The Virginia experiment

Perriello says that he used to dismiss politics as a dirty business that did not produce results, but by 2007 had realized that it would be his best shot at changing policies for the benefit of regular people. “Too often, the Democrats offer neocon-lite, or a certain kind of realism that says, ‘We can’t do that much.’ And our times demanded more,” Perriello said, during a long drive through the dark countryside of his district one evening in early 2009. “I felt there was a false spectrum of right, left, and center in our country. I don’t think voters are centrists but independents. They’re not looking for right and left but right and wrong. I felt that the reason progressives weren’t arguing that was because they had lost their soul metaphorically. It was all about getting through the next election cycle and not about what is fundamentally wrong in our country.”

Thomas Stuart Price Perriello was brought up in Ivy, Virginia, a small town outside Charlottesville. His father, Vito, the son of Italian immigrants who’d settled in West Virginia, was a well-known local pediatrician. His mother, Linda, a financial analyst, grew up in an evangelical Christian family in Ohio. The youngest of four children, Tom was raised in a house atop a hill in Ivy. His family is close-knit, and many of his family members got involved in his congressional race. (His mother handed out homemade chocolate chip cookies at campaign stops.) His father, to whom Perriello was very close, died of a stroke two months after Perriello was sworn in. He’s buried at the base of their backyard, under a tree, with a bench nearby.

The family always thought politics would be part of Tom’s future, says his brother Bo. To this day, their mother still does not use paper towels because Tom went on an environmental kick when he was eight. His interest in the environment deepened when he became an Eagle Scout. At Yale, he majored in humanities with a focus in environmental studies.

Over time, Perriello grew interested in human rights. Between his first and second year at the Law School, he went on an exchange program in Argentina run by Professor Owen Fiss, for whom he worked as a research assistant; the country was then dealing with the human rights abuses committed under military rule from 1976 to 1983. Fiss remembers him as irrepressible—someone who didn’t take no for an answer.

After graduation, Perriello went to Sierra Leone to run a legal clinic at Fourah Bay College and teach classes. Mostly, he worked with civilians to figure out how to address past human rights abuses once international tribunals were set up. The civil war, a campaign marked by widespread mutilation, mass rape, and recruitment of child soldiers, was just dying down, and he also worked with a group investigating the needs and attitudes of ex-combatants.

In 2002, Perriello went to work for the UN-mandated Special Court for Sierra Leone, eventually becoming special adviser to the prosecutor, David Crane. He developed an outreach program that took him and Crane to the remotest parts of the country, where they met with locals to tell them about the special courts. According to Perriello’s friend Parmar, a former Special Court lawyer, the outreach effort was instrumental in helping lawyers to find local people who would cooperate with the court as it prosecuted civil war leaders—most notably Charles Taylor of Liberia, who allegedly backed the rebels in Sierra Leone. Taylor was indicted in March 2003, eventually arrested in 2006, and is now being tried in The Hague for crimes against humanity.

“You saw there the first example of a dictator being forced from power using international law backed by credible force,” Perriello says now. “The issue was legitimacy. It happened in 2003 versus what happened in Iraq with Saddam. If we had had legitimacy, then we could have gotten the region to take greater ownership of the situation.”

In late 2003 he returned to the United States, looking to challenge the country’s foreign and domestic policy. The only people pushing back then against the status quo, Perriello says, were those in what he calls the progressive faith community. Faith is clearly one of the forces that drives him. “I grew up in a great Catholic community that spoke to so many different parts of my being,” Perriello said. “There’s a great intellectual part to it. A commitment to justice. I would feel complete and challenged at the same time. There was an idealism that the world could be better than it is.”

That year, he worked with other young Catholics to form Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, a group of laypeople focused on the church’s social justice tradition. He also helped in the creation of Faithful America, which gave progressive religious groups a platform to address issues like the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison. (Faithful America is now part of Faith in Public Life.) He cofounded Res Publica, an “incubator for social entrepreneurship.”

In the 2006 congressional elections, Perriello says, he saw the first signs of a new political culture in Democrat Jim Webb’s successful Virginia campaign for Senate. “The media tried to define Webb as a centrist politician, but he was a conviction politician. So he could be strident,” Perriello says. “He focused on grassroots and netroots. He was principled about donations and he put problem solving ahead of bipartisanship.”

Now that he’s been in office for more than a year, Perriello’s frustrations with politics-as-usual haven’t abated. In March, he complained to the New Yorker that the Obama administration wasted a chance to make rapid, meaningful change. “We hear from the middle that we’ve lost, that ‘You guys are trying to do too much,’” he said in a more recent interview. “I actually think we’re not doing enough. The president needs a narrative to connect all the dots of health care, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He still has the space to do this.”