in the wrong direction right now. The future of energy is not fossil fuels. It’s clean energy and energy efficiency. And it’s not monopolies, it’s distributed power …. Dominion is not full of bad people, they just have a bad business model that’s stuck in the 1950s where their company gets to decide what the energy source is going to be, where it’s going to come from, whose land it’s going to go across, [and then] deliver it to your house, and tell you how much you pay for it. That’s not the century we’re living in right now. Betting $6.7 billion on these backwards investments is a little like being told right as digital cameras are taking off to bet your pension fund on Polaroid, Eastman Kodak. It’s just not where the future is going.

Virginia has lost tons of businesses and tons of jobs because businesses have too much power in Richmond [the capitol of the state]. Dominion is the biggest contributor to both political parties, including the Democratic Party in Richmond, and the result of that is we’re falling behind North Carolina on solar energy and we’re about to fall behind Maryland on wind energy, and it’s hurting our economy. I think it’s just a fundamental misunderstanding, not just of how big a threat climate change is, not just about the misuse of imminent domain for corporate profit, but also this fundamental question about whether we need more monopolies in our economy or do we need more small business in our economy.

If you actually allow distributed energy production, every single homeowner can become part of the new energy economy and so can every farmer. And the same way in Northern Virginia today that we unfortunately see a lot of public school teachers who are also Uber or Lyft drivers because they need a little more income, because we don’t pay them enough, we have a lot of farmers out there who have their primary crop, but if they could just make 20 percent more by having some solar or wind on their farm, that’s enough for them to stay in business. But they have to be able to sell it back to the grid to be able to do that, and the utilities are trying to block it. So this is a multi-billion-dollar bet in exactly the wrong direction when we need Virginia to be in on the path to the future.

Rewire: What would you say are the most critical environmental concerns that Virginia is facing?

TP: Unfortunately, it’s a long list. We are certainly particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. We have the second most vulnerable coastline after New Orleans in the Hampton Roads area. We’re already seeing flooding that’s disproportionately hurting communities of color, but also threatening our naval bases, which are key economic drivers in the region. So we need to do an enormous amount to deal with both climate mitigation and resilience.

Unfortunately as well, I think [EPA] Administrator Pruitt is probably the second scariest nominee in the Trump administration—which is saying a lot. We’re probably going to see systematic attacks on the basic protections of clean air and clean water over the next few years, and it’s going to be important for Virginia to have a governor who is ready to fill in gaps on research enforcement and the rest around basic clean air and clean water standards.

In addition to that, I think we do continue to have important issues of protecting land and rural heritage …. I think there’s a win-win here. I think there is an opportunity to localize some food production, some beverage production, and some energy production that will help hard-hit economic communities while putting us on a more sustainable path.

Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam

Rewire: Your campaign calls for “a tax credit to make it affordable for small businesses to allow full-time employees to take at least eight workweeks of paid parental leave.” Why do you support this policy over a guaranteed paid leave policy in the state?

RN: I can just tell you as a business owner, I am a part-owner, I co-founded the Children’s Specialty Group in Norfolk, and we employ about 250 people. So it’s important when women have a baby that they have paid family leave, because we want them back. If we don’t have them come back, that means we have to hire other people and retrain them, so we take good care of our employees and it’s important for them, for those who have babies or even for those who have a sickness, that their leave is paid for and that they’re allowed to come back once they have the desire to.

Rewire: But why a tax credit for businesses versus a mandate by the state that businesses have to do it? 

RN: I’m open to either one of those. I’m not firm. Again, it’s important at the end of the day to make sure we’re just allowing our families to have paid leave and be able to return to work when their illnesses are better or when they’re ready to come back after having a baby.

Rewire: Would your paid family leave policy then also include paid time off to care for a sick family member?

RN: Absolutely, that’s very important.

Rewire: As governor, what would you do to improve wages, not just in the aggregate, but for lower-income workers and families?

RN: One of the things that I have fought for, and I actually broke the tie two years ago as the lieutenant governor, was to raise minimum wage. There’s no way that anybody … can support themselves or their families on $7.25 an hour. I have always been an advocate for increasing the minimum wage, whether that be done incrementally, which is what the senate bill had foreclosed, or whether we go to a $15 minimum wage, which I’ve advocated for. I think the bottom line is we need to make sure that we’re supporting low-income people and that they do have equality in their pay.

One of the things that I’ve also fought for—women as you know are getting paid about 78 cents to the dollar compared to men, and that’s unfair and we need to level the playing field for women.

Rewire: In a recent debate, you discussed your opposition to offshore drilling and fracking, but did not condemn the proposed Dominion Energy pipeline. What is your position on that?

RN: Well I’ve made my position very clear. First of all, we in Virginia need to realize and recognize that this proposed pipeline comes from West Virginia through Virginia into North Carolina. It’s an interstate project, so there are deeds and regulatory processes that we have in Virginia that I have done everything I can to make sure that we sign with transparency. I have written a letter and communicated with the [Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ)] to change the process from one of a blanket permit to a site-specific permit. At the end of the day, we have to realize that [the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission] (FERC), which is a federal agency, will make the final decision. If the DEQ decides that it can be done safely environmentally, and using science and transparency then the pipeline will move forward. If they say no, I will support them and the pipeline won’t move forward.

But at the end of the day, the decision that FERC will make, and I don’t think that anybody in the governor or lieutenant governor’s position should take a stance that we’re going to go around the regulatory process we have in place. We need to let that play out. We need to let them do their job, and at the end of the day we will support their final conclusion.

Rewire: What would an environmental assessment have to find for you to decide that you would not support a project like this?

RN: Well the DEQ, if they look at the permitting process and say that this is environmentally unsafe and they are not going to grant the permits, then that would stop the process. And that is the regulatory agency that we have in place in Virginia that has worked very well over the years. Again, we need to let that play out. We need to let them do their job and not sit there and try to influence their position.

Rewire: What would you say are the most critical environmental concerns that Virginia is facing?

RN: Terry McAuliffe and I announced three days ago that we’re promoting renewable energy. We’d like by 2030 to have 30 percent of our energy from renewable energy. Sea-level rise is a major concern, especially in the Hampton Roads. That’s something that I have been trying to promote a resiliency program [on]. Climate change and global warming is real. I’m a scientist, I believe in science, and we have to take these things seriously. So, what we need to do, and what I’ll do as the next governor is to continue to promote renewable energy. I’ll promote wind and solar. We have put a number of solar farms in during this past year …. We’ll continue to work with the resiliency program against sea-level rise. These are all very important things. I’ve been a leader in that area.

I would also say that I stood up against offshore drilling. I worked with President Obama’s administration to stop that. I’m very concerned with what President Trump is doing now to reverse that. I’ve also fought against fracking in Virginia. Those who know my record know that I’m an ambassador and want to be a good steward for the environment in Virginia.

Rewire: Similarly, what do you think are the greatest health challenges that are facing Virginia right now.

RN: There are three pillars to the health care. The first is quality, and we have good quality in Virginia. The second is access—something I talked about with Medicaid expansion, there are 400,000 working Virginians now who don’t have access to health care because politically the Republicans chose not to expand Medicaid. The largest challenge is the cost of health care. We have been very frugal with our Medicaid spending. We’re 47th in the country right now, and that’s because of not expanding Medicaid. And so we’re watching very closely what’s going on in Washington. If they repeal the Affordable Care Act and do what we call a block grant, Virginia is going to be in a very vulnerable position. So it is important that we have people at the table such as myself who understand health care to make sure that all Virginians have access to affordable and quality care. So that’s what I plan to do.

Rewire: Can you expand on why block grants specifically would be a bad idea for Virginia?

RN: They’d be a bad idea because Washington will say to Virginia and other states, this is what we’re going to give you to take care of your Medicaid population. And as I just said, because we’re 47th in the country, they’re going to say, well Virginia you all have done fine with this amount of funding for Medicaid. If that happens we’re going to be very vulnerable and be at risk of losing certainly millions of dollars over the upcoming years. So again, we need a doctor—we need people who understand health care at the table right now to make sure that we take care of all Virginians and make sure they have access to health care.

These interviews have been lightly edited for clarity.