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ARLINGTON, Va. — To the casual political observer, it might seem as though Tom Perriello has the edge in next Tuesday’s Democratic primary for governor in Virginia.
Perriello, 42, has been endorsed by the leading progressive politicians in the country — Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren — and has been cast in the role of a populist crusader. He is running against an older politician, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, who speaks with a Southern drawl that resonates with the state’s older demographic.
And yet, despite the fact that a recent poll showed Perriello ahead by two points, the former one-term congressman knows he has a big hill to climb. He’s banking on getting new voters to the polls in an election that hasn’t generated a lot of media attention at a time when the news cycle is dominated by all things Trump. The congressional testimony of former FBI Director James Comey Thursday morning is just the latest episode to overwhelm the political world’s bandwidth.
“Ralph’s base is highly likely to vote in the primary,” Perriello said in an interview this week, noting that Northam’s voters generally are Democrats who have voted in past primaries, skewing older and more suburban. “A lot of people are skeptical that our supporters — younger voters, voters of color, rural voters — are actually going to show up for a primary election.”
A half hour later, Perriello warned a group of 30 or 40 supporters in an Arlington restaurant that Virginia gubernatorial primaries are usually “a pretty sleepy affair.”
“If we see the same electorate show up, it’s going to be a challenge for us,” he told them.
Brad Jenkins, a former White House aide under President Obama who co-hosted this Perriello event, lamented that “if Trump isn’t on the ballot … no one is paying attention.”
Perriello picked up that point and expanded on it, in a gentle critique of the many people energized by anti-Trump sentiment or the droves of young progressives who are quick to protest but have yet to show up at the polls in nonpresidential contests.
“We have to get them excited about state and local elections,” Perriello said. “And it should be so easy, because the things that we care about so much, states actually have more of a role: criminal justice reform, community policing, quality education.”
He went on to note that when he tried to mobilize support for Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s proposal in March to expand Medicaid, “it was difficult to get with a lot of the resistance groups.”
“We said, ‘Hey, let’s go all in on this for 10 days, put every bit of pressure we can, because the fight could immediately affect 400,000 lives.’ And it was disappointing to see how hard it still is to get people to make that transition from anything Trump and federal-related to the state level,” Perriello said.
Still, after Perriello finished talking, one young professional I spoke to was surprised when I informed him that most of the state’s Democratic establishment — the governor, both U.S. senators and many others — have endorsed Northam. The man, who did not want to give his name, said he wished Perriello had stirred the crowd with more urgency about the need to mobilize support.
Northam’s campaign is further emboldened by the fact that college campuses are empty thanks to summer break — depriving Perriello of a potentially huge voter source — and that many Virginians are more interested now in where they’re spending their vacation than in who’s running for governor.
The Northam campaign has also worked hard to try to undermine Perriello’s support among young and progressive voters, sending operatives to his rallies to ask him questions about his past positions on abortion and guns.
Northam wants Perriello on defense about his more conservative past views, which were the product of his deep Catholic faith and the fact that in 2008 he won election to Congress in Virginia’s largely conservative Fifth Congressional District, which starts on the state’s southern border and snakes up the eastern edge of the Shenandoah Mountains all the way to Manassas.
Perriello lost his seat in 2010 after voting for the Affordable Care Act. During the debate over the law, he was part of a group of Democratic congressmen who pressed for restrictions on federal funding for abortion services under the law, known as the Stupak-Pitts Amendment. During his 2010 reelection campaign, he boasted of having previously “broken” with Democrats on abortion and guns. But he now says he has always been pro-choice personally and apologized in January for his support of Stupak-Pitts.
Perriello is still critical of the Democratic Party for its approach to cultural issues. “What I hear from a lot of voters who went either third-party or Trump this last year, was the sense — and obviously this was partly promoted by Fox News — that Democrats only care about where people go to the bathroom,” Perriello said. “My view is we absolutely should care about protecting trans teens and vetoing bathroom bills. We just have to be clear we care about all of humanity.”
But Perriello wants to talk economics much more than culture war issues, and makes a passionate and interesting case for breaking up big business monopolies to help return jobs and wealth to both poor inner cities and rural communities. He has opposed two proposed natural gas pipelines that would run through Virginia, and refused any financial contributions from the state’s largest energy utility, Dominion Power.
The energy issue, he said, is “incredibly important to our base and the environmental base but is also extremely popular with Trump voters and third-party voters, who hate monopolies, hate corruption in the system and hate the fact that this is standing in the way of farmers and rural communities being able to get some of the jobs of the new energy economy.”
When Perriello discusses racial justice and on how to force compromise in the legislature, however, his intelligence and depth shines through the most. He draws on his years of experience mediating foreign conflicts in places like Sierra Leone and the Congo — where Obama named him a special envoy — to explain his vision for a special commission on racial healing and transformation.
“One of the things you learn as a peace negotiator is the same thing you learn in any human relationship, which is when two people are fighting, they’re not actually listening to each other. They’re just waiting for the other person to validate whatever point of view they have or pain that they feel, and until then it’s just noise, right?” he said. “And figuring out how in these conversations we can acknowledge legitimate grievances from various perspectives is an issue of trust-building.”
Perriello has spoken out regularly and forcefully on systemic issues of inequality and racism, but also said that it is vastly oversimplified and unwise to say “to someone in Appalachia that you are benefiting from white privilege when you have relatives dying of the opioid crisis, you have uncles dying of black lung and the rest.”
When he was asked while campaigning this week whether Northam’s relationships with the Republican-controlled legislature might make the lieutenant governor more adept at getting things done in Richmond, Perriello responded with a thoughtful and forceful argument that politics has changed.
“That’s just a misunderstanding of how politics works and how leverage works,” he said. “The way you do this is you go out and you win the Republican constituents, not the legislators. … Doing this in backroom deals in Richmond hasn’t gotten us a minimum wage increase, it hasn’t gotten us criminal justice reform, it hasn’t gotten us Medicaid expansion. And so if Ralph could have pointed to successes on that over the last few years, quite frankly I wouldn’t be in this race and I wouldn’t be winning.”
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