Democratic Primary Reveals New Fault Line in Virginia Politics: Millennials Versus Establishment

Apr 28, 2017

In this Jan. 5, 2017 file photo, a supporter takes a selfie photo with former Virginia congressman, Tom Perriello, after speaking during a rally in Charlottesville, Va., announcing his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for governor of Virginia.
Credit Steve Helber/Associated Press

The hotly contested Democratic primary for governor this June is exposing a fault line, a growing generational divide inside the party. 

Michael Pope talked with millennial Democrats to get their view of the primary, and what they want from politics.

In a room full of twentysomethings and thirtysomethings in Arlington, opinions are divided about what’s best for the Democratic Party. These Young Democrats are here today to hear from candidates for an open seat on the Arlington County Board. Many remain undecided in this race, which features a millennial candidate taking on a candidate backed by the establishment.

Many are also undecided about what should happen in the primary for governor, when Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam will face off against former Congressman Tom Perriello.

“Initially I was supporting Northam,” says Adele McClure, a member of the Arlington Young Democrats. While she likes Northam, she also sees him as part of the establishment. “And the more and more I began to personally interact with Perriello I’ve become undecided.”

Tom Perriello is seen by many here as carrying a message similar to the one Bernie Sanders had last year.

"He has been successful from what I’ve seen talking about bridging the economic divide and inequality gap that exists. It’s a hard one for me. I’m still kind of leaning Northam. But it doesn’t rule out Perriello for me.”

Melissa Riggio is another member of the Arlington Young Democrats. She says she feels like younger candidates understand her and her issues better.

“The student loan debt explosion that happened is something that’s very unique. And my parents say why can’t you just pay this much in rent, and you’re like I literally have so much in loans. I have friends who pay thousand in loans each month. Literally thousands. It’s incomprehensible.”

Both Democratic candidates for governor are bringing a new sense of urgency to that issue. Northam wants to boost funding for colleges as a way to handle affordability. Perriello, on the other hand, is pushing a $350 million plan to offer tuition-free community college. 

Virginia Lt. Gov. and Gubernatorial Candidate Ralph Northam, center, speaks to the media during a news conference on Medicaid expansion prior to the Senate session at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., Wednesday, April 5, 2017.
Credit Steve Helber/Associated Press

Shannon Redmon is a recent college graduate who has a different list of issues.  “What are we doing socially? How are we going to keep our immigrant friends safe? How are we going to keep gentrification at a minimum? Older people are clearly more interested in taxes and schools and that sort of thing.”

I ask for clarity. “What qualifies as an older person?”

“(laughter) I hope my grandparents aren’t listening. I would say I’m going to go with 66.”

It’s not just the gubernatorial race facing an age divide. It’s happening in several races across the state. In Charlottesville, a PhD student at the University of Virginia is challenging David Toscano, the leader of Democrats in the House of Delegates.

Brett Curtis is president of the UVA Democrats. He says his candidate, Ross Mittiga, is trying to win the race by appealing to the next generation.

“He’s campaigned on UVA grounds. He’s appealing to UVA Dems and proactively reaching out to student groups across the university. And those are some of the biggest people who would need to support a policy and platform that focuses on the environment and energy and shaking up the Democratic Party that we’re seeing elsewhere.”

He adds that this race could be a bellwether for the influence of his generation.

“I would say that we definitely need to look at how to get students involved in a House of Delegates race, especially for a candidate who is younger, part of the millennial generation and is appealing directly to our generation.”

But will young voters show up at the polls this year?

Exit polling from the last few gubernatorial elections shows a rising interest. Back in 2009, only 18% of young voters showed up. But in 2013, the youth turnout was 26% -- a dramatic increase, although still lower than the population as a whole.