Voting for Obamacare Cost Him His Job. Now It Might Be His Ticket Back.

Why Tom Perriello thinks the Democrats’ comeback starts in Virginia.

Tim Murphy/Mother Jones


At the People’s Climate March in Washington, there were old ladies dressed as beekeepers, vegetarians in full-body carrot suits, and a clean-energy marching band in matching green hard hats, but Tom Perriello was the only person I saw wearing a tie. It was probably a bad idea. Saturday was one of those steamy afternoons in DC, more August than April, that leaves you with the sensation of being inside the mouth of a dog—a good day to make the case for catastrophic global warming, but a bad one to walk outside in a pressed blue shirt and dress shoes. The 42-year-old former congressman, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor of Virginia, was running a few minutes late after a morning event in the suburbs and was undeterred. Clutching a bottle of water and an apple his sister had handed him, he wanted to explain to me what people had gotten wrong when he ran for reelection to Congress in 2010.

Republicans looking to take him down spent a lot of time and money talking about climate change. Perriello, a first-term Democrat in a rural, red, New Jersey-sized patch of “Southside” Virginia, had cast a key vote for Waxman-Markey, the House’s cap-and-trade bill that would go on to die in the Senate. Ads by the National Republican Congressional Committee, which supported his challenger Robert Hurt to the tune of $1.1 million, dubbed it an “energy tax.” The US Chamber of Commerce piled on too. When Perriello eventually lost by 4 points, the NRCC claimed his climate advocacy, along with his vote for the Affordable Care Act, was a big reason why.

But unlike a lot of other Democrats who were swept out to sea in that 2010 wave, Perriello had run on, not from, his support for the Obama agenda. “I think we convert more people by being bolder on climate instead of soft on climate,” he said as we moved toward the sound of drumming and tambourines along the parade route. “People thought that was a bad vote for me, but we didn’t just vote for it; we went out and made the case to farmers and small-business owners—literally got down to the level of cow manure and capturing methane off of cow manure for farmers to be able to power their own farms.” He cited an election-eve poll that showed voters trusted him by 24 points on energy issues.

The race, an expensive fight in the shadow of the Capitol, will be the most serious test yet of the Democratic Party’s resiliency in the age of Trump.

Democrats have been winning big races in the Old Dominion for more than a decade, and they currently hold every statewide elected position, from the two US Senate seats to the state attorney general, but it has never been easy. Gov. Terry McAuliffe, an ur-Clinton loyalist and former Democratic National Committee chair, will be term-limited this fall, and the Democratic nominee will likely face well-funded Republican Ed Gillespie, a Trump-backing former lobbyist and Republican National Committee chair, who narrowly lost a US Senate bid in 2014. The race, an expensive fight in the shadow of the Capitol, will be the most serious test yet of the Democratic Party’s resiliency in the age of Trump. But somewhat unexpectedly, the primary has also become an early referendum on where the Democratic Party is heading.

Perriello’s opponent, Lt. Governor Ralph Northam, was also elected to a red-leaning seat in 2007, held onto it, and moved up the ladder in 2013. Northam, a 57-year-old former Army doctor with a genteel Southern cadence, looked like the de facto nominee last year, but Perriello announced his candidacy in January—amid a period of postelection soul-searching—and has made a race of it. He has pulled together a coalition that includes Bernie Sanders supporters and Obama loyalists, who appreciated his tough votes. Polling has been limited and all over the place; the only sure thing is that with a little more than a month to go before the June election, a large chunk of Virginia’s Democrats are still undecided.

Comparisons to Sanders don’t quite hold water, but in a few key ways Perriello’s message tracks closely with that of the Vermont senator. Perriello is pushing for a $15 minimum wage (which Northam also supports) and free community college, and he’s campaigning hard in rural areas of the state, such as the southwestern coal country and farm belt of Southside Virginia (his old district) that have booted out Democrats in recent years and swung hard toward Trump. And like Sanders, he’s going all-in on fracking, promising to block two natural gas pipelines from being constructed, if elected, and rejecting donations from Dominion Power, which has proposed the pipeline.

Perriello believes that conservatives, and many Democrats, have long talked about environmental regulations in a way that elides the real impediments to economic growth in those areas. “People know I’m a climate hawk, but it’s also worth knowing the two biggest killers of coal jobs have been automation and natural gas,” he said. He described spending time in Virginia’s struggling coal country trying to engage voters by pointing to new economic drivers. He insists the state needs “to get beyond looking at just distributed energy—though that can be a part of it. We need to actually be looking at how to relocalize some percent of food production, both because it’s more sustainable but also creates greater economic resiliency in communities that feel a real loss of sovereignty.”

As an example of what he means by “relocalizing,” Perriello points to a favorite example of his: the beer industry. “A decade ago, two companies controlled 96 percent of the beer market,” he said. Now, because of the growth of microbreweries, that figure is down to 84 percent. “We’re still talking about an industry that’s overwhelmingly dominated by two companies, but just that 10 percent delta of relocalizing beer production has had massive implications for jobs and economic renewal on main streets like Winchester and rural counties like Nelson County,” he said, referring to Shenandoah Valley communities that have embraced the “brew ridge” economy.

“So,” he continued, “we’re not talking about that going back to being 80 or 90 percent of the economy—but even if it’s a 10 percent plus-up, there are huge implications for jobs and sustainability.”

Relocalizing? Distributed energy? Delta? Perriello can sound like either an economic populist who speaks like a think-tanker, or the other way around. His ability to move between those two identities has been a key factor in his rise. A Yale-educated native of Ivy, Virginia, just outside Charlottesville, Perriello worked as a war crimes prosecutor in West Africa after college before returning at the end of the Bush administration to run against six-term incumbent Virgil Goode, an archconservative Republican and an occasional embarrassment who had once raised a ruckus about the first Muslim member of Congress, Rep. Keith Ellison, being sworn in on a Koran. After his stint on the Hill was up, Perriello took a post as CEO of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, the DC-based progressive think thank, only to return to Africa a few years later for a series of State Department postings.

Outside the Canadian embassy, a leader of a local Indivisible chapter, in a pink “Resist” hat and clutching half a dozen signs that say “Protect the Sacred,” approaches Perriello to tell him he has her group’s full support. As he speaks with another voter, a sign from a passing marcher, with a long quote from Ansel Adams, blows away onto the ground and Perriello stops to pick it up. He asks his young staffers if he should do a Facebook Live from the march, and one of them whips out a smartphone and starts filming. A few minutes later, he recognizes a sixtysomething man in crocs and a bucket hat wearing a blue T-shirt that says “no pipeline,” and they talk shop for a few minutes about the fracking fight. The man’s friend tells Perriello that some of the land that will be seized for pipeline construction through eminent domain has been in the same family since Emancipation. Perriello nods, concerned.

Northam, who has already been elected statewide and enjoys the backing of the entire state Democratic establishment, has campaigned hard on gun control and reproductive rights, two issues where Perriello holds different positions now than when he entered Congress. Perriello received donations (and an A rating) from the National Rifle Association during his single term, and he supported the failed Stupak amendment to the Affordable Care Act, which would have prohibited the law from subsidizing insurance plans that cover abortion. He now condemns the NRA as an organization “for gunmakers and survivalists,” and has said he regretted the Stupak vote.

“I believe that we can’t separate issues of economic fairness and justice from issues of reproductive access. “

Democrats have sparred in recent weeks over the role of abortion within the party’s coalition, after Sanders endorsed Omaha mayoral candidate Heath Mello, a former backer of a bill requiring doctors performing abortions to first offer women ultrasounds. When I ask Perriello if it’s possible to be progressive and pro-life, he chooses his words very carefully. “We’re running a campaign here that is focused on advancing reproductive justice, where we’re not just looking at the right to choose, but the right to affordable and dignified access to that choice,” he says. “I believe that we can’t separate issues of economic fairness and justice from issues of reproductive access. So I believe that those are fights that can and should be integrated, and that’s certainly what we’re gonna do here in Virginia.” Abortion, in other words, is an economic populist issue.

On combating climate change and protecting the environment, though, there is only so much the next governor of Virginia can do with Trump in the White House. Perriello would be able to stop those pipelines, of course, and he can push to lower the amount of money utilities are able to spend on state elections. But he has no delusions about the impact of the federal government on climate, and no inhibitions about turning his race in Virginia into a national one. “One of the things we’re seeing this year is the potential for a wave election that could set the trend for a wave election next year,” he says.

He’s banking on it; immediately following the passage of the Obamacare repeal in the House of Representatives on Thursday, Perriello put out a new ad, pegged to the vote, in which he stands in front of an ambulance being crushed in a junkyard:

First he has to win his primary. That evening, a few hours after the march, Perriello and Northam met up for their first debate of the campaign, at an elementary school in Fairfax sandwiched between NRA headquarters and H Mart, the Asian grocery superstore. The event was co-sponsored by EMERGE USA, an organization that aims to boost the political clout of Muslim, South Asian, and Arab-Americans. Both candidates mostly kept their powder dry, save for a brief dust-up over gun control when Northam brought up the NRA backing. Trump was a recurring villain, but Gillespie was hardly mentioned; when voters are mad at Washington, you don’t mess with a good thing.

Outside, evenly matched groups of young volunteers formed a gauntlet along the approach to the venue and exchanged rudimentary chants— “I say Ralph, you say Northam!”; “Go Tom Go!” A few supporters of the Atlantic pipeline gripped posters calling Perriello a “job killer” for his environmentalist objections—just like the old times—but no one paid them much attention. A few feet away, behind the scrum of shouting youths, a supporter clutched a sign that said “Perriello ♥’s Obamacare.” In a time when everything seems upside-down, it was a simple image of how Tom Perriello landed on his feet.