Former Virginia Congressman Tom Perriello brought his gubernatorial campaign to Blacksburg on Wednesday, nearly two weeks after announcing his surprising decision to challenge Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam in the state’s Democratic primary.
Perriello, 42, met with constituents at Lefty’s Main Street Grille, a casual restaurant familiar to Blacksburg residents. The monthly gathering of Montgomery County Democrats, known as “Lefties at Lefty’s,” is often a time to socialize, but on Jan. 18 the stakes were higher.
In an interview with the Collegiate Times, Perriello, a graduate of Yale Law School, said he hoped to convince working Virginians of his ability to reach solutions, an approach he calls pragmatic populism.
“I’m a populist in the sense that I think the people are often smarter about what’s going on than the leadership in Washington,” Perriello said. “I’m a populist in the sense that I think we need to understand that growth really comes from the purchasing power of the working middle class out, it doesn’t trickle down from the top. I’m a pragmatist in that I’m not out here to be a bomb thrower, I’m out here to solve problems.”
Before joining Congress, Perriello worked as a human rights lawyer and as a non-profit executive.
Perriello was elected to the House of Representatives in 2008 from Virginia’s 5th Congressional district, riding a wave that put Barack Obama in the White House and gave Democrats resounding majorities in both houses of Congress. Just two years later he was defeated by Republican Robert Hurt who himself rode a wave of Tea Party support.
During his time in Congress, Perriello was a key Obama ally, helping to pass the stimulus program and the Affordable Care Act. Perriello said he found support among those eager for rationality.
“It doesn’t help a poor person in my community to go on a rant, it helps a community to figure out how to bring people together; workers, business leaders, diverse communities to actually address issues of social mobility and opportunity,” Perriello said. “Ultimately what I care about is the results.”
After leaving Congress, Perriello joined the Obama Administration as a diplomat, leading a review of the State Department’s diplomatic efforts and later as an envoy to the Great Lakes Region of Africa where he helped to strike a historic peace deal.
Back in the U.S., Perriello believes the rise of an automation economy could jeopardize the future of employment.
“Automation has become one of the great transformations, but honestly also a threat to the kind of job rich growth that we want to see in our community,” Perriello said. “We all love computers, we all rely on them, and they’ve changed our lives in lots of wonderful ways, but they are also challenging many traditional employment opportunities. And as a younger person I think I am probably a little bit more aware of issues like that as well as issues like college debt.”
According to campaign officials, Perriello is currently in the midst of a statewide tour, hoping to spread his political visibility and populist message beyond his former district.
“It’s just been a flood of energy from across the state and online,” Perriello said. “I think our campaign has really become one of the outlets for people who want to try to make sure we remain an inclusive Virginia.”
The early campaign, however, has not been without its setbacks. Shortly after announcing his entry into the race, Perriello faced backlash over his Congressional record regarding abortion.
On Jan. 6, Perriello apologized on Facebook for voting in favor of the Stupak-Pitts Amendment, an Affordable Care Act proposal that would have barred insurers from using government funds for abortion procedures. The amendment was seen as an expansion of the Hyde Amendment which famously blocks federal funds to pay for abortion.
Ultimately, the amendment never made its way into the final version of the Affordable Care Act. Perriello ended his apology by promising to uphold a woman’s right to choose and to oppose a 20-week abortion ban.
Perriello has faced similar skepticism over his pro-gun stance. His opposition to an assault weapons ban earned him an endorsement by the National Rifle Association in 2010.
In his path to the nomination, Perriello will have to spurn much of the Virginia Democratic leadership, including Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who reportedly chose Northam as his successor. Sen. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine have already endorsed Northam, as well as dozens of Democratic state legislatures.
Perriello praised McAuliffe's “laser-like focus on job creation" saying his term as governor was a success.
Many in Virginia believed Northam would not face opposition, especially after state Attorney General Mark Herring declared he would not seek the governorship.
Perriello said that he agrees with Northam on more than with what he disagrees.
“There's a lot more unity among Democrats than there has been in the past,” Perriello said. “For those of us who (were) more progressive before, there was a real split in the party. But I think you’ve seen most of the leadership and base come together and understand issues of radical inequality are a problem, the importance of criminal justice reform, issues that may not have been at the forefront before but are now.”
Some political observers have described the Northam-Perriello race as a sort of proxy between competing wings of the Democratic Party. Northam, through McAuliffe, is seen as aligned with Clinton while Perriello is thought to reflect the Obama coalition. Neither Clinton nor Obama have spoken publicly about the primary.
The June 13 primary will be the Virginia Democratic party’s first gubernatorial contest since 2009.
Perriello said that as governor, he intends to fight what he called “a rigged legislature … that was chosen by D.C. lobbyists and not Virginia citizens.”
Perriello blamed Republican politician Ed Gillespie for the gerrymandering of Virginia’s legislative districts. The map was largely redrawn by the legislature in 2011 and signed into law by then-Gov. Bob McDonnell. Gillespie helped lead an effort to redraw districts nationwide, reportedly to favor Republican candidates.
Gillespie is currently seen as the favorite in the race to be the Republican nominee for governor. In 2014 Gillespie, the former Chair of the Republican National Committee, narrowly lost in his bid to unseat Sen. Mark Warner.
Despite the control the Republican party has over the state’s legislature, Perriello said Virginians have a more pragmatic understanding of government. He promised to fight to pass the Affordable Health Care Medicaid expansion, an initiative favored by McAullife but blocked by Republican lawmakers.
“I think the Virginia I grew up in, being born and raised in Charlottesville, was a very pragmatic state,” Perriello said. “The legislature was much more functional than the dysfunction we started to see in Washington. I think that’s one of the things we want to stop is now the Republicans are probably putting up one of the top D.C. lobbyist and political operatives who could bring the worst of D.C. politics to Richmond.”
Perriello intends to run his campaign in part as a rebuke to the Donald Trump presidency. Virginia gubernatorial races are often seen as a response to the Commander in Chief primarily because they are held just a year after presidential elections. In 2017 Virginia’s election will be just one of two statewide races, the other being New Jersey’s gubernatorial election.
According to Perriello, Trump’s surprising victory in the 2016 presidential election motivated him to run for the governorship.
“Trump did worse than any Republican in modern Virginia history in the presidential election because Virginians do not want this kind of hate and divisiveness here,” Perriello said. “I feel like that whole coalition of Virginians is wondering whether or not it’s worth it, and we want to make this campaign not just a winning campaign, but a campaign that gives people a reason to believe that they were not fooling themselves, that politics can be a noble thing.”