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Lt. Gov. Northam addresses Center for Politics’ Leaders for Democracy fellows

Audience raises questions on students loans, voter priorities in Virginia, political gridlock

<p>&nbsp;Northam expressed support for a "student loan bill of rights."</p>

 Northam expressed support for a "student loan bill of rights."

The University Center for Politics welcomed Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) Thursday to speak at an event for the centers’ Leaders for Democracy Fellowship program. Northam, who is running for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, addressed the 23 fellows and students in attendance on his accomplishments in office, policy priorities and aspirations for the Commonwealth of Virginia.

The fellowship program is aimed at expanding the civil engagement, experience and practical skills of 23 nonprofit representatives, civic leaders and journalists from 11 countries in the Middle East and North Africa. The fellows arrived in Charlottesville Feb. 18, where they have participated in workshops and worked on creating a civic action plan for the Charlottesville community. They will then go to Washington, D.C. March 26 to begin internships.

Northam began with an emphasis on America’s diversity and the need to remain inclusive in light of President Donald Trump’s recently-overturned executive order, which banned refugees and non-naturalized citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the U.S.

“We are a nation of immigrants,” Northam said. “We’re going to make sure we are welcoming people in Virginia.”

Northam continued to discuss public concerns central to his goals as lieutenant governor and what he hopes to accomplish for the Commonwealth in the future. He focused on expanding economic opportunities for all members of Virginia, as well as increasing access to higher and early education and upholding the Affordable Care Act.

Northam also addressed various social issues including LGBTQ rights, women’s healthcare and reproductive rights and gun control. He further honed in on the redrawing of state congressional districts, which has proven to be a controversial issue.

“Politicians draw the lines to stay in power,” Northam said. “It’s time for the people to choose their representatives rather than the politicians picking their voters.”

Northam then opened the dialogue to the audience for questions. Third-year College student Austin Gogal initiated the discussion with a question focused on recent concerns about a breakdown in public political discourse.

Northam responded with an emphasis on the importance of listening to others’ ideas despite political affiliations and the necessity of compromising.

“I think it is important for us to sit down and share our ideas,” Northam said. “At the end of the day, that’s the way progress is made.”

Iman Al-Harithi, a Leaders for Democracy fellow from Yemen, asked about the priorities of Virginia voters. Northam said his thinks most voters are focused on economic concerns, adding that he is in favor of raising the minimum wage in Virginia.

“I think if you talk to the average person on the street it’s all about jobs and the economy,” Northam said. “You cannot support your family on $7.25 an hour,” Northam said.

Student Council President-elect and third-year College student Sarah Kenny addressed the concerns about financial aid and asked Northam what his plan would be should he be elected.

Northam said he was in favor of making college more affordable and expressed his support for a “student loan bill of rights,” which aims to improve college affordability through education tax benefits, increased government investment in Pell Grants and a transition to a student-centered direct loan program.

“If we’re going to make education a priority, we’ve got to fund higher education,” Northam said.

Northam concluded the dialogue with the audience by acknowledging he is always open to new ideas and welcomes suggestions from students.

The Democratic Party primary for the 2017 gubernatorial election will be held June 13, in which Northam will be competing against former congressman Tom Perriello for the party’s nomination.