RICHMOND, Va.—Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam was still sweating as he sat down for a policy roundtable here Tuesday, minutes after playing four-on-four against former NBA All-Star Ben Wallace at the basketball player’s community gym. Northam, a Democratic candidate for governor, was all smiles despite scoring just twice and learning the limits of his vertical leap.
But the game was just a warmup. Still sporting shorts and a blue “WALLACE EXPRESS” jersey, Northam sat down with African-American community leaders in an effort to drive up support among a critical voting bloc ahead of the June primary.
Northam, a self-described “product of public schools” during desegregation and a congregant of a black church, told the potential voters that he was committed to preventing gun violence, ending the “pipeline from schools to prisons,” reforming the criminal-justice system, and curbing “police brutality.”
“I’m sensitive to their needs,” Northam told reporters afterward. “I want them to know that I’m there to listen to them, to hear them, and do everything I can to level the playing field for them.”
African-Americans in Virginia could make up a significant portion of the Democratic primary electorate, with Northam facing former Rep. Tom Perriello. While Census estimates indicate blacks make up just shy of 20 percent of the state’s population, African-Americans could account for as much as a quarter or a third of the primary vote, according to Geoffrey Skelley of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
“He is from an area of the state that has a sizable African-American population,” Skelley said, referring to Northam’s Norfolk roots. So in a “low-turnout event, like a gubernatorial primary in an off-year, that could help him.”
Polling indicates that black voters are up for grabs between the two Democrats. A Quinnipiac University poll conducted this month showed a quarter of nonwhite voters had a favorable impression of both candidates, with around 60 percent favoring either Democrat over potential Republican opponents. A Christopher Newport University poll last month similarly showed African-American voters “evenly divided” between Perriello and Northam.
Northam, who backs outgoing Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s efforts to restore voting rights to felons, said Tuesday he would “continue that process” if elected. And Tuesday’s game was just part of his ongoing outreach to black voters.
Northam coupled his time in the Richmond area this week with a roundtable with black pastors in neighboring Henrico County. And months before Perriello entered the race, Northam boasted the backing of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus and had garnered positive coverage in African-American print and radio media while campaigning for local black candidates and during the recent legislative session.
“Civil rights, voting rights, criminal justice, social safety net—he’s been a fairly consistent voice,” said Democratic Rep. Bobby Scott, a Northam supporter who represents parts of Hampton Roads.
Perriello is courting African-Americans’ votes, too. He is scheduled to tour a number of historically black colleges and universities this week emphasizing that “a good education is the clearest pathway to upward mobility in our economy.” Perriello, armed with Obama-administration alumni support and a 2010 reelection endorsement from the president himself, has also promised to tackle the “racial wealth gap” promulgated by “a century of policies designed to lock communities of color out of the American Dream.”
Late last month, Perriello met with Black Lives Matter activists in Newport News, where they focused on “challenges and opportunities for justice.” JaPharii Jones, the president of Black Lives Matter 757, praised the former State Department envoy for his work in Africa as well as for supporting Obama while he was in office.
“He didn’t just say that he’s doing this for political reasons,” Jones said of Perriello. “He has a track record.”
Both Democrats’ messages stand in stark contrast to the Republican primary, where conservative firebrand Corey Stewart is increasingly campaigning on preserving Virginia’s legacy as the capitol state of the Confederacy during the Civil War. Stewart held a rally last month in Charlottesville opposing a municipal proposal to remove a statue honoring General Robert E. Lee.
Ed Gillespie, the GOP front-runner, has largely stayed out of the debate. But Stewart has turned the city council’s divided vote on the statue into a wedge issue, airing radio ads accusing Gillespie of supporting the statue’s removal by preferring local control over the issue.
Northam, like Gillespie, says municipalities should be left to decide the fate of Confederate symbols in public spaces. Perriello, who represented Charlottesville in Congress, called for the statue’s removal.
With major paid media blitzes still a ways off with most voters not yet tuned in to the primary, Northam and Perriello are sticking to grassroots outreach. Northam may have picked up at least one vote Tuesday.
Wallace started the event telling reporters he is “not involved in politics—I’m playing basketball.” But as he left, the 6-foot-9 former NBA champion said he was impressed by Northam’s answers on policy matters and “probably will” be on his team later this year.