Northam Takes African-American Outreach to the Hardwood

This substantial portion of the Virginia Democratic base will be influential both in the primary and general election for governor.

Virginia Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, who is seeking the 2017 Democratic nomination for governor, smiles for a selfie with children during a basketball exhibition at Big Ben's Home Court in Richmond.
Zach C. Cohen
Zach C. Cohen
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Zach C. Cohen
April 12, 2017, 8 p.m.

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.

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