Home 2017 Races Ralph Northam, Pipelines, and the “Grotesque”: Reply to Critics

Ralph Northam, Pipelines, and the “Grotesque”: Reply to Critics


By Josh Stanfield of Activate Virginia

After tossing this essay to the wolves last week, I’ve been absorbing and carefully considering the criticisms. I’ll address them one-by-one below. But it’s important to note what hasn’t been discussed or critiqued from the essay, namely the fact that the federal and state regulatory entities are compromised and therefore shouldn’t be automatically trusted to independently evaluate these projects. That this point has been ignored should be reason to further investigate.

Criticism 1

Some variation of: Criticism of Northam’s pipeline position could throw the election to Gillespie. 

For the most part, the above criticism is made in harsh and condescending tones – as if we’re being educated, enlightened about the “reality” of electoral politics. Yet this criticism is made without an ounce of irony – that is, without the recognition that arguing this way simultaneously misses and proves one of the points of the essay. It’s no coincidence that this point was made under the subtitle “Democratic Cognitive Dissonance.”

For those of you who read the original essay before commenting (thank you), feel free to skip over the following excerpt:

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.”

Have there been any developments over the last week that alter my argument? Not really. Lowell’s look at the summer gubernatorial polls of the past should make you think twice before drawing conclusions from the 44-44 Monmouth poll. The argument remains the same: until the Northam campaign acts like the race is close – or releases a recent internal poll suggesting reason to be worried – calls for silence on the pipeline issue are simply attempts to stifle dissent and impose Party loyalty.

It’s important to understand that this general criticism accepts a certain type of relationship between the citizen and the politician, a relationship described by elite theories of government. Consider two ways to understand the Virginia situation and decide for yourself which best reflects democratic ideals:

(1) A majority of Democratic voters chose Ralph Northam in the June primary. As a result, Northam’s policy preferences and campaign strategy are off limits from June 13th on, if a citizen wants to credibly claim to care about Democratic victory and reform. If the Northam campaign changes position on an issue, ignores an issue, backs off a commitment – it’s the responsibility of the voters to follow their candidate, hold back all criticism, push the campaign’s line, at least until November.

The burden is on the voter to repress, change, follow the lead of a leader asking us for immense power. 

(2) Ralph Northam and Tom Perriello made their respective cases around the state, and Northam’s Democratic coalition turned out and earned a solid primary victory. Ralph now confronts the general electorate, and it’s the job of his campaign to develop a winning strategy. Since politics – especially now – is tumultuous, the campaign expects public opinion to change, expects priorities to shift, and continually adjusts their strategy to ensure a winning coalition turns out. Voters continue to make their voices heard, advocate for their candidates and policy preferences, and politicians are responsive to the extent they feel they need to be to achieve victory.

The burden is on the candidate and the campaign to listen, to change, to reflect a vision that appeals to enough voters to form a winning coalition.

Criticism 2

Some variation of: Stop the theatrics.

This criticism came first from Delegate Levine – a curious messenger for this message, given his proclivity towards appearing on Fox News with a pocket Constitution. To be fair, unlike most Democratic piñatas that appear of Fox, Delegate Levine makes strong, persuasive arguments. But to appear on cable news regularly – setting aside the revered prop – is to embrace the primary source of political theatricality today.

Political theatre isn’t in itself problematic, though. When I saw the protestors disrupt Northam’s primary victory party, and when I saw the protestor disrupt the debate, my mind immediately went to ACT UP. This is probably because I just finished David France’s brilliant chronicle of the ACT UP movement, How to Survive A Plague, and I was impressed by the creative tactics deployed successfully in battling the AIDS crisis and forcing mainstream America to confront the suffering, tragedy, and resilience of the marginalized and ignored.

We see in Black Lives Matter and, with the recent healthcare struggles, ADAPT, disruptive and arguably theatrical tactics in action. And when it comes to anti-pipeline protestors, well, if their goal was to force a conversation on the pipelines – haven’t they succeeded?

A 2016 Pew study concluded that 36% of individuals familiar with Black Lives Matter say they don’t understand the goals of the movement. That’s not to say there aren’t goals. Similarly, I think the honest criticism about anti-pipeline protest tactics is grounded in a lack of understanding about the ultimate goals. Open lines of communication and public information campaigns are immediate solutions that come to mind.

Criticism 3

Some variation of: Sit down with Ralph, talk, and reach a compromise. 

It’s simply not the case that an average Virginian – unless you’re ready to write a big check – can schedule a sit down with Ralph Northam. Apparently there have been anti-pipeline leaders who’ve met with him, as they’ve met with Governor McAuliffe, but clearly they haven’t seen any progress. I can think of plenty of landowners, organizers, and activists who would gladly meet with Ralph if that offer were to be made.

In my own case, well, I’m not audacious enough to ask for a meeting. Both of my attempts to contact the campaign – once to see if he would consider our pledge, again to request Dominion divestment – received no response.

Criticism 4

Some variation of: Ralph can’t actually do anything – what is it these protestors want? 

I can’t speak for any organizations or activists other than myself, and I don’t live in an area directly and immediately affected by the projects. The following three actions by Ralph Northam, in my mind, would be positive steps that would earn votes:

(1) Publicly recognize that when members of regulatory bodies have current or past ties to the corporations they’re meant to regulate, an unacceptable conflict of interest exists. Or – at the very least – agree we should apply heightened scrutiny in considering their opinions and decisions.

(2) Publicly urge the DEQ to require site-specific water-quality permitting – as they stated then suspiciously reversed – as opposed to deferring to an Army Corps of Engineers blanket permit.

(3) Publicly oppose any future pipeline projects in Virginia.

Notice that none of the above suggestions require Northam to take any legal action or use his official capacities as LG or (we hope) as governor. Instead, they simply require him to make a few principled statements that are mostly symbolic but entirely in line with the principles and policy preferences of the Democratic Party.


It’s been incredible to witness the knee-jerk opposition to discussion of this issue. The projection of uninformed critics: “the protestors don’t know science!” The pressure to self-censor. All of this from members of the Party opposing the Trump regime and members of groups focused on resistance.

Trump’s ascendancy has only been possible because of a corrupt and controlled political culture. The Virginia Way represents a special case of this rotten status quo. So even though I’m voting for Ralph Northam – I’m told this fact must be included in my response – I’ll continue to reject attempts to quiet debate or downplay the importance of the conversation.

If the Northam campaign’s posture is indicative of their research, open debate on this critical issue won’t stand in the way of victory. And – again – if we get to the point at which it could, the burden should be on the candidate and campaign to embrace the Democratic position and form a winning coalition.

  • Loudoun Environmental Group to Advocate Against Controversial Gas Pipelines

    LEESBURG, VA–Loudoun residents belonging to local climate action group 350 Loudoun plan on public advocacy outside this Thursday’s meeting of the Loudoun County Democratic Committee (LCDC). The LCDC will be debating a controversial resolution calling on Governor Terry McAuliffe’s administration to more stringently review water crossings for the Atlantic Coast (ACP) and Mountain Valley (MVP) fracked gas pipelines proposed to bisect the state. Pipeline opponents argue that an environmental impact analysis of all water crossings will reveal the extent to which the pipelines threaten the health of water and people across the state.

    Proponents of the resolution inside the party hope for a same-day vote. If passed, the resolution would be distributed to Democratic committees in other counties and increase the political pressure on Governor McAuliffe to require individual water crossing evaluations.

    350 Loudoun members plan to stand outside the meeting with “no pipelines” signs encouraging members to approve the resolution. They will also pass out literature about the negative impacts of the pipelines, in addition to information about upcoming pipeline hearings set up by the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).

    The resolution is controversial because the pipelines are politically sensitive in the run up to Virginia’s gubernatorial election. Republican candidate Ed Gillespie and Democratic candidate Ralph Northam both receive donations from Dominion and EQT, the companies constructing the pipelines. While Gillespie is a proponent of the pipelines, Northam’s lack of a clear stand has angered some of his base.

    Although recognizing the political implications of their effort to protect Virginia from harmful and unneeded fracked gas pipelines, 350 Loudoun’s objectives are centered around using education, advocacy, and activism to stop new pipelines and to promote a rapid transition to renewable and just energy sources.

    What: Public Advocacy Event Regarding Harms of Proposed Fracked Gas Pipelines in VA
    When: Thursday, August 3rd, 6:20pm-7:30pm
    Where: Outside the Loudoun Government Center (1 Harrison Street SE, Leesburg, VA 20175)
    Who: 350 Loudoun members
    Why: To encourage the Loudoun County Democratic Committee to vote yes on a pipeline resolution and to educate them and the public about the harms of the pipelines and how to stop them.

  • This looks interesting (https://actionnetwork.org/events/facs-presents-a-dialogue-on-virginias-energy-future-with-democratic-gubernatorial-candidate-ralph-northam)

    Join FACS and our friends from the interfaith community of Northern Virginia to hear Lt. Governor Ralph Northam’s thoughts on Virginia’s energy future.

    The event will be moderated by Rev. Dr. Jean Wright, an American Baptist Minister (retired) and former Executive Director of the Massachusetts Baptist Charitable Society.

    FACS is a nonpartisan, interfaith nonprofit organization in Northern Virginia that does not endorse candidates for political office. (An invitation has been extended to Virginia Republican Gubernatorial Candidate Ed Gillespie. FACS hopes to have a date soon!)

    This will be your opportunity to ask the Democratic candidate questions relating to energy and climate change that affect all Virginians.

    FACS empowers and unites neighbors of all faiths to achieve real climate solutions, right now.

    Mark your calendar for August 14 at 6:30 p.m. Join us! Congregations, please share with your green and environmental team! Seating is limited so RSVP now on this page.

  • khyberjones

    This is the type of bullshit post where so called progressives try to hold the nominee’s feet to the fire and implicitly or explicitly threaten to withhold votes, drawing them further from what got them the primary win and what he/she believes needs to be prioritized to mount a winning campaign. If Virginia voters wanted pipelines to be the #1 issue they would’ve voted for Perriello. They didn’t. You won’t get anything by undermining Northam. Support him and work with him in the legislative process. I’m certain many of the points you raise will be amenable to him. If you want to sabotage him, you will hurt thousands of Virginians, with POCs and women on the front lines again while white progressives sit back in their suburban homes and pretend to care. We’re not playing these games anymore with the far left.

    • Perseus1986

      Exactly. Vote for him and then engage with him on this issue as governor. Undermining him will mean putting Gillespie in the mansion, who will not only build a pipeline but strip down all environmental protections and regulations associated with it.

    • Jon Sokolow

      Excellent theory – too bad it is completely devoid of facts. Fact – the people on the “front lines” of these pipelines are actually the ones most vocal in their opposition. Fact: many of these people on the front lines are in fact people of color because Dominion has perfected the art of impacting weak and poor communities, as in Buckingham County, where one of the worst aspects of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline – an enormous compressor station – is located in the middle of an 85% African American community. The same is true in Robeston County, north Carolina, by the way. Fact: the people in those pipeline counties are hardly “far left.” In many cases they are relatively conservative folk who value their property rights and their health. Fact: what you refer to as the “white progressives” in their “suburban homes” are the ones who seem not to care at all about any of this, which is too bad, because climate change affects all of us. Those so-called progressives are the ones who voted for Ralph Northam in the primary despite his failure to oppose the pipelines. You should get your facts straight before you red bait people with a bunch of phony assumptions. Thank you Activate Virginia for your excellent work on behalf of all of us.

      • khyberjones

        Nothing you said here would justify withholding a vote for Northam, as Gillespie would certainly ram through what you don’t like re: pipelines. You have a binary choice, Virginia. Don’t repeat the error of 2016.

    • barbaralee12

      I have to say you made a very good point. I have been fighting this issue since 2016.I can not make people see that with eminent domain there is so much anybody can do.

  • Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League Recommends Virginia Department of Environmental Quality Postpone 401 Water Certification Process

    Lovingston, VA — By letter, dated July 31, 2017, Sharon Ponton, a Virginia Organizer with the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League (BREDL) recommended to the State Water Control Board and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) that the 401 Water Certification Process for both the proposed Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley Pipelines be postponed “until all soil and erosion and storm water management plans have been made public.” The letter further recommends that the third party contract with EEE be revoked and the request by DEQ to the Army Corps of Engineers to permit the wetland and waterbody crossings be rescinded.

    Ponton outlines seven observations and concerns in the letter including DEQ’s misleading statements to the press in April regarding the Army Corps’ Nationwide 12 permit which led the public to believe DEQ would themselves conduct the individual stream and wetland permitting process. She points out the Erosion & Sedimentation and Storm Water Management plans are incomplete and what has been made available was done so weeks after the permitting process began. She also states, “The DEQ review and permitting process have gone awry led by a director who has gone astray.” Ponton highlighted an interview by Virginia Business Magazine where Paylor considered himself a “problem solver” rather than a regulator. Regarding Paylor, she concluded, ”Working to assist businesses in meeting regulations is an admirable goal, but subverting the regulatory process to allow business to create a “new normal” for water quality in thousands of Virginia’s streams and rivers alters him from a problem solver to a problem maker.”

    Letter to the State Water Control Board below.

    Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League

    Nelson County Office: 8260 Thomas Nelson Highway, Lovingston, VA 22949 434-420-1984

    July 31, 2017

    Robert Dunn, Chair
    Lou Ann Jessee-Wallace
    Thomas M. Branin
    Roberta A. Kellam
    G. Nissa Dean
    Heather Wood
    Robert H. Wayland, III

    c/o Office of Regulatory Affairs
    Department of Environmental Quality
    PO Box 1105
    Richmond, VA 23218

    Dear Members of the State Water Control Board:

    On behalf of the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League and our chapters and members in Virginia, I write to lodge a formal complaint regarding the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality’s (DEQ) abdication of its responsibilities to its citizens concerning water quality as it relates to the proposed Mountain Valley (MVP) and Atlantic Coast Pipelines (ACP). We hereby request that the extant process for the 401 Water Certification by the DEQ be halted and resumed only after the flaws we have identified are corrected.

    Specifically, the DEQ is not upholding the standards set forth in the Clean Water Act. Our observations and concerns are as follows:

    The DEQ’s misleading statements made through the press on April 6, 2017 stated that the Department would hold the pipelines to the highest environmental standards. The next day, April 7, the DEQ wrote a letter abdicating its responsibilities for 401 Water Certification to the Army Corps of Engineers, requesting certification of the proposed MVP and ACP through a blanket NWP 12 permit. Information was withheld from the public for seven weeks until FOIA requests by various members of the Virginia Press Corps showed all the chicanery by the DEQ.

    The DEQ draft 401 Virginia Water Certification Permit is written. The public comment period and public hearings are scheduled with the comment period set to end on August 22, 2017. 40% of the public hearings are being held at venues as far as 100 miles outside of the areas directly affected by the proposed MVP and ACP.

    The DEQ claims it is setting up a more stringent process for Erosion and Sedimentation and Storm Water Management in the upland areas of the proposed pipelines by requiring E&S plans for every foot of dirt turned. However, incomplete plans from the developers for the proposed pipelines were made available to the public on July 19, 2017. The remainder of the plans will not be available until August, the last group of which is due August 25, 2017, three days after the closing of the public comment period on the 401 Virginia Water Permit Certification process.

    We question the DEQ’s commitment to water quality when the erosion and sedimentation and storm water management plans aren’t available for review by the public before the public hearings and comment periods began on the Virginia 401 Water Certification process. Erosion and sedimentation are one of the most crucial and relevant issues regarding potential polluting of our streams and rivers.
    We question the transparency and integrity of a process which includes a DEQ contractual agreement with third-party reviewers who currently do business with Dominion and also have connections to the Southern Company.

    I attended the July 19th State Water Control Board meeting in Richmond at which Tammy Belinsky clearly stated, “Melanie Davenport never related to you during her power point presentation that you have the power to deny these permits.” We agree with Ms. Belinsky and assert that the DEQ has set up a biased and fast track permitting process for both the ACP and MVP without regard for the people of Virginia who would suffer if the most transparent, stringent and thorough review is not completed.

    The DEQ review and permitting process have gone awry, led by a director who has gone astray. On March 28, 2012, DEQ Director David Paylor indicated he preferred a “light touch with regulation” in an interview with Virginia Business Magazine. The magazine quoted Paylor: “Both administrations [Kaine and McDonnell] were very focused on the fact that we have been the No. 1 state in which to do business….The limitation of a regulatory construct is that it isn’t able to take into account the unique situation that a facility might find itself in.” Recently, in an interview with NPR’s Sandy Hausman, Paylor’s words support our position DEQ is not taking the process seriously. He said, “We will issue a certification that complies with the law as long as the practices can give us a reasonable assurance that water quality will be protected.” Without the plans being available for review, without the reviews of those plans completed, neither Paylor nor the people can be assured of anything.

    Mr. Paylor apparently sees himself as more of a “problem solver” than a regulator. Working to assist businesses in meeting regulations could be construed as an admirable goal, but subverting the regulatory process to allow business to create a “new normal” for water quality in thousands of Virginia’s streams and rivers alters him from a problem solver to a problem maker. The watersheds in the upland areas of the proposed pipeline routes affect the water quality for millions of Virginians; they cannot be neglected or ignored.

    We recommend that the process for the 401 Water Certification by the DEQ be restarted. All comment periods and public hearings must be postponed until all soil and erosion and storm water management plans have been made public and can be included as a part of the 401 Water Certification process. The contract extended to EEE must be revoked and a new contract with a company unrelated to any of the parties involved as pipeline owners or construction contractors be hired in its place to assist the DEQ in thoroughly and transparently reviewing the plans of the owners of the proposed pipelines.

    All of our waters are connected; harm done to one body of water affects others, often irreparably. Therefore every proposed water crossing must take into account the adjacent waters. According to The Clean Water Act: “The agencies emphasize that the rule has defined as “adjacent waters” those waters that currently available science demonstrates possess the requisite connection to downstream waters and function as a system to protect the chemical, physical, or biological integrity of those waters…The Clean Water Act establishes both national and state roles to ensure that state’s specific circumstances are properly considered to complement and reinforce actions taken at the national level.”

    Therefore, DEQ must withdraw its request of the Army Corps of Engineers to issue a blanket Nationwide 12 permit for the proposed ACP and MVP. This review must be done in Virginia by DEQ staff, not farmed out to a federal regulator who does not have the needs of the Commonwealth of Virginia as its priority.


    Sharon Ponton
    BREDL Virginia Organizer


    Terence McAuliffe, Governor
    Ralph Northam, Lt. Governor
    Molly Ward, Secretary of Natural Resources
    David Paylor, Director, VADEQ
    Mark Herring, Attorney General of Virginia