Singing and stomping their feet, several University of Virginia students disrupted a gubernatorial forum, held Saturday by the University Democrats at UVa to voice their opposition to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

Applauding the protesters’ right to free speech, Lt. Gov. Ralph S. Northam told the students at The Haven that he served in the United States Army to fight for their rights and welcomed their dissent.

“This is part of the democratic process,” said Northam. “I applaud you.”

One month before the primary election for Virginia governor, Northam and his opponent, former 5th District Rep. Tom Perriello, answered questions from UVa students on a variety of topics, such as the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, education, women’s reproductive rights and the death penalty.

While Northam did not definitively say whether he supports or opposes the controversial natural gas pipeline — planned to run through West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina — the gubernatorial candidate did say his concern for the environment is one of the reasons he first ran for political office. Stressing that the pipeline’s fate is in the hands of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Northam said it will be important to keep the process transparent and scientifically focused.

“We need to remember we have these regulatory processes in place,” Northam said. “This is a federal process and it’s an interstate project. We need to make sure it’s environmentally safe. If it passes muster, then it will move forward.

 “That’s where we are at the state level.”

In contrast, Perriello stands firmly in opposition to the pipeline. Citing Section 401 of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Water Act, Perriello argued that the commonwealth has the power to do an independent assessment of the potential effects that the pipeline could have on Virginia’s waterways.

“We believe the case that has been made for the need for the pipeline is incredibly weak and full of holes, as well as evidence that continues to mount that alternatives would be cheaper, create more businesses and jobs and have less environmental impacts,” Perriello said, following the forum.

Perriello also said the pipeline is not solely a federal issue, in that the state can still inform the federal process.

“This is about leadership and, I think, being able to put better alternatives on the table,” he said. “I know, as a professional negotiator, that that’s part of what you do as a leader.”

Touching on women’s rights to reproductive health care, both Northam and Perriello said they are committed to making sure women continue to have access to health care. Both said it was important to have a Democratic governor to block legislation that seeks to restrict women’s access to birth control and abortions.

“There is no excuse that a group of legislators — most of whom are men, by the way — should be telling women what they should or should not do with their bodies,” Northam said. “We will continue to fight.”

“One of the things we have to make sure we do is not just protect that right on paper, but protect the affordability and dignified access to that right,” said Perriello.

Touching on whether or not they would reverse a death sentence if the facts in the case warranted it, both Perriello and Northam spoke about a justice system that unfairly targets the poor and minorities. Both support the decriminalization of marijuana and both would like to see the minimum felony larceny value be raised from $200.

Both candidates also said that this is the year Democrats need to take back seats in government and, as a party, need to come together to oppose the policies of Republicans and President Donald Trump. Northam stressed the importance of sending a clear message to voters, while Perriello said Democrats need to be bold and stand up for their shared values.

“We need to stick together,” Northam said. “It’s the first election after Trump, so it is very important for all of us to be on the same sheet of music. We need to move forward together, as one.”

“We need to be able to resist — we need to stand unambiguously and unapologetically for protection of vulnerable communities that are under attack,” said Perriello. We should not compromise on those values, whether it’s an attack on women’s rights or an attack on our immigrant brothers and sisters.”

More than 250 people filled The Haven on Saturday, and another 7,500 people watched the forum on a Facebook livestream, according to Brett Curtis, president of the University Democrats. Wanting to give students more access to the gubernatorial candidates, Curtis said it’s important to include students and young adults in the election process.

“Students are a huge voice, and we need to make sure we’re doing justice in representing that voice,” Curtis said. “We want to make sure students, millennials and young professionals have the opportunity to hold their candidates accountable and make sure their platforms and policy proposals are being tailored to encompass all of their potential constituents.”

Also on Saturday, Perriello launched “Women With Tom,” a coalition with a focus on protecting a woman’s right to choose abortion, expanding access to reproductive health services and addressing the wage gap.

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Lauren Berg is a reporter for The Daily Progress. Contact her at (434) 978-7263, or @LaurenBergK on Twitter.

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