Hello from the Commonwealth of Virginia: home to peanuts, pigs, and off-off-year statewide elections.
That’s right! While the rest of you get another year until you have to lie back and think of England throughout the interminable midterms, we here in the Old Dominion get to jump right back into the pool of democracy. Virginia chooses her governor the year after presidential elections, and given our recent status as a battleground state, our gubernatorial race is taken as an indicator of how the new president is doing. Spoiler alert: it’s usually not great! In fact, since 1977, only our current governor - master salesman and all-around swell guy Terry McAuliffe - has been a member of the same party as the recently elected president.
Not to shock you so much so soon, but Virginia is bad on choice. Texas may take the ball and run with it, but the ball was manufactured here. Remember the transvaginal ultrasound law? That was us. And every year, the singularly bughouse Republicans of the Virginia state legislature come up with new and exciting ways to threaten women’s bodily autonomy. It isn’t especially surprising that the gang of putzes vying for the Republican nomination are in a competition with each other to see who can say the most ghastly thing about abortion. What is sort of weird, though, is that the Democratic primary has choice at its center.
In addition to our being a bellwether for nationwide political trends, we’re often used as a control experiment. Our proximity to DC means that the national parties will, for want of a better phrase, carpetbag down to Ol’ Virginny to tell us what to do. This year, the national Democrats are using our primary to solve an identity crisis. Enter Ralph Northam and Tom Perriello.
Ralph Northam - who, full disclosure, used to represent my area and was my best friend’s pediatric neurologist - is our lieutenant governor. Northam is well-liked and reliably liberal. He’s been particularly strong on women’s rights during his ten years in Richmond, standing on the front lines with us during the TRAP law nightmares that - along with some federal bribery charges you might have heard about - helped define former governor and erstwhile felon Bob McDonnell’s tenure. It was assumed he’d run unopposed in the primary and, most likely, cruise through the general. But in January, a challenger appeared: Tom Perriello, a populist former congressman and member of Obama’s State Department. To recap: long-assumed nominee gets scrappy upstart challenge from left. Sounds pretty familiar, huh? What many figured to be a fairly straightforward do-over of last year’s miserable Democratic presidential primary hit a skid when a skeleton local abortion rights advocates have known about for years fell out of the closet: although Perriello is by all accounts a committed progressive, his record on reproductive rights is, well...spotty.
The nutshell version: Perriello was elected in Virginia’s 5th congressional district, a behemoth that encompasses 21 counties and three independent cities in the central part of the state, as part of the 2008 wave that turned our fair commonwealth blue. He lost his seat two years later, due in no small part to his vote for the ACA. Losing your job because you had the gall to give your constituents health insurance? Admirable! Except for one small detail: he also voted for the Stupak-Pitts Amendment to the bill, which would have gone beyond the Hyde Amendment to prohibit federal funds not only from covering abortion, but from going to any plan that included abortion coverage. This was not entirely a fluke. Prior to serving in the House, Perriello co-founded Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, a nonprofit that advocates for progressive slants on boilerplate Catholic beliefs. Guess what they don’t budge on? If you guessed abortion, you may collect your prize on the way out. (He disassociated himself from the group before running for office, and wasn’t involved in the organization’s day-to-day operations.) There’s also a recording floating around the internet of him straight up calling himself pro-life, but I’ve never seen a source for it, so let’s just strike that from the record.
That is, to put it mildly, not a good look. Further complicating things is the fact that Northam, a social liberal but a fiscal moderate, takes a great deal of pride in his sterling record on choice. Complicating things even more is the scrap we’re having within the party over whether or not we should expect those who represent it to be pro-choice. And since friendly primaries aren’t allowed to exist in the year of our Lord 2017, abortion has become a wedge. This race has gotten far uglier than it ever needed to, and nothing brings the claws out quite like the two men’s backgrounds on abortion. No shortage of whatever the internet version of ink is has been spilled on the subject. As I write this, Virginia Democrat Twitter - yes, all 12 of us - is utterly ablaze over a blog post criticizing NARAL’s endorsement of Northam. State reproductive rights organizations and the activists who keep them running have been harassed by people from all over the country; in the interest of parity, some of them do give back as good as they get. Naturally, this is more of a problem among supporters than the candidates themselves, who couldn’t be more pleasant with each other. Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, Southerners gotta be well-mannered.
To his credit, Perriello - unlike the other choice-skeptic lefties that have found themselves at the center of this kerfuffle in recent months - has done his share of atoning. Per the Huffington Post, this turnaround was spurred by realizing what an unfair burden anti-choice laws place on poor women. He hosted a men for choice benefit on NARAL’s behalf in 2013, has referred to his Stupak vote as one of his greatest regrets, and has promised to be a staunchly pro-choice governor. Whether that’s a sincere change of heart or an unpopular opinion being shoved under the bed in order to get votes is up to you. Given that Perriello is a politician, it’s most likely a little of column A and a little of column B.
At this point, I should mention that Northam has his own baggage: he voted for Dubya in 2000 and 2004 while still a private citizen and was courted by the Republicans to switch parties in 2009. There’s never been a great explanation for the former. As for the latter, that never seemed like much more than an unrequited crush on the Republicans’ part. Who knows, though? Stranger things have happened in Richmond. (I’ve spent a good deal of my adult life in Richmond, so trust me on that one. I will not be taking questions.)
If you’ll allow me to editorialize, I think that a couple of things are at play here. First and foremost: we aren’t ready, y’all. Last year was an annus horribilis of the highest order for those of us who are left of center, and for the family to start fighting again while we’re still licking our wounds is understandably more than we can handle. This primary has become the place to be for anyone and everyone who channels their lingering frustration over the Primary That Dare Not Speak Its Name into being mad online, Virginian or not. Everyone is back to their battle stations, and it feels a little too much like the intra-left attacks on Planned Parenthood last year for my comfort. It does seem, and has seemed, as though all the indifference toward choice and the hostility toward groups that advocate for it are a response to a certain blonde grandmother/forest queen, but I suppose that’s another take for another time.
The other thing is that regardless of who you support, and regardless of whether or not you’re from here, it should bother you that the Democratic A-list has come into a state they don’t know much about to wage the Great Battle for the Soul of the Party instead of helping actual Virginians fight those in our Commonwealth who have never met a civil right they didn't want to destroy. All things being equal, Northam and Perriello would have practically identical agendas as governor, and both would act as a firewall against our General Assembly’s very worst impulses on reproductive rights. We may have been blue in statewide elections for the last few years, but don’t be fooled: our legislature is still very red. If we don’t keep a Democrat in the Governor’s Mansion, Virginia will be about three clicks shy of Gilead. Suffice it to say, letting the rest of the country turn this thing into a proxy war is perhaps not wise. Especially since - and bear with me here, because I know it’s a foreign concept in these tribal times - supporters of both 2016 candidates are backing both of these guys. The stakes here are far bigger than what the Democratic Party should or shouldn’t be. We will either keep moving forward, or we’ll get put on a bullet train to hell, women in particular. We are perfectly capable of making the right choice on our own. Good-hearted, smart people who fight their asses off for justice do exist below the Mason-Dixon, you know. You don’t have to hold our hand.
I’m writing this about two weeks before the primary, so I have no way of knowing how it’ll all shake out. According to the polls, it’s going to be a close one, but I hear it’ll all come down to what the superdelegates choose to do.
I’m kidding, right? God, I hope I’m kidding.
Payton Drake is a full-time writer, nerd, feminist, and Southerner. She has a MS in Television from Boston University and a BA in Drama from the University of Virginia. Her job does not involve either of those things. In her spare time, she enjoys reading books about TV, bourbon, and going to bed early. She lives and votes in Virginia.