Tom Perriello Makes a Populist Stand

Tom Perriello Makes a Populist Stand

The former congressman is running for governor of Virginia—and taking on the Democratic establishment.


It was 2016 all over again inside the packed gymnasium at George Mason University, even though Donald Trump was almost three months into his presidency. Throngs of college students chanted “Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!” and waved the old campaign signs. Right before the white-maned Vermont senator appeared, sending the crowd into an even deeper frenzy, Tom Perriello praised Sanders as someone “who is at the front lines of opposing Trump, but also opposing a narrow sense of what’s possible in our health-care system and in our economy today.”

When Virginia elects a new governor on November 7, it will be one of the first true tests of Republican fortunes in the Trump era. A blowout of likely GOP nominee Ed Gillespie in an important swing state could augur a big political shift, just as Tim Kaine’s election as governor in 2005 pointed to the 2006 Democratic wave, and Republican Bob McDonnell’s 2009 victory foreshadowed the Tea Party takeover in Washington the next year.

Democrats need a win, but just as important is how they get it—because the party is badly in need of a new identity. According to a recent Washington Post–ABC News poll, 67 percent of Americans believe that the Democratic Party is out of touch with their needs—more than feel the same way about Trump or the GOP. And the Democratic gubernatorial primary on June 13 offers voters two distinct choices, both in tone and in substance.

Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam is clearly the establishment’s choice, and it was generally assumed that he’d win the nomination without any opposition. Northam is backed by the current governor, Terry McAuliffe; both US senators from Virginia, Kaine and Mark Warner; and the state’s entire congressional delegation (save one member, who is staying neutral). He also enjoys the unanimous support of every Democratic member in both the State Senate and House.

Northam recently admitted that he voted for George W. Bush twice, before getting involved in politics. But ever since he first ran for the State Senate in 2007, he has accumulated a solid progressive record. He battled the tobacco industry, a powerful player in Virginia politics, and helped pass a statewide smoking ban in restaurants. He pushed a bill to legalize medical marijuana and now wants to decriminalize the possession of small amounts for recreational use. Northam also boasts a 100 percent pro-choice rating from the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) and an F from the National Rifle Association. If he wins, he would be among the most liberal governors ever elected in the Old Dominion.

But then, in early January, Perriello entered the race and disrupted the coronation. He immediately declared that he was for a $15-per-hour minimum wage, making him the first candidate for statewide office in Virginia ever to take that position. (Northam joined him one day later.) Perriello wants the state to directly fund eight weeks of guaranteed family leave for workers at two-thirds of their pay; Northam wants a tax credit that might entice employers to offer that leave. Perriello wants two years of free community college or trade school statewide; Northam has a $37 million plan to improve affordability and provide free community college in certain high-skill fields, if the people who take advantage of it commit to one year of public service after graduating.

Northam’s proposals are generally more incremental, and his aides frequently deride Perriello’s proposals as unworkable or unlikely to pass the State Legislature—not unlike how Hillary Clinton often spoke of Sanders’s proposals during the primaries. At a recent debate, Northam dismissed Perriello’s college plan as something that was “not going to fly in Richmond” and added: “I would just remind folks, there’s no free lunches out there. We have to be realistic with the people.”

Perriello sees it differently. “You either believe that things are basically fine and we need to tweak around the edges, or you believe that we have a deeper structural problem and are headed in a bad direction,” he told me as we rode in his campaign SUV from Hampton to Norfolk. “I think when Democrats run on an essentially status-quo-plus-tweaks message, we’re not just wrong politically, but we’re also wrong substantively.”

Perriello isn’t the first person you’d pick as a populist outsider. He quit a diplomatic post in the Obama State Department to launch this campaign, and before that he led the advocacy arm at the Center for American Progress, a centerpiece of the Democratic establishment. He also served in Congress after being elected in the Obama wave of 2008. Perriello voted for the stimulus plan, the Affordable Care Act, and cap-and-trade legislation from a seat that he won by only 727 votes, becoming a poster boy for how to support liberal policies from a conservative area. Then he promptly lost his reelection bid, becoming a poster boy for the dangers of doing just that. To win nationally, Democrats need to regain the voters who once backed Perriello in the Fifth District, while keeping their liberal base energized. If Perriello wins the primary, it will be because he’s forged that coalition.

Taking on monopolies and concentrated economic power is one of the big ideas that Perriello thinks will speak to all of those voters. For decades, Democrats have failed to challenge the elite consensus that antitrust laws should be used sparingly and that corporations should be allowed to pursue merger after merger on their way to becoming behemoths. Currently in the United States, there are four major commercial banks, four major airlines, four cable and Internet providers. Monopoly power has been an urgent cause among economists and activists on the left, but Perriello is one of the first politicians to talk about it, and he does so almost everywhere he goes.

“You can look around and see it: You can see mom-and-pop stores becoming Walmart, and now Walmart is gonna get leapfrogged by Amazon,” he noted. “That is monopolistic in a traditional sense, but it’s also a geographic consolidation. During the recovery in the Clinton years, 71 percent of new businesses emerged in small- and medium-size towns and counties. In the more recent recovery, 19 percent were in medium-size counties, and 0 percent, on net, in small towns and counties.”

Indeed, rural Virginia has had a tough run since the days when Ronald Reagan became president. In 1980, only a handful of Virginia counties had more deaths than births. In 2013, the counties outside the state’s wealthy “urban crescent,” which runs from the Washington, DC, suburbs to Hampton Roads, had a quarter of the state’s births but half of its deaths. People are fleeing, and the opioid epidemic has hit hard there.

Perriello says that voters bring up monopoly power before he even has a chance to talk about it, because it’s obvious that goods have been mass-produced cheaply by huge corporations, often overseas, and that local jobs in Virginia have been decimated. “This is an economy that has been crucified on a cross of plastic—which is, we have really cheap stuff and have kept inflation very low, and we’ve destroyed the middle class and small business in the process,” Perriello said. “People can feel it in their communities. And it’s not just a loss economically; it’s a loss of sovereignty for these communities.”

One of the biggest monopolies in Virginia is Dominion Energy, which provides electricity to a majority of the state—and enjoys a hammerlock on its politics. Virginia allows unlimited corporate contributions to candidates, and Dominion is by far the biggest giver. In the past year, the company gave $425,000 to Democrats and $356,000 to Republicans in the state.

That’s only a fraction of the company’s $11.7 billion in annual revenue, but Dominion has reaped phenomenal returns from its political investments. In 2015, Governor McAuliffe signed a bill that allows Dominion to skip comprehensive financial reviews for five years, meaning that it will not be required to perform rate reviews or give refunds to customers as the cost of generating power goes down. Dominion gave $75,000 to McAuliffe’s gubernatorial campaign and another $50,000 to his inaugural committee.

Perriello, by contrast, is the only candidate in the race from either party to refuse donations from Dominion or from Appalachian Power, the state-regulated monopoly that serves those areas of Virginia that Dominion doesn’t. He wants to change state law to break Dominion’s monopoly on the residential power supply by allowing third-party purchase agreements and much deeper community investment in solar and renewable energy.

Perriello has also made opposition to the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley Pipeline projects a centerpiece of his campaign. (Dominion is behind the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.) He argues that the projects “pose immediate harm as well as serious risks to communities across Virginia” and should be halted, with the money going into weatherization and clean-energy projects.

Northam, as Perriello pointed out in a recent debate, merely wrote a letter to the State Department of Environmental Quality asking questions about the projects after Perriello repeatedly raised the issue. Northam—who received just under $22,000 from Dominion and its executives between January 1 and March 31—still supports the pipelines, but wants them subject to very tough environmental reviews. The two candidates rarely attack each other, but this has been a real point of contention: In their debate, Perriello asked Northam if he’d consulted Dominion before sending his letter. Northam tartly replied that he was “not going to stand here on the witness stand.”

The pipeline debate has already had major implications for Virginians. The Department of Environmental Quality said in April that it would require the energy companies to conduct reviews at each place their pipelines cross a stream or wetland, as opposed to simply relying on a general federal review of such crossings.

National Democrats are watching too. The progressive wing of the party is clearly enamored with Perriello’s challenge to the Democrats’ own corporate funders. Sanders told the George Mason crowd, “It’s not good enough to just beat up on Trump. That’s a very easy target. Our job together is to move this state, and my state and this nation, in a very different direction.”

A few weeks later, Senator Elizabeth Warren told The Huffington Post that she was endorsing Perriello because “he’s the kind of guy who says, ‘I am going to make change and I’m going to make change not for the richest, not for the most powerful, not for what’s politically expedient. I want to make change for hard-working families.”

Yet not everyone in the progressive move-ment is ready to anoint Perriello as their bold leader. It’s true that he made a lot of tough but principled votes in Congress, but one thing he didn’t stand up for was abortion access. Perriello voted for the Stupak-Pitts amendment, which was intended to restrict insurance companies’ ability to cover abortions. He has since said that he regrets the vote, and frequently describes it as a tortured process in which he had to weigh what he thought was right against a promise he’d made to voters during the campaign to support the Hyde amendment, which keeps federal dollars from being spent on abortion services.

But Perriello’s district wasn’t pleased with many of the things he voted for, including the ACA, yet he was willing to take a stand and accept the consequences. That has left some abortion advocates questioning his commitment to choice. When NARAL endorsed Northam, who helped defeat a mandatory transvaginal-ultrasound bill in the State Senate, the group’s state executive director, Tarina Keene, took a veiled shot at Perriello, noting that his opponent “is unwavering in his commitment to protect and advance reproductive rights, and has and will never shy away from a tough fight. We know he has our back.”

For his part, Perriello points to his later work at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, which undertook several initiatives to protect and advance reproductive rights, as well as to his current, unapologetically pro-choice platform. But that hasn’t curbed Northam’s attacks on the subject. “This is not an issue that someone should stick their finger up and see which way the political winds are blowing,” Northam said recently. “This is very, very important to women.”

NARAL is going to knock on doors and activate its grassroots base for Northam in the state, which is ultimately how the primary will be decided. Each candidate needs his supporters to show up on June 13, in a primary that not many people appear to be watching so far. In a recent poll, Perriello edged Northam by a few points, but the real winner was “undecided,” which drew 51 percent of voters. And when I accompanied Perriello on his canvass in Hampton, nobody that he spoke with—to a person—knew who he was.

Activating the base will be important not just in the primary, but in November as well. On the stump, Perriello mentions “the resistance” all the time, and the crowd usually goes nuts. But offstage, he’s less sanguine about the opposition to Trump serving as rocket fuel for his campaign. “We don’t assume they’re going to show up and vote in November—I think that’s a huge mistake for Democrats to make,” he said. “Not all anti-Trump energy is sold on the Democratic Party, for a number of different reasons.”

Perriello hopes that his economic message will make voters actually show up at the polls. He says he often meets people working two minimum-wage jobs, at the state’s $7.25 hourly rate, in order to pay the bills. “Their decision is not whether they’re going to vote for the Republicans,” Perriello said. “Their decision is whether it’s worth an hour of their time, when they barely ever see their children, to vote. And they’re not going to do it for a generic Democrat.”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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