Richmond, Va., Local 666 will host the third Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate’s debate May 9 between, Lt. Gov. Ralph S. Northam and former congressman and Obama State Department official Tom Perriello.


Four years ago, Richmond, Va., Local 666 built a new event room at the local hall to hold the hundreds of members who showed up for meetings and events. 

Their home is now playing host May 9 to a town hall meeting dubbed the “people’s debate” featuring the two Democratic candidates for state governor, Lt. Gov. Ralph S. Northam and former congressman and Obama state department official Tom Perriello.

“We built it to strengthen our own union’s democracy and I think it is pretty wonderful it is going to be used to strengthen the Commonwealth’s,” said Business Manager Jim Underwood.

The debate is co-sponsored by Local 666 and a coalition of progressive state and local organizations including the Virginia AFL-CIO, Progress Virginia and SEIU Local 5112. It will focus on economic and social justice issues.

“We thought it was appropriate that a debate about jobs and justice be hosted at a union hall,” said Julie Hunter, campaign director for the Virginia AFL-CIO. “And it is a fantastic venue. New. Beautiful looking, and it will hold enough people to fit the hundreds we expect to attend.”

Hunter said the focus on “normal people’s issues” led the organizers to invite questions for the candidates from the public. More than 100 were submitted through Progress Virginia’s website before the request for submissions closed May 5.

The debate will be in Local 666’s four-year old event hall.

The event’s moderators — anchors from two local television stations, Bill Fitzgerald from WTVR and Barbara Ciara of WTKR— will pick the 10 to 15 questions that will be asked during the debate.

The local built its hall eight miles outside downtown Richmond 10 years ago to make it easy for the membership to make meetings without battling downtown traffic. But there was no space large enough to hold events, and they regularly used a rented space about a mile and half down the road. Three years ago, the local built the event space with a stage, bright picture windows and a large Local 666 bug on the floor.

It has been used for meetings of the Henrico County Democrats and the Clinton campaign, but it has never hosted a televised debate before. Still, when he was approached by Progress Virginia about hosting the debate two months ago, Underwood had no qualms.

“We’re proud of it and we are looking forward to the exposure of the hall and the local,” Underwood said. “I won’t lie. It has been a lot of work, but I am looking forward to that first image of our logo coming up on people’s TV screens and then the camera panning up to the two candidates standing there.”

Virginia’s off-year gubernatorial elections are usually low turnout affairs focused on local issues.

Before January, the Democratic primary looked sewn up for Northam, the designated successor of Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who cannot run for reelection because of Virginia’s term limits laws.

“McAuliffe has been our firewall the last few years. He has stopped some terrible laws and we really need to hold that office,” Underwood said.

Many state Democrats stepped aside for Northam, but his clear path to the nomination was disrupted when Perriello entered the race in January. Until then, Underwood said, Northam had run a traditional campaign focused almost exclusively on the three perennial topics of Virginia political life: taxes, schools and traffic.

Then, in January, Perriello jumped into the race and declared his intention to make the election a referendum on the policies of President Trump, particularly the Republican repeal of Obamacare.

“It is a real race now,” Underwood said. “Perriello has a lit a fire in this race.”

The winner of the June 13 primary will face either Republican frontrunner Ed Gillespie, a lobbyist, State Sen. Frank Wagner or Corey Stewart, chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors.

Virginia and New Jersey are the only states with gubernatorial elections this November.

Underwood said both Democrats have spoken in favor of policies that would support working families and the expansion of organized labor in the state, and the local will not endorse a candidate until after the primary is over.

“We don’t have a dog in this fight. I like both and we’ll do well with either and will work for whoever wins that primary,” Underwood said. “Either one is head-over-heels better than Gillespie.”