In his quest for re-election, Perriello has been traveling his district nonstop and talking to just about anyone who will listen to him, including a Charlottesville Tea Party group last week. There might not have been five votes in the room for him, and Perriello had to listen to people stand up and say they couldn’t wait for him to be defeated, but he kept his cool.
He didn’t back away from his liberal/progressive voting record and support for the Democratic agenda, including healthcare reform and the House cap-and-trade bill. However, he did point out that he has voted with the Republicans 60 percent of the time, although it’s not clear exactly how such a calculation would be made when other vote tallies have him voting with the Democratic leadership 90 percent of the time.
Perriello is stressing his economic populist views in town hall meetings and did so in his session with the Tea Party group. For the past few weeks he has been calling for Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and chief Obama economic adviser Lawrence Summers to be fired.
Perriello told the 100 Tea Party members gathered at an Arby’s restaurant in Charlottesville, “My confidence in this team is not there … we should shake that up.”
Replacing Bush administration Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson with Geithner has not really altered economic policy, according to Perriello, but rather “it’s just changing the nameplate on the door”.
In an interview following the Tea Party session, Perriello told me, “I haven’t grandstanded about it but I have no confidence in them and Geithner and Summers should go.”
Perriello insists his dissatisfaction with the Obama economic team is not merely a campaign ploy and he has disagreed with them since the crafting of the stimulus package, which he didn’t think focused enough on small business and infrastructure spending. “I had my first fight with Larry Summers one week into this administration,” Perriello asserts.
Perriello says he especially disagrees with Obama administration policy on trade issues.
“How f***ing out of touch do you have to be as an economic team?” Perriello asked rhetorically about Geithner and Summers.
He has also become something of a born again deficit hawk and told the Tea Party group “Both parties will continue stealing from the American people unless we give them no choice.”
The Yale educated--both for undergrad and law school--35-year-old loves to talk about big ideas including trade, competitiveness, America’s role in the world, and the future.
Washingtonian magazine’s September “Best and Worst of Congress” poll of Democratic congressional staffers ranks the freshman Perriello as the number one “Surprise Standout” in the House.
While he does have a predictably progressive and pro-leadership voting record, he has diverged on votes that are important in his district. He supports gun rights, tobacco and farming support, and voted for the anti-abortion Stupak amendment to the healthcare bill.
Perriello says the national media focuses on the stimulus, healthcare, and cap-and-trade votes when there are a lot more things that define who a member really is.
He doesn’t mention President Obama much these days but instead points to former President Bill Clinton as a positive model for balancing the budget and offering a roadmap for how to move forward in the 21st century.
Perriello calls himself “a Perot Democrat” and says “Perot may have been nuts in the ‘90s but he got a lot of things right. I’m not sure we would have [had] a balanced budget without his charts.”
“He was also right about the great sucking sound” when it comes to jobs leaving the United States. Like all economic populists including Perot, Perriello is extremely critical of NAFTA and other trade agreements which he says have cost U.S. jobs including those in his district.
Virginia’s Fifth District is extremely diverse, from the highly educated and relatively affluent Charlottesville, home of the University of Virginia and many wealthy retirees, to extremely poor rural towns like Martinsville, which has lost 12,000 jobs over the past few decades and has a 20 percent unemployment rate.
“One of the great questions of our time is--will we save the middle class?” Perriello maintains.
“If we don’t have manufacturing and construction and agriculture we’re going to start looking like a Central American economy of the 1980s.”
Like every candidate running this year, the two things Perriello hears about on the campaign trail are a fear about jobs and a concern over the deficit and growth of government under the Obama administration.
“There are a lot of good people out there who want to support their family and don’t have a job. Jobs tops everything but the deficit is a serious second,” he says.
He also senses a deep anxiety among his constituents about the country’s future and the feeling that America may not be great anymore. “We’ve been spending money we don’t have for 20 years,” he says.
So far this year Perriello has held 13 town meetings and by the end of the summer recess he will have done 20. Last year he did 25.
He’s hoping that kind of hard work and outreach will be enough to buck the tide and defeat Republican challenger state Sen. Robert Hurt.
When I ask him what he thinks is going to save him in this tough year he replies with one word, “conviction,” and says he will “fight like hell” for what he thinks is right.
“When I take a position, I don’t hide," he says. "I make the case on what I think is right. I think people think this guy gets it--he fights for us.”