- Associated Press - Saturday, April 29, 2017

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - JaPharii Jones lost the right to vote after a felony burglary conviction when he was 23 and got it back last year right before Election Day. Now the 31-year-old Hampton activist and founder of a local chapter of Black Lives Matter plans to do what most people usually don’t: vote in an off-off-year primary for Virginia governor.

Jones is supporting Tom Perriello, a former congressman and diplomat running as an insurgent candidate in the Democratic primary. Perriello was “very diligent” about reaching out to Jones and recently toured parts of Hampton with Jones looking for votes at barber shops and other businesses. Jones said no other candidate has reached out and he said Perriello understands the fears and frustrations of young black voters who are newly energized in resistance to President Donald Trump.

“He’s about the people,” Jones said of Perriello.

The crucial question for Perriello: are there enough newly energized young black voters like Jones to make a difference?

Many black voters say they are supporting Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, the low-key party establishment’s favorite who has spent years building up relationships with key African-American politicians, preachers and community members.

Kelvin Jones, pastor of First Baptist Church in Capeville, a predominately black church on the Eastern Shore where Northam is a member, said the lieutenant governor has an easy-going manner that’s helped him build strong connections with African-Americans voters.

“He’s proven his genuine concern for people in general, and certainly the African-American community,” Jones said.

Virginia and New Jersey are the only two states electing governors this year, and the Democratic primary on June 13 in the Old Dominion is being closely watched for clues it can offer about the future of the party in the rest of the country. Political watchers expect black voters to have an outsized impact in deciding the Democratic primary.

Perriello and Northam, who are both white, are courting black voters in different ways.

Northam, a pediatric neurologist and former state senator, has locked up the endorsement of every black state lawmaker and has spent his Sundays on the campaign trail attending services at black churches. At campaign stops, he highlights his past record of support for issues important to the black community like criminal justice reform, early education and restoration of voting rights for felons.

“They’ve seen me, they know what I’ve done. They know, especially as a doctor, I’m a listener,” said Northam recently during a campaign trip through Richmond, where he attended a pickup basketball game and community discussion organized by former NBA star Ben Wallace. “It’s a matter of relationships and trust, that’s not something that you build overnight.”

Perriello, who was recently endorsed by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, is trying to tap into a network of younger black activists and hoping his more aggressive posture toward Trump will expand the primary voter pool.

“When I came out in this race and talked about keeping Virginia a firewall against hate and bigotry, some people said, ‘Well, Trump isn’t a local issue,” Perriello said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. “One of my responses was: for communities of color, Trump is a very, very local issue.”

Perriello said his message of economic justice will appeal to a broad swath of voters, including the black political establishment that’s currently backing Northam.

African-Americans make up about 20 percent of the state population, with large concentrations in the Richmond and Hampton Roads area, and have historically sided with Democrats. In 2009, the most recent contested primary, turnout in nearly all-black precincts was more than 10 percent compared to about 6 percent statewide, according to an analysis by the Virginia Public Access Project.

But black voter turnout dropped in last year’s presidential election compared to when President Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president, was on the ballot. In mostly black precincts, voter turnout was down 8 percent compared to the average turnout in 2008 and 2012, according to VPAP.

James Bailey, who runs a Hampton Roads nonprofit that aims to increase voter registration, saw that drop off firsthand. Last year he said many of his regular volunteers, who are black, stopped helping because they didn’t like either candidate. But since the presidential election, he said they’re all back, this time angry about Trump’s victory and motivated to do something about it.

Who will they support? Bailey said he’s thinks Northam’s years building relationships will pay off.

“He’s got a record, and that’s the best thing you can have as a candidate,” Bailey said.

But Viola Baskerville, a black former state House delegate backing Perriello, said Northam’s supporters could be underestimating the Trump-inspired turnout.

“They may be surprised who is going to the poll this year, post Trump,” she said.

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