The president of the Norfolk Federation of Teachers, Thomas Calhoun, drove four hours round-trip to a Democratic primary debate in Highland Springs last week. He left a little closer to a decision.
Like a lot of left-leaning Virginians, Calhoun's choice in June 13's gubernatorial primaries is unclear. Many won't even bother to vote, if previous statistics are any indication. But a debate last week — the third of five — was the first where the two candidates sniped at each other, and Democrats got a look at what divides them.
The candidates, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and former Rep. Tom Perriello, both support raising the minimum wage, universal pre-kindergarten and disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline. And both are aghast at Republican plans for health care legislation, President Donald Trump's travel ban and rising hate crimes.
Small schisms developed around the feasibility of certain campaign promises and plans. Perriello said he would try to end Virginia's right-to-work status, a law that limits the ability of labor unions to collectively bargain.
His opponent said that was misspent energy.
"I think we have to be realistic about what we can get done with our current legislature," Northam said. "Rather than pick fights that we perhaps can't win right now, we need to talk about how can we help labor."
The theme of priorities also emerged in a discussion of tax plans and education.
After Perriello shared his plan to expand post-secondary education and relieve student debt, Northam said people should ask of such projects, "How are you going to pay for it?"
Perriello's endorsements include such national figures as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Northam maintains the backing of Virginia's Democratic establishment, including Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Sen. Tim Kaine, Rep. Donald McEachin and Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney. The latter three attended a pro-Northam event during the weekend at Hardywood Park Craft Brewery.
While the general election in November is billed as a referendum on Trump, the Democratic primary also harkens to the Sanders-Clinton divide.
"I think that's definitely there," says Mark Rozell, dean of George Mason University's Schar School of Policy and Government. "The Sanders supporters repeatedly heard the argument that Clinton was more electable, but they definitely had the intensity on their side. They felt like the establishment side of the party made a big mistake pushing Clinton as the nominee."
Rozell thinks Northam is better positioned for the general election, but Perriello, bearing the Sanders mantle, might carry more weight with primary voters.
Popular lore is that Perriello, elected to Congress in 2008, lost his seat two years later over his vote for Obamacare in the conservative-leaning congressional district. But Perriello as progressive folk hero hasn't always held up to scrutiny. A 2009 vote called his commitment to abortion rights into question.
But the ghosts of more conservative pasts have haunted both candidates.
Perriello attacked Northam for voting for George W. Bush twice. Northam noted Perriello's statements in 2009 about being "a libertarian at heart" and voting 60 percent of the time with Republicans, while running for and attempting to hold his district.
After the debate, Calhoun said he was bothered by Perriello's strong rating from the National Rifle Association.
He liked Perriello's progressive agenda, but noted that Northam has a long record of supporting labor, education and women's rights. He said he was looking forward to the next two debates. "I liked it when it got real," he said. "When they stopped agreeing on everything."
Ed Gillespie is the only Republican counterpart whose name came up during the debate. Early polls show Perriello gaining on Northam — enough to call the race fairly even, given the unreliability of such polls. But Gillespie shows a clear advantage over Republican primary candidates: Trump-like Corey Stewart and Virginia Beach state Sen. Frank Wagner.
Before the debate, outside the union hall on Nine Mile Road, a younger crowd held signs for Perriello, as did a carpenters' association. There was no corresponding cheer team for Northam. A group of older sign holders chanted in support of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a 600-mile natural gas line that will go through Virginia, which Perriello has said he will oppose.
The pipeline didn't come up in the debate — nor did Dominion Resources, which, in a shareholder's meeting last week, changed its logo and name to Dominion Energy.
Early on in the race, Perriello disavowed donations from the energy giant, as did Stewart, and has divested from companies involved in pipeline construction. On the defense, Northam called for a ban on corporate donations in Virginia last week, but continues to accept Dominion money this campaign season.
"Either way, my local is going to be working its butt off in the general election," Calhoun said of both Democratic candidates. S