By Josh Stanfield of Activate Virginia

“Ralph Northam – Your Support for the Pipeline is Grotesque!”

To the sensitive ear of the Virginia Democrat, perhaps the protestor sounded a bit harsh. Grotesque? Seriously?

Dr. Northam made his position on the proposed pipelines clear at the debate: if the DEQ and Corps of Engineers approve, he’s on board. So if we understand the grotesque as the incongruous, the absurdly or disgustingly distorted, this courageous protestor may be onto something.

A Compromised DEQ

Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) recently reversed its pre-primary statement and – instead of conducting site-specific environmental reviews – will defer to blanket permitting from the Army Corps of Engineers. In essence, the projects are being fast-tracked with only cursory analyses of their likely effects.

The DEQ, however, is itself deeply entangled in Dominion’s tentacles. The Director of the DEQ, David Paylor, was paid by Dominion to attend the 2013 PGA Masters Tournament in Georgia – a trip valued at $2,370. Not to mention a $1,200 dinner on Dominion’s dime. The DEQ’s Water Permitting Division Director Melanie Davenport reportedly represented Dominion as an attorney prior to joining the DEQ. And the DEQ has outsourced part of its environmental review of the ACP to a contractor already working for Dominion.

No Help From the Feds

And the federal government? The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) currently has only one of five seats filled – it needs three for a quorum. Former Commissioner Colette Honorable recently took a position as partner at Reed Smith, a firm lobbying for Dominion and palpably present at Saturday’s debate. Industry entanglements are, of course, common at FERC.

Trump’s two Republican nominees for FERC, Robert Powelson and Neal Chatterjee, await Senate confirmation. A little over a week ago, Trump nominated another industry ally, Kevin McIntyre, as chairman of FERC – pending confirmation.

No honest appraisal of the DEQ or FERC should therefore expect them to do anything other than rubber stamp the projects. And in doing so, we can’t forget, they’ll be rubber stamping one of the top priorities of the Trump regime: rapid development of unnecessary, dangerous, but obscenely profitable fossil-fuel infrastructure nationwide.

What’s At Stake

Ralph Northam’s position, in attempting to displace all decision-making and responsibility onto compromised regulatory entities, ends up completely in line with the Trump regime if we consider outcome and not simply rhetoric. Given Ralph opposes Trump on pretty much every other matter of policy, why acquiesce on this critical concern? Why maintain erroneously that it’s solely a federal issue?

It’s clear that the Northam camp doesn’t believe anti-pipeline sentiment will translate into the loss of a significant bloc of votes. They, after all, have their internal numbers for which they surely paid a pretty penny. Those independents, those infrequent voters, that sliver of Perriello voters who feel the pipelines are existential threats to them, their communities, their families – this is the bloc that Ralph will alienate.

My argument has been – and continues to be – that to alienate these voters is to reject a potential statewide Democratic coalition. A coalition that will not only elect Northam, Fairfax, and Herring, but will make our Party more credible and formidable in future elections.

After all, who are the Democratic pro-pipeline voters that Northam stands to lose? Who are the mysterious centrists who break for Ralph based on his support for pipelines?

Democratic Cognitive Dissonance

We hear from the loyalist corners of the Party – often in remarkably authoritarian tones – that complaining about the pipelines is tantamount to supporting Ed Gillespie, that criticism of Ralph Northam is a sure sign of a heretic. That opposition to the pipelines must mean you don’t care about women, about the marginalized, about healthcare, about the survival of our republic itself.

This isn’t a new way of arguing, and you’d think recent world-historical events would have us question whether or not this mode of communication is effective at all. But here’s the reality: the Northam campaign has the data, they have a strategy, and they’re acting as if the data suggests they can get away with this position. None of us have as much time (or money) invested in reading the outcome of this race.

So given Northam’s position, any attempt to suggest anti-pipeline activists could cost Democrats the election seems a transparent attempt to simply silence dissent. And in this case, an attempt to also silence Virginians whose health, family, property, and environment are seemingly under siege.

Is the Democratic Party the party of ideas? Of free speech? Of racial justice, environmentalism, consumer protection, and clean government? Opposition to the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Mountain Valley Pipeline reflects a commitment to all of these ideals. Silencing these voices of opposition reveals fascist tendencies not based in sophisticated strategy.

Possibilities

In 2013, Libertarian Robert Sarvis pulled over 6% of the vote – and according to the crosstabs of a CNN exit poll, Sarvis voters preferred McAuliffe as their second choice. As Ben Jacobs reported at the time, “Sarvis seems to have drawn disproportionately from McAuliffe in the southern Shenandoah Valley and the area around Roanoke.”

This year, Cliff Hyra will be the libertarian on the ballot. He’ll also be the only candidate against the proposed pipelines (via opposition to federal eminent domain). Who knows if he’ll have a noticeable effect. But what if the race becomes tight – as today’s Monmouth University poll indicates (as Lowell says, “for what it’s worth”). What would this mean?

What it wouldn’t mean is that anti-pipeline protestors need to shut up and fall in line. It wouldn’t mean Democrats need to acquiesce to the policy preferences of Trump and, in doing so, sacrifice public health, the environment, and segments of our citizenry who’ve been abandoned for far too long.

What it would instead mean is that Ralph Northam needs to join us on the Democratic side of this issue – the side of direct resistance to the Trump agenda. He would demonstrate that regardless of his personal stock in Dominion, or its contributions to his campaigns, he ultimately sides with everyday Virginians and Democratic ideals when our future is on the line.

In the end, Northam’s campaign holds the analytical cards, and Ralph the responsibility inherent in being the candidate. To side with Dominion when confronting victory – that’s easy. But to hold Dominion’s line when the numbers get tight – knowing, as we know, that Dominion sees a win with either Ed or Ralph – that’s a form of political roulette that we should all find disturbing.

Because for Northam to somehow lose based on his pipeline position – that would be the pinnacle of the grotesque.