Tom Periello: Gubernatorial Candidate

Campbell Haynes '19
Guest Contributor

Tom Perriello speaking to law students. Photo

Tom Perriello speaking to law students. Photo

Donald Trump’s ascension to the Presidency prompted visceral reactions across the country. His supporters felt jubilation and pride that their vision of America had been electorally endorsed. Hillary Clinton supporters woke up on November 9th angry, confused, and saddened by this new reality. Those same supporters have spent the months since the election marching in cities, big and small, across the country, fighting Trump’s executive order at our nation’s airports, and pressuring their legislators over Trump’s cabinet appointments. The election, for many of them, changed everything. 

The election changed everything for Tom Perriello, too. Perriello, a former Congressman from the Charlottesville area, spent 2016 working as a diplomat at the State Department. Politics at home appeared stable, with Hillary Clinton poised to win Virginia and the Presidency, and home state Senator Tim Kaine headed to the White House with her as the Vice President. A Clinton victory would have given Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe the opportunity to appoint someone to replace Kaine in the Senate. All signs pointed to Rep. Bobby Scott as the likely pick. Scott’s appointment would begin to heal wounds from an ugly past (he would have been the first black Senator in the commonwealth’s history) and help steer Virginia toward a more progressive future. 

And then, against the odds, Trump won. For Tom Perriello, the future of Virginia suddenly looked more precarious. So he quickly—and belatedly—jumped into the Democratic primary for Governor. Perriello is the underdog in the race, as most of the establishment support has already gone to the current Lieutenant Governor, Ralph Northam. But Perriello is no stranger to long odds or difficult fights. In 2008, he upset long-time incumbent Congressman Virgil Goode in the deep-red Fifth District of Virginia. Perriello overcame a double-digit deficit by campaigning on a platform of pragmatic populism and conviction politics. He lost that same seat in the Tea Party wave of 2010, but he ran nearly ten points ahead of other Democrats nationally in part by honestly and painstakingly defending his record and his votes on health care reform, “cap-and-trade,” and the stimulus. 

    Last week, Perriello came to the Law School for an event hosted by the Law Democrats on the future of progressivism in the age of Trump (note: the Law Democrats do not endorse candidates before the conclusion of Democratic primaries). During the event, Perriello fielded an array of difficult, thorny questions from audience members with poise and progressive conviction. He defended a difficult vote he made on abortion as a Congressman and explained his learning process on the issue. He articulated a path forward for Virginia on education that gets the basics right (he pointed to rural schools with leaky roofs) while dreaming big on career and technical education and free community college. He stood up for political compromise, noting that while he is both a progressive and a populist, his career as a diplomat taught him that, sometimes, incremental progress is most achievable. 

     Perriello’s version of populism suggests that one common post-election talking point—that Democrats focused on identity politics too much, at the expense of bread-and-butter issues—is a myth. Perriello speaks the language of the young, diverse, progressive future of the Democratic Party (and of America): his talk featured discussion and dialogue on intersectionality, feminism, the important of the Black Lives Matter movement, and even a reference to the musical, Hamilton (although he’s much more of a fan of Madison). He acknowledged that race and racial politics drove much of Trump’s support, while refusing to give up, as some would have the Democratic Party do, on appealing to the white working class. He supports gun rights and background checks, and his faith motivates his political participation and shapes his worldview. In short, Perriello knows that all politics is identity politics, and will excel at appealing to voters of all identities. 

The Virginia Democratic gubernatorial primary election will be the first referendum of Trump’s presidency. It will also be the first test of whether a new brand of left populism like Perriello’s can compete with Trump’s xenophobic nationalism. Many believe that it cannot. That Medicare-for-All cannot possibly compete with “Build That Wall!” Others believe that, in order to compete going forward, Democrats must become (again) the party of people that hate Comcast, not those who live down the block from Comcast executives. Ultimately, it is refreshing to see a progressive of conviction like Perriello stand up for what many Americans believe in. Virginians—and many Americans—will be watching this primary election eagerly in the months to come.