The Perriello Way
by Christopher Hayes
November 3, 2010 |
November 22, 2010 edition of The Nation.
Of all the losses on election night for progressive
politicians, the two that hurt most were Russ
Feingold's defeat at the hands of self-funded corporate
clown Ron Johnson, and Virginia Congressman Tom
Perriello's loss to Republican State Senator Robert
Progressives nationwide fell for Perriello for a few
reasons. First, he seemed to be one of us. Born and
raised in the district, he had an eclectic background
that included a Yale law degree, time in West Africa
and Afghanistan working on issues of transitional
justice and his founding an organization of Catholics
committed to social justice. He spoke passionately and
unapologetically about a society where "we love our
neighbors as much as ourselves" and maintained the kind
of self-deprecating humor most politicians lack. When I
spoke with him earlier this year about the mood of his
district and voters' distrust, he ran through a long,
erudite analysis that name-checked Francis Fukuyama and
Hegel before he stopped and said, "Boy, I'm a real man
of the people this morning, aren't I?"
Perriello ran in 2008 pledging himself to "conviction
politics" and offering a "progressive alternative" to
incumbent Virgil Goode. Even though McCain won the
district by three points, Perriello was able to squeak
out a 745-vote victory (of more than 316,000 cast), a
margin provided largely by a surge of young voters and
black voters, who came out for Obama, and one of the
best field operations in the country.
One thing you learn early in Washington is that the
incentives there-the way fundraising works, the culture
of Capitol Hill-are set up to push legislators away
from a progressive vision. Which is why it turns out to
matter a shocking amount whether a politician actually
cares about making the country more just. The path of
least resistance, particularly in a district like
Perriello's, is to triangulate, distance yourself from
the national party and get a seat on the Financial
Services Committee so you can raise millions from the
Perriello pretty much took the path of most resistance.
On domestic issues he embraced progressive politics
instead of shrinking from them. Of the forty-nine
Democrats who represented districts that McCain won in
2008, Perriello was one of only five who voted for the
Recovery Act, cap and trade, and healthcare reform. (On
the wars, Perriello was a disappointment, voting two
times to continue funding the war in Afghanistan.)
Perriello knew his votes for Obama's signature domestic
legislative priorities would require him to take extra
time to make his case to voters, and he focused with
obsessive tenacity on local issues, particularly job
creation, in a district whose population centers, other
than Charlottesville, were facing double-digit
unemployment even before the Great Recession. And
instead of running from his record, he ran on it.
During an election-morning stop at a local radio
station, Perriello stressed that the healthcare
legislation would allow those under 26 to stay on their
parents' health insurance and therefore have the chance
to continue their schooling.
On the trail he touted the hundreds of local teaching
jobs and 1,800 home weatherizations paid for by the
Recovery Act and his repeated votes to extend
But starting just a few weeks after inauguration day,
outside conservative groups began running ads against
him in the district. As the midterms neared, Americans
for Prosperity spent tons of cash on local robocalls,
mail drops and TV ads. They even covered the district
with black November Is Coming! signs.
Perriello's opponent, Robert Hurt, seemed to take
literally those "generic Republican" polls and tried to
turn the race (with some success) into generic
Republican versus generic Democrat. He attacked
Perriello for signing on to the "Obama-Pelosi agenda,"
his support for an "energy tax," out-of-control
spending, blah, blah, blah. He even came out against
construction of the Park51 Community Center, 400 miles
outside his district's lines.
As we drove from Charlottesville to Danville on
election day, passing dairy farms, fall foliage and the
abandoned textile mill that looms over Danville's
depressed downtown, Perriello's communications
director, Jessica Barba, recounted the story of several
focus groups they'd run in August. The results she
said, were depressing. Having decided to pay careful
attention to local issues and job development,
Perriello's office had been tireless in scheduling
events and press releases and garnering local press
coverage for every last project funded by the Recovery
Act. None of it seemed to register with voters, or if
it did, it was overwhelmed by the general discontent
and opposition to the president.
"In polls we did on the campaign, we found he had very
high numbers on 'delivered results for the district,'"
Barba told me. "But we also realized he couldn't win on
that message." In the end, the dynamics of a district
with a motivated conservative base in a country in a
justifiably dyspeptic mood just swallowed it up.
In the wake of Perriello's loss, it's tempting to
conclude that conviction politics simply doesn't work.
But the fate of Perriello's fellow Virginia freshman
Democrat Glenn Nye suggests it's not so simple. Nye
also beat a Republican incumbent in 2008, though in a
district Obama won-rather than lost-by a narrow margin.
But he took the opposite tack from Perriello,
distancing himself from the national party and the
president almost immediately, voting against cap and
trade, healthcare reform, patient protection and
extending unemployment. Fat lot of good it did him. He
lost his race by seven more points than Perriello did.
Strange as it is to say, the lesson of election night,
in Virginia and nationally, may be that Congress
members' voting records don't matter all that much.
If that's the case, you might as well vote for what you
think is right. The point of being in Congress isn't to
get re-elected; it's to make the country better while
you're there-something that seems to have been lost on
so many Democrats who took the easy way out. On
election night, Perriello told his supporters that his
father had told him when he got into politics,
"Judgment Day is more important than election day. It's
more important to do what's right than what's easy....
I'm proud of what we've done and what we've
Everything from the tenor of his voice to his wistful
smile communicated that he meant it.
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