Democratic gubernatorial candidate and former congressman Tom Perriello answered University of Richmond students’ questions about abortion, criminal justice and environmental issues during a discussion hosted by his campaign in Tyler Haynes Commons on April 13.

Perriello’s visit, part of his week-long tour of 16 Virginia universities, came three days after the Richmond-Times Dispatch reported that Perriello overtook Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam in Virginia’s Democratic primary for governor according to a survey by Quinnipiac University. However, over half of voters still remain undecided for the June 13 primary, according to the survey.

Perriello, who was recently endorsed by Bernie Sanders and several former Obama aides, opened his visit by introducing his plan for two years of free community college and a student loan refinancing program.

He then opened up the room to questions, which soon led to Perriello having to defend his stance on abortion, which has been contested in the past. During the passage of the Affordable Care Act, Perriello supported the Stupak-Pitts Amendment which prevented the usage of federal funds in insurance plans covering abortions.

Perriello, who said he has always been pro-choice, said he voted for the amendment because of a pledge he had made to his constituents. Perriello told students he regrets the pain his vote had caused.

“I think what I got wrong was the compromise, which in this case was not about my convictions but about representing both types of constituents,” he said. “For some constituents, the right to choose and the affordable right to choose is as sovereign and constitutional as it gets, and then there are other people who genuinely consider abortion to be not just a sin, but murder.”

Perriello went on to explain how he fought for abortion access.

“Because I knew I had done something wrong, after Congress I went and ran an advocacy group called the Center for American Progress Action where we actually fought the Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers (TRAP) laws in Virginia and other states," he said. "We fought to increase access and affordability.”

Perriello later addressed his stance on gun control and the National Rifle Association (NRA) which gave him an "A" rating while he was in Congress. However, Perriello disclosed that he was disappointed with how the NRA encouraged gun usage after the Sandy Hook shooting.

He supported the Manchin-Toomey compromise that would have established universal background checks and supported smart guns, or guns that could only be fired by an authorized user, he said.

Perriello also answered a question about clean energy, an issue with which he said he had worked for 20 years. He voted on a cap-and-trade bill during his time in Congress, or a system where the government must set a cap on the total amount of greenhouses that can be admitted across the United States. 

He told the audience that he had used to work with cow farmers in Virginia to convert methane gas from cow manure into a source of energy. However, Dominion Virginia Power restricted efforts to promote clean energy in Virginia, he said, and are big contributors to both political parties in Virginia.

“The reason we have fallen behind almost every single other state in America on clean energy, energy efficiency and renewables, is that our electric utilities in Virginia are stuck in the 1950s,” Perriello said. “Places like Dominion Virginia Power are the largest contributors to both political parties and they tend to take this controlling approach where they want to centrally produce all energy. But that’s not how the world works anymore.”

Perriello also answered questions about criminal justice reform, voicing his support for decriminalization of certain offenses, such as possession of small amounts of marijuana, and better pay for public defenders.

Shannon Kane, WC ‘19, president of College Democrats at UR, said Perriello's campaign had approached the club to host an event on campus as part of Perriello’s college tour.

Kane is an intern with Ralph Northam’s campaign. She said that although most of the two candidates’ positions were the same, the deciding factor for her had been Perriello’s NRA endorsement.

“I had a close family friend that was affected by the Virginia Tech shooting, and a year after that [Perriello] ran a pro-NRA ad,” she said. “And I get that he lived in a conservative area, but that was something that really jolted me when I was looking at both candidates.”

The chair of the political science department Daniel Palazzolo said Perriello would have a good chance of defeating Northam because of his experience with campaigning. When there are as many undecided voters as they are right now, campaigning becomes even more essential, Palazzolo said. 

“Perriello comes along as someone who's charismatic, experienced and has cast some tough votes for Obama," he said. "Perriello is able to put together a statewide campaign, raise a lot of money and take these liberal positions."

Perriello's choice to campaign on college campuses is another good strategy to rally young voters and find volunteers, Palazzolo added. Obama successfully used the same strategy in 2008.

Micah Hunter-Chang, RC ‘20, attended the discussion out of personal interest after seeing the event advertised on Facebook and also to fulfill a requirement for his public speaking class. Hunter-Chang said he would vote for Perriello and was considering helping his campaign.

“He just seems really pragmatic and willing to compromise,” Hunter-Chang said.

Contact news writer Kay Dervishi at kay.dervishi@richmond.edu.