Tom Perriello (left) speaks with Catoctin Creek Distillery founder Scott Harris in Purcellville on March 8. The Democrat is campaigning on progressive stances, and his early success has surprised establishment figures from both parties in the process.
A late entrant into the 2017 Virginia gubernatorial race, Democratic candidate Tom Perriello hasn’t let time, or what looked like a long-shot campaign, slow him down.
A former one-term congressman from Virginia’s 5th congressional district, Perriello was elected in the 2008 elections that saw Barack Obama win the presidency and Democrats win both houses of Congress. Even with the national Democratic support, Perriello outperformed Obama in a traditionally Republican district, which covers much of central and southern Virginia, by 2.5 percentage points.
Perriello is best known for his close ties to President Obama and losing his re-election attempt during the Tea Party midterm wave of 2010. Before and after his two years in Congress, Perriello also worked as a teacher, lawyer, non-profit leader and more recently as a diplomat in the Congo, Burundi and Rwanda.
Now as a candidate for governor, Perriello is continuing to press his progressive ideas. He believes his message will increasingly resonate in a state that has supported Democrats in the past three presidential elections, and elected a statewide ticket of three Democrats in 2013.
First considered a long shot against incumbent Lt. Gov Ralph Northam in the Democratic primary to be held in June, that label may no longer be accurate. With the 2017 General Assembly session completed and the statewide races in full swing, recent polls show Periello tied with Northam and beating all four of his potential Republican opponents.
Perriello toured Catoctin Creek Brewery in Purcellville on March 8, after which he spoke with the Tribune about business growth, transportation improvements and why an unabashed progressive should represent Loudoun County as governor.
What made you choose Catoctin Creek Distillery in Purcellville for today’s event?
“It was such a great example of what Virginia is all about and what we want to be encouraging more of in the state- giving small business a chance and particularly those in artisanal, local production and clean energy. It’s a quality product, which I can vouch for personally, and also a good example of where we have so much potential in the state. We can sometimes focus a lot of time and incentives on the biggest companies, but we tend to get a lot more job creation and return to the community in supporting small businesses.”
Catoctin Creek is among a growing number of businesses to embrace renewable energy, but there have been mixed results in the General Assembly to promote renewable energy, including net metering. What else should Virginia do?
“Renewable energy and energy efficiency is a non-partisan issue and it’s a shame that, as innovative as Virginia is, we’re near the bottom of the pack in these areas. You saw recently in North Carolina, even with a very conservative legislature, that they refused to reverse their renewable energy standards because it had created too many jobs in too many districts. I worked very hard when I was in Congress on helping farmers to work on methane capture and other clean energy strategies that were incredibly important for the competitiveness of their business, as well as being good for the environment. From a pure business standpoint, that makes a lot of sense, but we have not always made it as easy as we should. Certainly moving to net metering is helpful, but the ability to sell that to the grid continues to be something that is very difficult in this state. We think there’s a lot more potential for this, and we think it’s great where some of these pioneer businesses have been able to show the return on investment from this kind of approach.”
As the third largest county in Virginia, Loudoun is one of the most strategically important when it comes to voters. What else makes Loudoun important in the upcoming election?
“Loudoun is crucial. I think it’s also a mix of what we see around the state. It includes the high-growth areas, as well as some areas that still rely heavily on agriculture and other industries. I think you see here what you see in a lot of places where people want quality schools, they want affordable health care and they want a shot at living the dream. I think that we have a great opportunity to do that. The reason the campaign is catching on is that we can strike a balance. On the one hand, trying to resist some of the divisive and incompetent politics coming from Washington, to keep Virginia protected from that. And second, to have our own positive vision of inclusive economic growth. I know for a lot of people around the state, that involves looking at issues like how long is the commute, how much time do people actually get with their families. Are we insuring that schools are promoting the kind of critical thinking skills that are so crucial for today’s workforce? In Loudoun I think we’re seeing some of what’s best in Virginia and what we want to work on. Certainly the small businesses we visited today showed that.”
What in your experience has prepared you to appeal to the wide range of voters in Loudoun County?
“That’s something I was able to learn a lot from representing the fifth district. We had areas like Charlottesville, which was high growth. We went through the area’s around Jerry Falwell’s university (Liberty University in Lynchburg) down to areas around the old manufacturing belt, so when we were looking at policy, we were already looking at what’s good for all of Virginia. I think that’s something we see up in here in Loudoun as well. Ultimately, people really do care about these issues of whether their family has a chance at a good education and a job and whether they get to see their family because we’ve invested in the transportation options that mean people can get home in time.”
Transportation continues to be a major challenge for Loudoun, including road construction and Metro’s Silver Line. As governor, what more would you do to help Loudoun and other high growth jurisdictions address their transportation systems?
“One of the priorities I had in Congress was getting in the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure because I believe these questions of how we can do smart growth are at the heart of quality of life. Of course we need to make investments in all of these areas, but where we can make smart investments in rail and public transit, there are huge benefits to the community. I think for a lot of folks the ability to spend that time on a rail where they can be doing work or getting some sleep instead of in a car, particularly where these toll rates keep going up, is important. We need to be able to look at smart design that incorporates all of these elements. I think there is also room to encourage telework and helping to incentiveize businesses where they can to allow for them. That’s something that I did for the project of the federal government. I oversaw strategic review of the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development, and one of the things we looked at was if we want to continue to attract the best talent into our civilian side of our foreign policy, then quality of life in Northern Virginia is in some ways a national security issue. We need to be making these investments in transportation and infrastructure that ensure the quality of life here is good enough to attract the best talent. We certainly focus on transportation, but I think there are also investments we can make in smart grid technology that would open up greater energy efficiencies and decentralize power needs. We need to make those investments.”
Where do you stand on funding Metro, and as governor would you support a dedicated funding source?
“Certainly we need to be looking at greater funding for Metro and public transit. We have the complication of working with D.C. and Maryland in those areas. We certainly don’t want to be pulling those back on the Virginia side. But if there is one thing I’ve learned through 20 years of trying to put together deals, whether around clean energy or around peace deals in the Congo, the important question is what can we bring people together to agree on. I think across Virginia, the better chance to be able to overcome partisan and regional divides is being bolder in what we’re investing in and not trying to go smaller.”
Along with business growth and transportation improvements, what else is a major challenge facing Virginia?
“One of the things we need to look at increasingly is this issue of quality of life. When we just look at GDP, which is one important factor, it doesn’t necessarily direct us. I’m a runner. If I’m training for a 5K or a 10 miler, I train differently. When it comes to governing Virginia, we can’t just look at GPD. We have to be looking at quality of life, which incorporates issues like how much does day care cost, how much is a commute time, how clean is the drinking water and how much has the median middle class family seen their income rise, and I think our policies need to be directed at that broader set of quality of life indicators. That’s what I hear so often around Loudoun County is insuring that we’re not just growing, but we’re growing in a way that actually makes people’s lives better.”
Why do you think your campaign is getting traction among grass roots Democrats? Is it in part a reaction to President Trump?
“I think we have a huge amount of momentum because we’ve really been able to set the policy agenda with positive, concrete ideas with education quality and affordability, about clean energy jobs, about giving smaller businesses a shot. I think people like the fact that I haven’t come from inside party politics for my career. I’ve certainly had enough inside experience as a congressman and senior diplomat at the State Department, but I’ve also done most of my work in the community and the non-profit sector. I think there’s a lot of interest across the political spectrum and there’s been a lot of interest in folks solving problems rather than how to get through the next election cycle, and I think that’s part of why it’s caught on. We’ve seen a lot of people come into politics for the first time because of concerns over President Trump’s agenda. I think that there has been a lot of interest from the newly politicized in a campaign like ours that is focused both on resisting but also on a positive agenda for the state. My experience draws from a lot of different sectors as a former teacher and diplomat and congressman and executive of non-profits.”
Gov. Terry McAuliffe and other high-profile Virginia Democrats have endorsed your primary opponent. How is that impacting campaign?
“The establishment and consolidation around (Northam) has been super helpful to our campaign. I think it’s definitely something that has grabbed people’s attention that someone who doesn’t come from the same status quo is bringing new ideas to the table. I think that helps us a lot in terms of building momentum. But I think ultimately what people want is to be able to keep Virginia as a firewall against some of this destructive politics was are seeing from Washington, but also a focus on what makes us great, what creates an inclusive economy here. I think we’ve seen, unfortunately, too many families in regions that have been left out of the growth we’ve seen in Virginia. Some of that has been because of sequestration and some paralyzing politics in Richmond based off a rigged political map. I think one of the other things people have appreciated about our campaign is that we’ve made this issue about non-partisan redistricting one of our top priorities. I believe there should be a level playing field for the two parties to compete, or for other parties to compete. Again, coming from outside the establishment a little bit, we’re not interested in those backroom deals to try to protect everyone’s ties to the new district maps. It should be about the voters having a fair shot to use their politicians and not give the tenure to career politicians that aren’t really healthy to democracy. I think this is a really exciting year where a lot of people are paying attention and they want to see the willingness to take on the paralysis and corruption in the system. Again, I think we have so far had a lot of success in convincing folks that we are the campaign for those folks hoping for a better future.”
Opponents have portrayed you as too far left to effectively represent Virginia. How do you characterize your political beliefs and convince people that you’re the right person to be the next governor?
“I don’t think the pundits have a clue of what ‘right’ and ‘left’ even mean anymore. When I came out against the two gas pipelines and refused to take any contributions from Dominion or the state regulated monopolies, those are positions that have been hugely popular with conservatives across the state that don’t like the idea of a corrupt political system and believe that small business should be given a shot against monopolies. That’s part of where job creation comes from across the state. I think these old notions stuck in the 1990’s of what constitutes right and left are exactly the reason pundits got a lot of the last election wrong. I think what people across the political spectrum want is people who will step up against concentrated power and corrupt rule and give every day people a chance. I think that’s the chord we’ve struck in this campaign and I think it’s one that appeals across a broad swath of the political public, not by watering down my progressive principals, which I’m very proud of, but by putting them to work in a way that works for everybody.”