Last week, I got to sit down and speak with Sean Perryman, a current Democratic candidate for the Democratic nomination for Lieutenant Governor of Virginia. Sean is the former chairman of the Fairfax County NAACP and launched his campaign in October. I want to thank Sean for taking the time to speak with me. Below is the full transcribed interview, along with the full audio at the very bottom if you would like to listen.
What made you decide to run in this election?
This election would probably be the only election that would lead me to this decision. The time that we’re in is really the reason that I’m running. I, as a leader in the NAACP, got to see firsthand how this pandemic affected communities. Especially our black and brown communities. Wiping out small businesses, people dying. This is the reason I decided to step up and run.
My background is I used to work for Congressman Elijah Cummings and he instilled in us the importance of the next generation stepping up and carrying the torch. It was really the events this year, the pandemic, the murder of George Floyd, John Lewis passing. All of these things motivated me to enter the arena and try to run for office.
How did you first get involved in politics?
I was counsel for Elijah Cummings on the Oversight committee. I worked there as a counsel on that committee, after practicing litigation for many years. My first introduction to politics was my first internship in college, which was for the office of Mayor Bloomberg in New York. I worked in the office of immigrant affairs, helped the comms team there, and did some policy stuff. That was my introduction to the world of politics.
How much has your work as the President of the Fairfax NAACP affected how you’ve viewed public service?
It had a monumental impact on my view of that. Prior to working with the NAACP, I would tell people I was politically engaged, but I was frustrated in a lot of ways. People who were speaking and leading for us and not seeing someone who was speaking for me and wasn’t my viewpoint. So when I went to the NAACP, this organization has been around for a hundred years and I was lucky enough to become the youngest president of the Fairfax branch, which was around for 102 years at that point. I worked in the community. I grew it from 300 members to 1,300 members in the course of a year and a half.
The impact it had on me was seeing that when we organize and we bring people together, we can achieve things we thought were impossible. Right here in Virginia, one of those things was changing the name of Robert E Lee High School. The Fairfax NAACP, under my leadership, led the charge to change the name to John Lewis High School. We got that done and we’ve had numerous other successes has formed how I look at organizing and power in politics and what we can accomplish.
With the events of this past summer, how much will reforming the police in Virginia be a part of your plan if you are elected Lieutenant Governor?
It would be a major policy agenda that I would want to push forward statewide. We’re seeing some of those reforms happen already, but we need to see a lot more. When I talk about this, so much of the rhetoric is focused on the police and what we’re really talking about is public safety. We’re also talking about government and how we want government to work. I think anyone can agree, whether you’re a Republican, Democrat, or otherwise, that you want transparency and accountability in government. That’s a basic that we can all agree to.
When we look at our police faces locally across the nation, we don’t see that transparency or accountability. That’s where the discussion needs to happen. If we can agree that these two things need to be part of any government shrive, then we can say “how do we accomplish that?”
COVID-19 and the pandemic has been a hit on campaigns all across the nation, how has your campaign been dealing with the limitations that come from working in a pandemic?
Anyone who you would speak to would tell you that it’s extremely difficult. This is probably one of the most difficult times to run a campaign. You can’t get in front of people, there aren’t as many events where you can meet folks and tell them what your message is. In some ways you’re saving money on gas as you aren’t going across the state. You are though meeting with people virtually, which is a good thing. It definitely makes it difficult.
The way that we’re dealing with it, we’re trying to be nimble. I think that will work for a campaign in this environment especially. The one that can adapt to this environment will be the one that can win. We’re working remotely, we’re looking at our visual presence, and we’re thinking long term, how do we have a message that resonates. A lot of that will be digital, but a lot of it will be getting creative in our outreach as well.
Staying on the issue of the pandemic, many small businesses have been crippled or forced to close in the past nine months. What are your plans to help these people rebuild their lives once the nation is able to move past the pandemic?
It’s going to take a lot of lobbying to the federal governments from the state governments. Thankfully we have a new administration coming in. What we need to do is make sure that once we get the funds from the federal government, we need to make sure that small businesses are the ones getting them. That means access to capital. I think there should be a focus on especially minority-owned businesses, because they have been particularly hard hit.
What I’ve been frustrated with at the state level is that the guidance is nonexistent. One week a company will be shut down, they have to see how the region is doing and it feels like a patchwork process. We need to organize both the small businesses, market businesses, give them a set of guidelines that they can work with and make some stringent requirements with. If they stay within those guidelines, they can stay open and operate. That’s part of the approach is getting the money to folks and giving them guidelines that they can work within
There is now a vaccine for COVID-19, but there are still sects of people who are not confident in the vaccine. How are you going to try and increase that confidence as a very visible public figure?
It’s a great question and it’s something we’re working on. On January 7th, a tentative date that we’ll confirm soon, I plan to have a roundtable discussion virtually with leaders across the commonwealth of Virginia. As the president of the largest NAACP chapter in the state, I come from a community that is often skeptical of vaccines and doctors. Rightfully so if you look at what was done to the black community by the medical community here in America.
We need to gather community leaders, which means pastors, organizations like the NAACP, Latino organizations, as well as elected officials and health professionals. We’ll have that visual discussion on vaccines, on everything. What’s in the vaccine, when do we think it’ll be distributed, can we trust it, etc, etc. It’s going to take leaders like myself that work in these communities to sit down and say, “Look, your skepticism is not invalid.” We shouldn’t be dismissive of that. We should talk through it and say why this is different. That’s the only way we’re going to approach it, because this isn’t something that’s just off the internet. These are people that often have experiences passed down about some of the darker parts of our history in America.
Lot’s of the candidates for the three statewide races, especially on the Democratic side, are mainly from Northern Virginia. Under a hypothetical: if Jennifer Carroll-Foy, yourself, and Mark Herring are the three nominees, every candidate will be from Northern Virginia. Are you concerned about a possible geographical imbalance on the ticket?
I think as long as we’re speaking to the issues that are important to rural Virginia, that would be the most important thing. Here’s the thing, Northern Virginia, if you look at just Fairfax County alone, it’s bigger than 12 states. That’s just the Fairfax County area. If you add in the rest of Northern Virginia, this is a sizable population, so it makes sense to see many people running from this area. That said, when I look at my campaign and what we’re talking about, we’re talking about broadband access. We’re talking about getting STEM training in Southwest Virginia, and Hampton Roads and all over the state. Especially in those areas where we need to focus on getting people back to work.
We aren’t talking about this from just out of nowhere either or a lack of experience. I work in the tech policy sector and I’m talking about real, concrete ideas to get people back to work with well paying jobs that won’t saddle them with debts from student loans or other things. If we have leaders that are speaking to the issues that affect all Virginians, then we can do that. Regardless of who’s on the ticket, I do think we need to have a set of folks who are focused on lifting up those voices and speaking to those issues. What I’ve personally done is form the steering committee, where I have members from Chesterfield, Martinsville, Richmond. We are trying to get geographic diversity so that everyone feels they have a seat at this table and have their voices heard by this campaign.
Mail-in voting has become a very hot topic in recent months, especially in the aftermath of the 2020 election. What’s your position on mail-in ballots in Virginia and how should the state go about changing the way it votes?
I think that mail-in ballots in Virginia are acceptable, the President himself uses mail in ballots for voting. What I think generally, looking at this as an informed citizen on voting, we need to provide more access to the ballot, not less. For the majority of the time in the country, we did not have that access for most people. That includes women, black people, anyone who wasn’t a white male really. I think we need to make sure that we are providing more access to ballots.
What we see more than anything else is not voter fraud, what we see are efforts to disenfranchise folks. We see the 11-hour lines in Georgia, we see other efforts to get people off the rolls. So, I think mail in ballots, especially during a pandemic provides a safe way of voting. There hasn’t been enough incidents of voter fraud to even warrant a concern about changing that policy. If anything, we need to expand access to voting for anyone.
Something interesting I saw you state online is that you’d support primary challenges to moderate Democratic state senators in Virginia. You would be their boss if you were elected Lieutenant Governor, are you concerned that your statement could make working within the State Senate difficult?
Well, I think they would argue with you about whether I’m their boss or not. I would be presiding over the Senate and here’s the thing. It’s a part of the party politics and everything else when they look at Democrats and Republicans. When you’re working with those same Republicans in the State Senate and they get a challenger from the left, Democrats support them. If I firmly believe in someone’s policies, and this is outside of the State Senate too and doesn’t impact how I feel about them inside when we work.
If you can support a Democrat running against a Republican, why can’t you support a Democratic primary challenger going against a Democrat that doesn’t vote with other Democrats? At the end of the day we are here to accomplish certain legislation. If someone is not aligned with that, I have no problems supporting someone who would be better aligned with that, both for the part of the state they’re from and what I believe are priorities that are going to help more people in Virginia.
What would be the first issue you’d fight for if you were elected Lieutenant Governor?
I’s hard to say a direct answer to that just because we are living through so much uncertainty. It depends on how far along we are with the vaccine, how the economy is recovering. It also depends a lot on what gets done in this upcoming legislative session, which is just about a month from now. If it doesn’t get done in this session, my top priority would be legalizing cannabis in an equitable way. I believe this is a way to get people back to work, I believe his is the way to keep people out of the criminal justice system. As part of that we’d want to expunge their record. This is a huge economic and racial justice issue across the board is cannabis legalization.
If that gets done this session, the other major priority would be rural broadband access. We need an infrastructure project that would get people back to work, but this is to prevent what we saw during this pandemic, where so many Virginians were left out because they don’t have reliable internet. That means less help from education, job opportunities, even healthcare if you’re a real Virginian and hospitals are being shut down. If you don’t have access to Telehealth, sometimes you don’t have access to healthcare at all. It would be either of these two things depending on what happens before I get into office.