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Tom Perriello for Governor: the Right Man for Virginia in the Age of Trump

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by Kindler; Cross-posted at Daily Kos

Last November’s election was, for Democrats, a slap in the face. The Virginia governor’s race represents one of our first major electoral opportunities to respond. How we do so matters – for Virginia, and for the message it sends to the country.

Two capable, serious, likeable Democrats are running for this office, and I will do all I can to help elect whichever one is nominated. But I’m declaring my support today for the one who I think provides the more coherent and inspiring progressive vision – and that is Tom Perriello.

We face a unique moment today, as Trump’s unbridled corruption & contempt for the American people has aroused progressives to a level of fury & motivation we haven’t seen in decades. In the words of Rahm Emanuel, “Never let a serious crisis go to waste” – which right now means using the powerful anger on the left to elect the strongest and most determined progressives we can find.

Democrats in the current environment have three critical tasks to achieve:

  • Fiercely & effectively countering the reactionary Republican tide;
  • Healing the Clinton/Sanders rift that continues to hold us back;
  • Articulating & advancing a powerful progressive counter-vision.

I believe that Tom Perriello is better equipped than Ralph Northam to accomplish all three of these goals in the Virginia governor’s race. Here’s why:

Countering the Trumped GOP

As my fellow BV blogger Andy Schmookler put it recently :

Up until Tom Perriello had entered the race and had clearly struck a chord with many voters with his impassioned messages about the danger posed by Trump, to the best of my knowledge Northam did not act as if the election of Trump was a potentially catastrophic development threatening the integrity of America.

In a nutshell, Ralph has mostly played it safe, running a traditional, dull Democratic campaign – lining up endorsements, playing to key constituencies with targeted talking points, etc. But this is not what the present moment requires.

Progressives want to know that the all-out Republican assault on American values – from conspiring with Putin to steal an election to conspiring to steal a Supreme Court seat, from encouraging an explosion of unbridled racism to laying the groundwork to destroy EPA, State Department and so much more – will be met with fierce, unbending resistance. While our leaders must be constructive, thoughtful and strategic, they also should be angry – because quite honestly, in the present environment, how can you not be?

In his excellent introductory video, Tom balances a positive and uplifting message about the power of Virginian and American values with a call to fight against the forces of hate and corruption that threaten them. “I’m Tom Perriello and I’m running for governor because I choose to fight.”

He praises Virginia for forging “a firewall against hate” last November and implores listeners to join him in standing up against “[p]oliticians from Washington to Richmond [who] write their own self-serving rules and seem committed to dividing and distracting us while they rig the system against the middle class.”

We need just such a call to action. Tom understands this leadership opportunity and is well suited to deliver on it.

Bridging the Hillary-Bernie Divide

If you’re thinking that Tom sometimes sounds a bit like Bernie Sanders – in line with Bernie’s endorsement of him –well, let’s talk about that.

One of the clear lessons of the last election is that progressives risk losing it all when we don’t unite. Now is the time for Hillary and Bernie supporters to stop bickering and join hands to defeat the right wing clowns demolishing our government and ripping apart our social fabric. This does not mean that we paper over real differences, but that we keep sitting down and ironing them out – and, at the end of the day, stick together even when we don’t agree 100%.

I strongly supported Hillary while admiring much about Bernie – he, like Trump, understands the power of clear, bold, concrete messages that don’t sound like political business as usual. His one inexcusable sin, in my opinion, is his lack of loyalty to the party he’s been attempting to lead. Tom is bringing Bernie’s progressive fire to the governor’s race, while also making clear that he is a proud Democrat who will support the party’s values as a member of our team – as effective leadership requires.

I believe that Tom is doing a masterful job of bridging the gap between these two poles of the party. In addition to Bernie, he’s received endorsements from Elizabeth Warren and such Democratic party stalwarts as John Podesta and a whopping 30 former aides to President Obama, including such luminaries as David Plouffe.

Tom skillfully rebuts journalists who try to frame the Virginia race as a replay of Sanders vs. Clinton, e.g., telling Chris Hayes that both ran historic campaigns of which he hopes to be worthy.

That said, his run is a challenge to the Virginia Democratic establishment, which had already thrown its weight behind Ralph and is not doing much to welcome Tom right now. As April Moore has pointed out, this is partly a matter of timing – most Virginia Dems had already lined up to back Ralph before Tom’s surprise announcement, and it would be awkward for them to pull out now.

But it also partly a matter of the old-line party routine of: we chose our boy, he’s paid his dues, we cleared the field for him – and we’ll kneecap you if you get in the way. That attitude is quite clear in the foul-mouthed comments by the petty tyrant who rules over Virginia Senate Democrats, Dick Saslaw, in this Politico piece.

Dick Saslaw’s techniques — e.g., taking money from predatory lenders in exchange for continuing to let them rip off poor Virginians and taking cash from Dominion Power in exchange for voting to exempt them from years of state audits – represent precisely the type of corrupt politics Democrats need to leave behind, not embrace. Tom, by contrast, refuses to take contributions from regulated public utilities like Dominion, and has shown he is willing to stand up to these Commonwealth political kingmakers.

It is past time for Virginia Democrats to replace the ugly, dirty politics of dinosaurs like Saslaw with a new generation of reformers like Perriello.

Providing a Clear Progressive Message & Vision

Finally, Tom is simply articulating a powerful, coherent progressive vision more effectively than Ralph. Again, I will be delighted to fight for Ralph is he is the nominee. His political vision has developed out of his experiences as a pediatric neurologist, and he manages to explain his stances on everything from Medicaid to marijuana to reproductive rights and guns based on those experiences, as in the speech shown here and here.

This is a valuable and interesting perspective, and yet it lacks the urgency and breadth we need to confront the right wing assault on American values and institutions at every level. Tom, by contrast, grounds his politics in “the Virginia values I grew up with, of decency and honor, love of neighbor, and an inclusive economy that leaves no one behind,” leading him to live “a purpose driven life spent fighting corruption and demanding that those in power give the people a fair shot.”

As he summarizes his vision at the GMU rally with Bernie,

Resistance is not enough. We must continue standing for a positive vision of inclusive economic growth that leaves no race, no region and no family behind in Virginia. We can actually build a more fair economy.

His policies flow directly out of this vision, including a living wage, access to community colleges, paid family leave, universal pre-K and a clean energy economy. But it’s important to recognize that Tom has been talking about this agenda for a long, long time. The following is from a profile Time did of him seven years ago:

Politicians always talk about the middle class, but…[f]or all the rhetoric, we…are trending toward an economy that looks like Central America in the ’80s where 10 percent of the people make all the money and pay all the taxes and that’s not really fair for the 10 percent or the 90 percent.

And this brings me to the silliest aspect of the campaign to date – the suggestion that Tom is somehow not a real progressive, whereas Ralph is. The obvious story, if you look closely, is this: Ralph came from a more or less conservative (or as he puts it, “apolitical”) background – from studying at the ultra-traditionalist Virginia Military Institute to voting for George W. Bush twice – but has, late in life, found his calling as a champion of Democratic values – while Tom, coming from a progressive background, had as a Congressman to tailor his votes on a few issues to preserve any chance of re-election in a conservative House district that he won the first time by little more than 700 votes. (If the idea of a politician gearing some of his votes to match his constituency gives you the vapors, well then, find me an example of a Democrat in a red or purple district who hasn’t ever had to do so. That, like it or not, is how politics works.)

You just have to take a look at the countless profiles of Tom as a courageous progressive at the time he was fighting for his political life in the Fifth District to realize the nonsense of pretending he was anything else. Like Time calling him “an unapologetic progressive”; E.J. Dionne in the Washington Post calling him “a progressive who fashions an intelligent populism”; The New Yorker reporting:

Perriello talks about the benefits of health-care reform and stimulus money for people in his district. He has made green energy and the jobs it can create the center of his message. He puts himself on the side of the small entrepreneur, the local innovator, against big oil and big banks. He has the authentic populist voice and anger that Obama lacks.

And look at Congressman Henry Waxman’s recent endorsement, where he praises Tom for his support the Waxman-Markey climate change bill, saying “Tom is the kind of elected official who can bring back people who have been disillusioned in the past, and want to be energized and inspired about the future.”

Could Tom the sneaky right-wing extremist somehow have hoodwinked all of these observers? I don’t think so. His career has weaved a trail from working to bring peace and justice to places as far flung as Sierra Leone, Liberia and the Congo, to showing Virginia Democrats how to win and lead in a conservative area like the 5th District, to directing a strategic planning process at the State Department and playing key roles at the Center for American Progress.

In all of these endeavors, he has followed what he has called “conviction politics”, reminding me a bit of two other Democrats who have followed their consciences to help people in different parts of the country and the world. He is, in my opinion, a Democrat in the thoughtful progressive mode of Barack Obama and Tim Kaine. And that’s just what we need in the Virginia governor’s office at this unique and perilous moment.

  • A_Siegel

    Very thoughtful endorsement — appreciated the thoughtful substance. And, this reinforced my decision to support Perriello (and, well, fight like hell this fall for Northam if he is the nominee).

  • Elaine Owens

    “He is, in my opinion, a Democrat in the thoughtful progressive mode of Barack Obama and Tim Kaine. And that’s just what we need in the Virginia governor’s office at this unique and perilous moment.” Absolutely!