Monday night, the Faith Alliance for Climate Solutions (FACS) hosted a “Dialogue on Virginia’s Energy Future” with the Democratic candidate for governor, Ralph Northam in Northern Virginia. Northam has come under fire from many in the Democratic Party for not taking a strong stand against the two fracked gas pipelines proposed through Virginia, and for appearing on a right-wing radio show announcing that he would not stand in the way of these pipelines.
After protesters appeared at several consecutive events Northam attended, including interrupting the gubernatorial debate between Northam and Gillespie, Northam promised to hold some informal small discussions to hear voters’ concerns. I assume this was the first such meeting.
I attended this event, not sure Northam would actually show up (especially since he had another event scheduled immediately following this one). To my surprise, he did come, and after only a brief introductory remark–telling us a bit mostly about his history of protecting the Chesapeake from environmental harm–he spent a good 45 minutes taking questions from the audience.
It was a polite audience; they laughed at his little quasi-humorous anecdotes. But there was also quite a bit of tension in the room, and it was clearly an audience (with the exception of delegates Rip Sullivan and Alfonso Lopez) that had some serious concerns and questions about the pipelines.
The first question was about Dominion, and how Ralph expected to handle Dominion Energy when they are such a big player in our political system. This question could have been more pointed in my opinion, but the moderator may have selected a more gentle version of the question. I’ve heard Northam asked this question and similar ones before, and his answer was no different on Monday. He wants to work WITH Dominion, they are important partners, etc. And he claims that low energy prices are important to bringing new businesses into the state. Additionally, he expressed the opinion–as he always does, and as most incumbents in Virginia do–that until we have widespread bilateral campaign finance reform, it’s political suicide to rule out donations from one particular company. I didn’t like his answer any better than any other time I’ve heard it.
And then, Northam didn’t wait for the question that he knew was coming, he just brought it up himself. I think the entire room held their breath, hoping to hear something important and promising from him. But he disappointed. He gave the same answer he’s given before: if the DEQ and the Army Corps of Engineers do not find that the pipelines will negatively impact water crossings and the land surrounding the water, and the FERC approves the project, “then the pipelines will move forward.” He compared the situation to a doctor making a diagnosis without looking at the x-rays. It’s not really a fair comparison, because the x-ray technician probably doesn’t make any more money when the results show a broken bone than he does when the results show the patient is fine. And here, there are just so many involved agents who stand to profit from these pipelines that none of these regulatory agencies can be trusted to give fair evidence.
He took some more questions after that, some of them softball questions about transportation and its impacts on the environment, and about his legacy on the environment in four years should he become governor. But by then the energy in the room had sunk a bit, once we realized we weren’t going to get anything very different than we’d heard before.
After the questions, Northam stayed behind to shake hands with whoever wanted. Many people tried to give him a one-on-one argument for opposing the pipelines. He seemed a little more uncomfortable with this, but nevertheless, he stayed. As for me, I shook his hand, and told him that he didn’t say anything that I wanted to hear, but that I really appreciated him coming to talk to us and to answer our questions anyway. And I did. I’ve been as critical as anyone of his stand on the pipelines, and I still believe 100% that he is dead wrong on this issue, and that his stance is really counter to several primary goals of the Democratic Party.
But I really do give him kudos for braving a crowd that he knew would be fairly hostile, for taking questions and staying to shake hands. We’ve all heard many stories of representatives like Barbara Comstock, Dave Brat, and Tom Garrett, who can’t be bothered to hold town halls and meet with their constituents, because they don’t like being yelled at. They don’t care enough about their constituents to face them. At least Northam cared enough to show up.