Rep. Tom Perriello (D)
Virginia 5th District
Southside Virginia is a geographic name that for years was shorthand for a state of mind. Located here is Appomattox Court House, in the serene little hamlet where Robert E. Lee surrendered to his one-time subordinate Ulysses S. Grant; and also Danville, where the tobacco auction originated in 1858. In Prince Edward County, Democratic Sen. Harry Byrd’s massive resistance to a federal court desegregation order shut down public schools in 1957. The eastern counties are flat and humid—frontier in the late colonial period, plantation country by 1800, and now peanut fields and pine forests. Along U.S. 58 are the vestiges of Virginia’s Tobacco Road, and in South Hill the Tobacco Farm Life Museum pays tribute to that heritage, though only one tobacco warehouse is still in business. To the west, into the Piedmont, the land gradually gets more hilly. There is a D-Day Memorial in Bedford, which lost more men per capita, 23 of its 35 soldiers, in the Normandy invasion than any other town in the nation. Nearby are the abandoned textile mills and furniture factories of Danville and Martinsville, with Virginia’s highest unemployment. Their economy is on the rebound with an IKEA furniture factory, the nation’s largest indoor fish farm called Blue Ridge Aquaculture, and biofuel and wind energy research centers financed by the state’s tobacco settlement money.
2008 Presidential Vote
|Cook Partisan Voting Index|
Other new influences are taking root in Southside Virginia. Metro Richmond is reaching out and rural counties have sprouted subdivisions and shopping centers. Charlottesville, once a tiny town centered on Thomas Jefferson’s lawn at the University of Virginia, and surrounding Albemarle County have attracted new residents to the college town atmosphere and the beauty of the rolling hills of the Piedmont. A half century ago, the politics of Southside were Democratic and segregationist, run by chain-smoking local bankers and courthouse lawyers. But they are long gone. UVA’s Board of Visitors voted in 2007 to apologize for its treatment of slaves.
The 5th district of Virginia consists of much of Southside Virginia, west of metropolitan Richmond, and spreads out to the Blue Ridge Mountains. It includes all of liberal Charlottesville and Albemarle County and fast-growing Fluvanna County, but skirts around conservative Lynchburg. In recent decades, the district has mostly gone Republican. But Virginia’s recent Democratic governors, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, have energized Charlottesville and Albemarle County liberals, and Democrat Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008 registered thousands of Southside blacks. The 5th district was politically competitive in 2008 and produced one of the biggest upsets in congressional contests that year.
Rep. Tom Perriello (D)
Elected: 2008, 1st term.
Born: Oct. 9, 1974, Charlottesville .
Education: Yale U., B.A. 1996, J.D. 2001.
Professional Career: Yale Law Schl. teaching fellow, Sierra Leone, 2001-02; U. of Sierra Leone, Special advisor to the intl. prosecutor of Special Court for Sierra Leone, 2003-03; Consultant, Intl. Centre for Transitional Justice, 2003 (Kosovo), 2005 (Darfur) & 2007 (Afghanistan); Fellow, Century Foundation, Founding Partner, Res Publica, 2003-08
Freshman Tom Perriello seems to like living on the edge. Since he won his House seat with the narrowest of margins - just 727 votes - in a hotly competitive district, the 35-year-old Democrat has cast a trifecta of potentially career-ending votes, supporting President Barack Obama's economic stimulus bill and the liberal Democratic leadership's climate change and health care initiatives. He was the only freshman from a district won by Republican John McCain in 2008 to back all three bills this year. At home, one Republican said Perriello's record is "bordering on the clueless."
|Tom Perriello (D)||158,810||(50%)||($1,822,148)|
|Virgil Goode (R)||158,083||(50%)||($1,939,824)|
|Tom Perriello (D)||Unopposed|
The Ivy League lawyer is not naïve about the potential for a backlash by conservative-leaning voters in his district next November, but he also has a different calculus about the way his record will play with voters. He believes his positions, along with a couple of impressive legislative accomplishments, will appeal to the independents that have heavily influenced the last several elections. "Most of the people in the middle are turned off by this ideological fight," Perriello (PEAR-ee-ello) told the Hotline recently. "What they care about is whether it's going to bring down their premiums. And any party that seems oblivious to the skyrocketing costs for middle-class families and small-business owners is out of touch with the economic pain of average Americans."
Perriello has also appealed to middle-class voters with a string of legislative victories, rare for a freshman. He sponsored a $2,500 tax credit for college expenses that was included in the stimulus bill. And his bill establishing a National Service Reserve Corps, which could be activated during national emergencies, also passed. Moreover, Perriello has logged some votes that he can use to demonstrate independence from the liberal wing of his party. He voted against Obama's $3.5 trillion budget, citing concerns about the federal deficit, and against releasing $350 billion in government bailout money for troubled financial firms.
Perriello did not follow any of the traditional routes into politics. After getting his law degree from Yale University, he spent several years abroad working as a conflict resolution specialist in trouble spots around the globe. He is the product of a privileged upbringing in Charlottesville, Va., where he was the youngest of four children of a prominent local pediatrician. His mother was a school teacher who later became a financial analyst. "I had a very Normal Rockwell kind of childhood. We were all best friends," said Perriello in a recent interview with the Almanac. He still lives near his parents and siblings.
Faith was an important part of Perriello's youth; the family was very involved in the local Catholic church, which he said "emphasized the idea of service, whether that was community service or public service, as being a necessary component of faith." Perriello did his undergraduate work at Yale, and then returned a couple years later to go to law school. He moved overseas to work with non-governmental organizations in Sierra Leone, Kosovo and Afghanistan. The experience, he says, taught him about managing crises and working with opposing sides to reach a solution. "Having been part of a lot of really successful efforts in places like West Africa, you realize that there's no problem that can't be solved if you have the political will," he said. He was in Liberia during a time of particular strife, and Perriello says, "One of the great thrills of my life was to be part of the showdown that forced the dictator Charles Taylor from power in Liberia. To do so without a shot being fired, I think it was a great example of how we can use 21st century security strategies to solve problems that we always assumed were intractable." During this period in his life, Perriello also helped found two faith-based non-profit organizations, Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, which promotes social justice, and Res Publica, an advocacy group aimed at ending the conflict in Darfur, Sudan.
Perriello was considered a long shot when he launched his bid to unseat six-term Republican Rep. Virgil Goode in 2008. A former Democrat who joined the Republican Party in 2002, Goode had never dipped below 59% of the vote. Despite an uphill battle, Perriello said, "I wanted to show that there was a new generation of ideas and energy."
Perriello's internal polling showed him down more than 30 percentage points in August 2008. But he stayed focused on grass-roots organization and direct voter outreach. He appealed to religious conservatives with ads that portrayed his non-profit work as answering God's calling. He also went on the offensive, attacking Goode as being unable to work across party lines and for taking campaign contributions from the scandal-plagued defense contractor MZM. Goode responded with negative ads of his own, including one showing Perriello with a beard and his face darkened and referring to him as a "New York lawyer."
Perriello won by a scant 50.1%-49.9%. He got huge majorities in Charlottesville and Albemarle County, large margins in heavily African-American Southside counties and a victory in fast-growing Fluvanna County. The Obama campaign's registration drive in Southside increased turnout sharply and helped Perriello trim Goode's margins in rural counties. The result was close enough to trigger a recount, but Perriello was declared the winner on December 17, 2009.
He was a Republican target from almost the moment he was sworn in, especially after he voted for the Democrats' energy bill establishing a cap-and-trade system forcing companies to seek credits to pollute the air beyond government-set levels. Perriello says that the vote reflects the beliefs of more of his constituents than his political enemies think. "There are certain things you just do when you're asked to be part of this government, and one of them is to do right by national security," he said. "And I think people are going to look back on this vote as something that separated those who truly care about national security and economic competitiveness from those who were caring more about the next election cycle."
On health care reform, Perriello at first declined to support the Democratic bill, which included an option for the government to compete with private insurers. Perriello said favored provisions for more interstate competition and portability among insurance companies. Ultimately, he provided a crucial yes vote to pass the legislation 220-215 on November 7, 2009.
His votes may haunt him next year. "Having won a race no one really thought I was going to win, I could come in here on my own terms," he said. "I work every waking hour that I can for the district. There's not more or less that I'm willing to do. So I'm just focused on trying to make the absolute most out of the time I have."
But some other political developments may end up pulling him over the finish line to a second term. Perriello could turn out to be a direct beneficiary of the disharmony between the moderate and conservative wings of the Republican Party. State Sen. Robert Hurt is the strongest potential challenger, but he is threatened from the right. Candidate Bradley Rees recently quit the Republican Party to run for the seat on the Virginia Conservative Party ticket. A similar split among Republicans vaulted Democrat Bill Owens to victory on November 3, 2009 in New York's 23rd District. Rees said his third-party candidacy "may amount to only drawing enough votes from the Republican candidate (Hurt) to ensure Tom Perriello a second term. If so, so be it. Maybe then, the party will understand that we are trying to save the GOP from its worst enemy: not the Democrats, but themselves."
Still, Perriello's name has landed on every prognosticator's list of endangered incumbents next year. McCain won the rural district in central-southern Virginia with just 51% of the vote, but Republican Gov.-elect Robert McDonnell did much better there a year later with 61%. Recently, a conservative group called the TEA Party Patriots threatened to burn Perriello and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in effigy, but then backed off. "I've got to say, I'm bummed I won't be burned in effigy," Perriello quipped.
By John Mercurio and Jessica Taylor