In the second part of our series of Q&As with the candidates running for the Democratic nomination in Virginia’s gubernatorial election, we hear from Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and former U.S. Congressman Tom Perriello about criminal justice reform, immigration, and voting rights in the state and at large. (Read part one of the series here.) The primary will be held on June 13.
Working to fulfill campaign promises, the Trump administration has announced plans to back away from some investigations that directly affect vulnerable communities, zero in on baseless accusations of voter fraud, and criminalize everyone in the country present without authorization.
So it’s no surprise Virginia’s Democratic gubernatorial candidates have addressed these topics directly on the campaign trail.
Rewire sat down with both Northam and Perriello in May to talk with each about their platforms, their backgrounds, and what they think makes them the best candidate to represent Virginia. We are publishing the interviews in a series. This interview has been annotated to include additional context on some of the points mentioned by the candidates over the course of the conversation.
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Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam
Rewire: On criminal justice reform, your website says that you would “[reform] drug laws that do long-term damage to communities of color. He will do away with the practice of suspending a driver’s license simply because a person can’t afford to pay court costs.” How would you accomplish this?
Ralph Northam: Well, you do it through leadership and you do it through bringing people to the table and educating them to the facts that when someonethey lose their means to get to and from work, and so that’s not fair. If you’re going to ask them and expect them to pay fines, they’ve got to be able to get to work. The laws as they’re written right now are very regressive. They’re unfair to people of low incomes, so again, if we’re going to expect people to go to work, they have to have their driver’s license and a means to get to and from work.
A federal judge this week declined to reconsider a class action lawsuit against Virginia’s Department of Motor Vehicles commissioner filed by the Legal Aid Justice Center targeting the state’s practice of suspending the licenses of those who cannot pay their court fees.
“Hundreds of thousands of people have lost their licenses simply because they are too poor to pay, effectively depriving them of reliable, lawful transportation necessary to get to and from work, take children to school, keep medical appointments, care for ill or disabled family members, or, paradoxically, to meet their financial obligations to the courts,” the lawsuit had claimed, according to the Washington Post.
We also need to improve public transportation, because not everybody can afford a car, so we need to increase our use of transit and trains—things that … give people other means of getting to work. Those things are very important.
Rewire: In the same section of your website it says you would “continue to fight for the restoration of rights” in Virginia. Would you continuethe voting rights of formerly incarcerated people?
RN: Yes, absolutely, we’re very proud that we’ve restored the rights of over 156,000 felons and that’s something that we have worked together on through the governor and the secretary of the commonwealth. The way this will work is that each month there is a list of those that are eligible to have their rights restored, and I’ll continue that process as governor.
Rewire: Is there anything else that you would do as governor to ensure that everybody in Virginia who is eligible to vote can actually exercise their right to do so?
RN: I was in the [state] senate for six years, and I’ve been lieutenant governor for four, and every year, I have worked very hard to make sure that we make it less cumbersome to vote. I’ve … proposed legislation that would allow our armed services, those who are overseas, to apply for an absentee ballot and vote online. I have been an advocate for no-excuse absentee voting, I have fought…. Everybody should have the opportunity to vote—that’s what makes our democracy strong and I’ll continue to work on that as we move forward.
Rewire: Are there any proactive voting rights measures that you would support if elected?
RN: Well, I can say that I’ve been doing this for ten years, and I think if you look at my record I have been proactive ever since I took to public service, [working to] make it easier to vote and less cumbersome. —so with technology there are a lot of things you can do with security that again make it less cumbersome to vote.being able to have our armed forces be able to vote online
In the time since this interview, Northam released a more robust plan outlining his position on expanding access to the ballot box. On May 26, he released his “Virginia Votes” proposal detailing election reforms supported by the candidate including: same-day voter registration, repealing the state’s voter identification law, making election day a state holiday, and fighting for nonpartisan redistricting.
Rewire: Virginia has a large and diverse immigrant population. Given anti-immigrant political rhetoric and actual discrimination against immigrants are on the rise, how would you work to ensure this population is protected?
RN: This is something again that I’ve been working on for the last ten years. What we watched from Washington, the travel ban, was embarrassing for this country and unacceptable. So I’ve been traveling around Virginia, I’ve been to Dulles airport working with lawyers there to make sure that people are welcome to Virginia. We need to make sure that ICE doesn’t overstep their bounds. We’ve watched that very closely. I’ve worked with our attorney general and Gov. McAuliffe, so at the end of the day, we want to make sure that Virginians feel comfortable here. That immigrants feel comfortable here. That our lights are on; our doors are open, and we’ll continue to do that.
When asked about his immigration platform during a 2011 debate against challenger Ben Loyola, Northam lauded those who come to the country legally but added that those in the country without authorization were “somewhat of a burden to our society.”“They affect law enforcement issues, they affect health care in my business—again, we don’t turn anybody away when they come for their care—and they affect our education system,” said Northam, adding that “we really need to pay strict attention on the illegal immigration side of it.”
He went on to say that “it is really more of a federal issue” than a state issue “because we have tasked and told our law enforcement agents—our city policeman, our sheriff’s department, etc—we shouldn’t have them in the position of enforcing federal law, so I’ve worked hard to protect them from that.” Northam continued that there would be a problem with people coming into the country without authorization until the federal government acted to secure the border.
But I can tell you as a veteran of the United States Army, when I served during Desert Storm, we had friends from Iraq that helped us with interpreting, helped us with intelligence or gathering of intelligence, and it’s unacceptable that we should turn our backs to those who have helped defend our freedom. So at the end of the day, the United States is a country of immigrants and we need to realize that and make sure that people feel comfortable. We have thousands of Virginians who are fearful of leaving, that they won’t be able to come back to their families. We have faculty that are here, so it’s just unacceptable and we will continue to do everything to make sure they feel welcome in Virginia.
Rewire: Regarding deportations specifically, what is your position on the deportation of people who have no criminal background or those who have arrests or convictions for non-violent offenses?
RN: Again, as I just said, we’re doing everything we can in Virginia to make our immigrants who are here feel comfortable that we’re not using the fear-mongering and scare tactics that we’re seeing up in Washington. Again, we’ll do everything we can to protect our immigrants in Virginia.
[At this point in the interview, Northam had been unable to hear the question asked by Rewire. We went back afterward and asked again to clarify his response, included in full here:
RN: If there are undocumented immigrants putting our communities at risk, then they should be prosecuted under our legal system and given due process. However, I’ve stood side by side with our attorney general to make sure that ICE is not overstepping its bounds, so immigrants in Virginia aren’t living in fear. Something that we are very proud of in Virginia is that we are inclusive. Our lights are on; our doors are open. We will do everything we can to make sure immigrants are comfortable living here.]
Former U.S. Congressman Tom Perriello
Rewire: What specifically would you do as governor to help protect voting rights?
Tom Perriello: Virginia is an interesting place because we’re the birthplace of American democracy and the Declaration of Independence, but also the birthplace of American slavery. So we’ve always been in many ways at the forefront of the aspiration of justice and liberty and equality for all, but also very much at the forefront of the worst sins we’ve had in the country—and each generation we kind of decide if we’re on one arc or another. I think now is the time for us to really break one of those arcs all together. So I’ve gone to leaders in the technology community in Virginia and said: “How do we make Virginia the first 100 percent voter participation state? How do we leave behind this defense about voter suppression and try to make the goal for everyone to vote?”
Now some of my critics will say that sounds unreasonable and unrealistic, butand they weren’t even a state when we were inventing continental democracy. And so props to them for being ahead of the curve, and they’ve come up with a model that quite frankly is cheaper and produces better results. So our baseline should be at least 83 percent participation.
During the 2016 presidential elections, Oregon’s voter participation rate was 80.33 percent, according to the Secretary of State’s website. That rate was even higher in previous general elections. In 2004, 86.48 percent of registered voters in the state cast a ballot.
High rates of voter participation in Oregon may be the result of several policies, including all-mail voting and a “motor voter” law which automatically registers those over the age of 17 to vote when they get or renew a driver permit or license, or a state identification card.
Of course the only arguments against that are that the Republican Party does not want a lot of people to vote. We put a lot of energy … into getting seniors and those with disabilities to the polls in vans and the rest, when really in this day and age we shouldn’t need to be voting in the same way that we did essentially in the 18th century, albeit with an expanded franchise. What we think is that we need to be going into a very different direction on voting, whether that ends up being same-day registration, or two-week no-fault early voting, or what have you, we can get to what the tactics are, and I’m very open to a number of those directions, but the goal should be clear: We should aim for having 100 percent voter participation.
Virginia does continue to have a lot of ugly history that remains very present. And that’s everything from these very complicated rules we saw particularly in the southern part of my district, all the kinds of fear tactics that can be used particularly against older African-American voters—license laws, etc—lots of complications on early voting, and then of course we [also] have the issue of some of the most … strict limits on restoring people’s rights after they’ve served their time. Part of why we want to look at criminal justice reform is that we want fewer of these people having their rights taken away in the first place …. In addition to making sure people have their [voting] rights restored, we want to have fewer people going into incarceration because we get rid of some of the regressive system that has over-incarcerated Virginia for several years, for several decades.
Rewire: Would you continue the current governor’s policy of individually restoring the voting rights of formerly incarcerated people?
TP: Absolutely. It’s really a tremendous legacy for Gov. McAuliffe, but again, our goal, which I know he shares, is to have fewer people have those rights taken away in the first place, because we have fewer people on the school-to-prison pipeline.
In Virginia, we’re the only state that sets felony larceny at $200 of value, which means stealing a cell phone is actually a felony. That’s very rare. We have thousands and thousands of lives being destroyed for either non-violent marijuana possession or a small misdemeanor that isn’t a good thing to do, but shouldn’t necessarily ruin the rest of your life.
In addition to restoring rights, we want fewer people having their rights taken away. We believe part of why we’ve gone with this very bold proposal of two years of free community college, trade school, or apprenticeship program is we want to have people with multiple career pathways coming out of high school, and we believe when we create those opportunities—and they have to be bold opportunities—then we can have more people feeling like there’s a pathway into the kind of career that they could support a family with.
Rewire: Virginia has a large immigrant population, and the rhetoric around immigration is very charged right now. How would you work to ensure that immigrant populations are protected?
TP: The first thing is that we’ve promised non-compliance with any acts of the Trump administration that are unconstitutional or unconscionable. We must make sure that our clinics and schools and houses of worship are safe. We were the first candidate out at Dulles airport when the travel ban was announced. We’ve met with DREAMers. We’ve met with interfaith leaders who have many first- and second-generation immigrant worshippers, and what they often talk about is the fact that we have parents going to sleep at night not being sure that there won’t be an ICE raid that separates them from their kids.
The very first day we launched … we talked about how my family’s story is the immigrant story in Virginia. I think we want to make sure that there’s not allowed to be some othering between Virginia values and our diversity. My father was a son of immigrants. He got the opportunity to go to the University of Virginia, and that was his pathway into the middle class. That’s the dream that brings us all together, whether that’s through a trade school or a university. So I think it’s important for us to tell the story that way.
We also ended that first day with public school teachers in northern Virginia who were talking about how some students had simply disappeared the day after the election because the parents were so scared that having them in the school might mean that they are taken away, or the family separated. We have a couple of counties in Virginia, one that has already done this and one that’swhich we think is not only a threat to our immigrant brothers and sisters but also to public safety, because what ends up happening when you blur the line between deportation crews and local law enforcement is you see people scared to call local law enforcement. So particularly where a woman is suffering, say, domestic violence and she doesn’t want to call the police because she thinks that she or a member of her family might be deported based on the phone call. When we blur those lines we get into a very scary space where people essentially are further in the shadows and therefore more easily exploited.
According to the American Immigration Council:
“The 287(g) program is named for Section 287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). Section 287(g) became law as part of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRAIRA). Through the 287(g) program, state and local police officers collaborate with the federal government to enforce federal immigration laws. In the past, the 287(g) program has been costly for localities, has not focused on serious criminals, and has harmed the relationship between police and local communities.”
We need to stand against these terrible moves in the Trump administration. We want to make sure that Virginia remains a loving space, particularly in our schools, our houses of worship, and our clinics, and look for opportunities to makes sure that we’re telling that story. The good news in Virginia of course is that we’re the only Southern state to have rejected Donald Trump, and to reject him very soundly—56 percent came out against. So part of what is important is to make clear that those voices of hate and division are not speaking for Virginia. They are the dying voices of a dying racist ideology, and what we see emerging is a new, more diverse, and stronger Virginia. I think that tipping point is scary to those who are racist, and it is very exciting to many of us who see a greater Virginia than we’ve ever known.
Rewire: What is your position on the deportation of those with no criminal backgrounds or with non-violent offenses?
TP: I mean we’d be against that. The question is what I believe we have the legal ability to do as governor is noncompliance. We’ve been looking at what we can and cannot do as governor, and what I want to do is to the maximum amount allowed under the law, because I think it is important to stay within the law. We would have noncompliance with those actions.
I’ll admit there is some irony to this, because it is essentially a states’ rights argument, which growing up in the South was certainly the argument of the right since the era of trying to block integration and before. But I do think there is solid legal grounds for states to not participate in the kinds of activities you’re talking about. The ability to block the federal government from doing it is more limited.
These interviews have been lightly edited for clarity.