The Virginia experiment

Dan River Mills’s empty red brick factories stretch for acres in the Schoolfield part of Danville. The town that still has a neighborhood called “Millionaire’s Row” is now studded with dollar stores, check-cashing outfits, pawn shops, and white-washed store fronts. Nigel Coleman, the Tea Party chair, lives in a modest cottage in a working-class neighborhood across from the old mills. Trim and younger-looking than his 31 years, Coleman met me at his door dressed in a striped blue dress shirt. His house, which he shares with his brother, smelled of fresh cigarette smoke, and the History Channel played in a corner of the empty living room.

Coleman comes across as measured and frank. He laughs with embarrassment over the threat to burn Perriello in effigy, pointing out that liberals had burned former president George W. Bush ’68 in effigy—and that he was taking a page from the protest tactics of the Revolutionary War.

Coleman thinks Perriello won because he’s charismatic and “people wanted change at home, not just at the presidential level,” he said. Though local analysts and reporters say Perriello didn’t make himself out to be a conservative, Coleman said many voters saw him as a local version of Blue Dog Democrat Heath Shuler of North Carolina—perhaps because of Perriello’s independence and position on abortion, or perhaps out of that desperate desire for change.

Coleman says the deal breaker for many voters was Perriello’s support of cap-and-trade. Coleman works a night shift at the Goodyear plant, one of Danville’s largest employers and a big energy user, and he worries that under cap-and-trade, the company will have to buy credits to offset its emissions. Goodyear won’t pass on the costs to consumers, he says. Instead, it might lay off workers in places like Danville. He doubts cap-and-trade will bring green jobs to replace any that might be lost. “Will those jobs materialize? When?” he says. “If it doesn’t pan out, politicians could lose their seats. But you lose your livelihood.”

Coleman says he’s excited by the conservatism of the Republican primary candidates and he thinks he finally can vote for whom he wants, rather than the lesser of two evils. “We see ourselves as on the people’s side, fighting the establishment,” he says. “I’m going to vote my conscience. We want to shake up Washington.”

It isn’t lost on Coleman that he and Perriello share some traits. “I kind of like that he runs like he doesn’t care about reelection,” he says. “At least he is who he is. He’ll vote his conscience. He’d make a good Tea Partier. If he wasn’t so liberal.”