Progressive ally Tom Perriello offers alternative in Virginia’s 2017 Gubernatorial primary
I’m cracking a second PBR bottle at Curbside in the Fan when Tom Perriello walks in. He’d already had a busy day, visiting high school politics classes in Chesterfield to talk to young folks. Perriello’s pumped to spread his message, one he’s pitted against Lt. Governor Ralph Northam as they both fight for the chance to represent Democrats in the 2017 Governor’s race.
“[Richmond] has become incredible,” he said reflecting on the city’s growth and changes. He spent some time here as a legislative page, like a child-assistant to legislative members (not as weird as it sounds) in the ’80s, but he was impressed with the changes he’s seen since.
“Every meeting I have is in some refurbished loft with exposed brick, people in open work spaces tapping away on keyboards. There’s obviously huge issues that remain about equality and racial division in the city, but I think its obviously become an incredibly dynamic city and one that’s put itself on the map.”
It’s those issues – equality, economic disparities, racial divides – that he hopes to tackle and capitalize on looking forward to June 13th when Virginians will cast their primary vote.
Born in Ivy, Va. (Albemarle County in the northern part of Central VA), Perriello is a Yale-educated lawyer who’s spent his life in and out of the political sphere. He gained prominence in 2009 when he served one term as a progressive US Congressman in Virginia’s conservative 5th District. He helped with the passage of the ACA/Obamacare, but that led to his downfall as the Tea Party erupted and sent him packing. But it seemed Obama, who he called his political mentor, had a soft spot for him. He was appointed as a US Special Representative in and around Congo, Kenya and East Africa.
“We haven’t always used US power for good around the world,” he said, sipping a cup of coffee, describing his work abroad. “But I think on some issues; human rights, LGBT rights, we really have been able to do that, be the counter weight, to more repressive governments. It is sometimes a wakeup call when we’re preaching overseas, but we still have a lot of work to do at home.”
It’s that “work at home” we were set to discuss. While being LGBTQ in the states is significantly safer than identifying as such in Africa, you can still be fired, not hired, or denied housing and services because of who you love in the Commonwealth. But being from rural Virginia, and working in that part of the state, he hasn’t underestimated the threats here either.
He pointed to a meeting he held with trans teens and their parents after Trump rescinded protections for trans students in the public school system nationwide.
“It was really powerful,” he said. “We talked about the legal issues, but one of the things they really emphasized, which we’ve all heard before, is its the stigmatizing that really does the damage.”
According to Perriello, Trump’s action, and what ever he and his notoriously anti-LGBTQ Vice President Mike Pence have waiting in the wings, have only hurt trans youth which already face terrifyingly high rates of suicide.
“Given the degree of self harm, we have to be uncompromising in our protection [of LGBTQ folks],” he said. “But we have to find ways – and I tried to learn lessons from this when I was in other cultures – you don’t compromise your values, but you do try and engage across cultural lines.”
Trump, according to other news outlets that have been following Perriello’s rise, has been the key to the gubernatorial hopeful’s mission, and he shared as much with me from across a booth at Curbside.
“Donald Trump ran the most hateful and divisive campaign I’ve seen in my lifetime,” he said. “I’ve worked in other countries where I’ve seen racial demagogs rise and you can’t give them an inch.”
To that end, he hopes to be the lynchpin against Trump in whatever action the executive branch takes as it impacts the Commonwealth.
“I’ll use every legal authority available to prevent these hateful crack downs from President Trump,” he said.
He was aware of the irony, a progressive candidate essentially running on a ’states rights’ platform in case the feds moves to marginalize those already suffering. He remembered growing up and hearing stories about the Mass Resistance movement which saw Virginia public schools close rather than integrate. But he weighed the “significant amount of noncompliance that’s consistent with the law” which he could use to combat hateful moves from the Executive branch and promised to look at issues through a progressive lens of the constitution.
He compared it to progressive governors ignoring the Future Slave Law in the 1800s.
“There’s been pendulums, and I think, given the radical and hateful agenda from the Trump Administration, its absolutely called for that, as governor, we’ll do everything possible to limit those policies,” he said.
On LGBTQ specifics he falls in line with most progressives, promising to protect sexual minorities where possible and be a roadblock to hateful legislation when necessary – to his credit, at not point did he mention the “economic impact” of anti-LGBTQ bills which Gov. McAuliffe has used to safely navigate similar conversations.
He offered to meet with school leaders who might not understand transgender issues, but admitted the pace at which equality has been sought or gained is not quite the same for some folks.
“Rather than put up walls immediately, let’s figure out how we can sit down, where possible, and talk through why its important,” he said. “What the issues are and what pronouns to use.”
Another notch on Perriello’s belt goes to his understanding of intersectionality – he pointed to racial divides, the state’s opioid epidemic, economic inequality, and other issues as all being connected and addressable if they are confronted as such.
“Understanding these class and race issues, its an opportunity for us,” he said.
All of this talk about progressivism and intersectionality, compared to Northam’s long history in the state house, led to comparisons between 2016’s Democratic primary which had the party-favorite Hillary Clinton facing off against the self-described progressive socialist Bernie Sanders. But Perriello said such comparisons don’t really match up.
“I think neither of us (him or Northam) have earned the right to be compared to either of them,” he said. ”Clinton has been putting up with 40 years of structural sexism that neither of us have had to face and she’s been a world-changing figure doing it. Sanders has inspired a movement around inequality and corruption. I think fitting either of us into those boxes is a reach.”
Instead, he called himself a “pragmatic populist,” and agreed with Sanders’ idea that “the systems been rigged against every day folks.” But he also brought up his work as a negotiator and diplomat like Clinton.
“I think we want to pull off the greatest hits of each, including Obama,” he said. “That ability to call us to a better place and a better kind of politics – I think we want to take those greatest hits and put that together in a new generation of politics and I think people are starting to see this as – a future verses the past and not reliving that past.”
The two candidates are from the same party so differences are far and few between – Perriello has come out against the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines while Northam has yet to offer an opinion on the issue; this is one of the biggest differences the two have – but both offer a progressive future for Virginia and promise to stop conservative legislators from passing repressive laws.
But Perriello said his 20 year fight, more often outside of directly-elected offices, makes him an outsider option in a political climate where outsiders seem to have the upper hand.
“I’ve already proven I can win the reddest part of the state as a progressive,” he said pointing to his congressional win. “This is a once in a generation chance for us not to just win the governor’s race, but run the table on the delegates races. I think that’s why we’ve caught such a spark in the last two months.”
So what are Perriello’s chances? Mainstream progressive press has hit him hard on issues like his pro-gun votes during his time as congressman. And the Democratic establishment threw their support and money around Northam starting early this year.
But a recent town hall event held at Diversity Richmond was standing room only (with some people stuck in the vestibule hoping to catch a glimpse of Perriello’s talk.
Perriello speaking before a standing-room-only town hall at Diversity Richmond.
One attendee, Nanet Black of Chesterfield, came at the urging of friends. She said Trump helped get her more interested in the political process and steps like these were a good chance to get involved.
“I heard a lot of things I liked, but I’ll have to do more research on my own,” she said.
Another attendee, local activist and retiree Kathy Green, was similarly impressed by Perriello’s speech, but didn’t think he hit any topics where Northam hadn’t already managed to sway her.
“Every event I attended for women’s reproductive freedom and LGBT rights, Ralph Northam was one of the politicians who showed up,” she said following the event. She said she’d never heard Perriello’s name before, but learned about the meeting through Facebook and decided to go to learn more about him. “He seems smart and dynamic. But he seems to stand with Northam on the issues I care about, so I am still inclined to support Northam.”
In perhaps a good sign for Perriello, she admitted he made her a bit nervous for the race. In a state where the Governor’s chair can be the last stop for anti-LGBTQ bills, she wants to make sure a Democrat wins and this new challenger could muddy up the race.
“I wish we were all united behind one candidate,” she said.
Your chance to cast your primary vote happens June 13th. Find out more about Perriello on his website here.
Editor’s note: This story was updated to clarify Perriello has come out specifically against the pipeline while Northam has not said either way.
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