The Virginia experiment

Perriello’s district covers about 9,000 square miles, an area roughly the size of New Jersey in a jagged triangle that runs from Charlottesville in the north down to a stretch along the North Carolina border known as Southside. More densely populated areas like Charlottesville are politically moderate. Rural Southside is poorer and more conservative.

With its tobacco farms, furniture factories, and textile mills, Southside was once Virginia’s economic engine. But those businesses have withered over the decades as manufacturing jobs, in particular, shifted overseas. In Danville, where Dan River Mills once made fabric, sheets, and towels, unemployment was considerably higher than the national average even before the recession. Nearby Martinsville is a requisite campaign stop for candidates promising economic renewal, including Barack Obama. In January, the unemployment rate in Martinsville was 22 percent, more than double the national rate.

It would be easy to say (and many do) that Tom Perriello rode into office on Obama’s coattails. But although Obama’s candidacy brought out large numbers of young people and blacks in the Fifth, he lost the district to John McCain. Perriello isn’t beholden to the president or the Democratic machine for his victory. That gives him the room to act independently of, and speak bluntly about, both political parties.

A compact former wrestler who operates on caffeine, Baby Ruth bars, and not much sleep, Perriello feels as frustrated as many of his most conservative constituents. Like them, he turned to activism out of abiding anger at politicians who appear self-serving and ineffective. Like them, he’s deeply troubled by the dearth of economic opportunity in the Fifth and the wealth of despair. He and the Tea Party share a sense of urgency and a certain fervor. Perriello, says his friend Sharanjeet Parmar, is the kind of guy who’d go up to a colleague having a smoke and tell him, “For that pack of cigarettes, you can buy malaria medicine for a family.” She adds, “He’s on all the time.”

Where Perriello and his conservative constituents diverge is over the root of the problems. “The Tea Party believes capitalism is under threat and that government is taking over the private sector,” Perriello told the editorial board of the Lynchburg News & Advance. “I think that the largest elements of the private sector have taken over the government and they’re interested in protecting the status quo.”

Perriello has become more pointed in his criticism of Republicans and Democrats alike. He told the New Yorker he was considering writing an op-ed calling for Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner’s resignation. He says he found the congressional Republicans’ resistance, in early 2009, to nearly all Democratic efforts to avoid a depression “unpatriotic and immoral.” He recently told the online magazine Grist that he is “sick of starting with what can we get through the Senate; let’s start with what solves the damn problem. Until the Senate gets its head out of its rear end and starts to see the crisis we’re in, our country is literally at risk.”

Perriello voted for the stimulus plan, health care reform, and the cap-and-trade bill. He voted against the second tranche of the bank bailout, the Obama budget, and a handful of other Democratic initiatives. He supports unions, which angers conservatives, and he voted for the 2009 Stupak anti-abortion amendment to the House health care bill, which angered liberals.

Almost every weekend, Perriello travels the Fifth in his white Ford truck, talking to constituents and politicians. An Eagle Scout, he is invariably polite to constituents. He spends a lot of time making his case. It isn’t always what people want to hear. On one unseasonably warm winter morning, Perriello drove his pickup, its fuel gauge warning light on all the way, to the Blackwater Valley dairy farm in the southwest flank of the district. He had gotten emergency federal funds released in late 2009 to local farmers hit by the downturn, and the meeting with about 25 of them was something of a photo op. But the farmers were worried, and the talk turned fast to legislation.

Virginia’s economy is still heavily reliant on timber and agriculture, Perriello often points out, and he’d like to figure out what people can grow and do to prosper. His vision for the Fifth District has fallow land sprouting grasses for biofuel; new, green industries arriving; and livestock manure being turned into fuel for electricity. He explains his vote for the House cap-and-trade bill as a way to make these things happen, but Republicans have run many ads in the district painting the bill as a crippling tax on the middle class. This particular morning, some farmers criticized his vote, certain the bill would drive up already-high utility bills.

“I’m going to work as hard as I can to prove you wrong,” Perriello said, pushing his hands deep in his chino pockets and nudging the soft earth with his toe, a gesture at once diffident and stubborn. “Done right, this is a huge new opportunity and revenue stream for farmers.”

Van Flora, 51, spoke up in the stiffening wind. “How is cap-and-trade going to help me as a dairy farmer milking 80 cows? How is it going to help me when my electricity bill is already going up?” Flora had started his farm from scratch. He took out $60,000 last year just to keep it afloat, and he fears it will be sold or closed down because of financial pressures. His voice began to tremble. “I have a 20-year-old son who’s always said that all he ever wanted to do is farm. But after last year, he doesn’t want to go into farming anymore.”

To survive, farms need to change, Perriello answered. The first manure digesters for producing fuel are in place in the district, and land could be used for biofuel crops or wind power. His goal is for farmers to produce enough power that they’ll have no electricity bills at all. “I still think agriculture is going to get screwed by cap-and-trade,” said another farmer in a black fedora.

“Agriculture is getting screwed right now,” Perriello told him. “Continuing to do what we’re doing is a losing strategy.”

The Fifth District, many locals believe, was drawn as a Republican stronghold. The Wall Street Journal has listed Perriello among the incumbents Republicans consider most vulnerable in 2010. “He is one of the hardest-working freshmen, if not the most hardworking,” says Wasserman of the Cook Political Report. “But I’m highly skeptical that Tom Perriello can win a two-way race in 2010, unless the GOP candidate implodes.”

Wasserman adds: “I should note that I’ve always been skeptical of his chances. When I first met him, he was an unpolished candidate who was trying to raise seed money. Ultimately, he ran a near-flawless campaign.”

Wasserman wasn’t the only doubter when Perriello started. In late 2007, many Democrats in the Fifth tried to dissuade him from running. Goode was a six-term incumbent who had beaten his most successful previous Democratic rival by 19 percentage points, and all his other opponents had had the kind of business and military credentials that pundits thought would win over conservative voters. Perriello, who’d never run for elected office, had gone straight from law school to human rights work in Africa, Kosovo, and Afghanistan and later set up progressive political groups in the United States.

Some Democratic consultants told Perriello he would need to pillory Goode in order to win, and he did air some negative ads. But he also ran a relentless ground game that got his message out to voters early, letting him define himself before Goode defined him. He made volunteering time to social causes a requirement for himself and campaign workers, a move both shrewd and sincere.

As late as August 2008, Perriello trailed Goode by 30 points in the polls. But a series of strong debate performances pushed him higher, and he won endorsements from influential local papers, including some that had backed Goode in the past. Then, in mid-October, a local newspaper revealed that a gay coming-of-age film thanked Goode and his wife in the credits and that his press secretary had a role in the movie. Goode’s lead narrowed further. The day after the election, it was unclear who had won. Not until December 17, after a district-wide recount, was Perriello confirmed as the Fifth’s new congressman.