The first time I saw Tom Perriello, he was walking slowly down a light-soaked hall at Reagan National Airport, hands stuffed in his pockets, head bent in a textbook example of an attentive listening posture. He was talking with two airport workers about their efforts to unionize, and a broad purple “Fight for $15” scarf was draped over his shirtsleeved shoulders, lending Perriello a passing resemblance to both an English soccer hooligan and a priest who’d hastily thrown on his sacramental stole.
Perriello is running for governor of Virginia. And what in the close shot looked like an intimate conversation was — once you switched to the wide lens — a typical campaign melee: A photographer scurried ahead to get his shot of the empathetic nods while aides walked just behind, necks drooping toward phones. A spokeswoman from the Service Employees International Union, who trailed along with the crowd, called Perriello “gentle and low-key.” “It’s about the dignity of work,” Perriello told one worker. “But it’s also about economic opportunity,” he went on, laying out his message of economic populism with a healthy side of social justice.
Events like this are crucial for Perriello because relatively few people in Virginia actually know his name — only about 1 in 5 — and he’ll need to fix that before the Democratic primary in June. And many of those in Virginia who do know who he is — a former one-term congressman and a diplomat in the Obama State Department — are in politics and are more than a little peeved to see Perriello’s name in the papers. Up until January, when Perriello threw his hat into the ring, Lt. Governor Ralph Northam, another gentle, low-key guy, was all set to be the Democrats’ next nominee. Having paid his dues in Gov. Terry “The Macker” McAuliffe’s friend-of-the-Clintons administration, Northam was in a one-man primary race.
But then Donald Trump happened and so did Perriello, whose populist economic views put him on progressives’ map during his short stint in Congress. “People really started to reach out on election night,” he told me. Perriello spent much of the last year and a half shuttling around the world in his role as special envoy to the conflict-prone Great Lakes region of Africa, watching the 2016 election unfold from afar. The airport worker meet-and-greet was over and I’d joined him for the drive to Winchester, a town in the Shenandoah Valley. “I think that that was partly because those of us who have actually seen what racial demagogues can do in other countries understand that you need to stand and stick with a true fighter who’s going to be able to call it out,” he said. Serving up this sort of stiff anti-Trump talk to liberals full of anti-Trump rage is a big part of how his insurgent campaign is hoping to raise its profile. It helps that Perriello is young — though, at 42, not too young — and energetic. He’d already run nine miles that day. Young Democratic political hopefuls are, in these post-Trump days, very much in demand, and more likely to be well-educated, squeaky-clean strivers than anything else. See: Jonathan Ossoff in Georgia’s 6th District and Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana.
In the days and weeks following the November election, Democrats decided that their economic message was incoherent and tone deaf, focused on attacking Trump instead of addressing the needs of working people. And Perriello, during his one and only term in Congress, from 2009 to 2011, had earned a reputation for economic populism and relative progressivism, voting against a second round of bank bailout funding and for Obamacare, despite coming from a conservative district. The Obamacare vote would ultimately do him in — it made him a natural target for the tea party revolution of 2010 — but it’s a loss that Perriello wears as something of a badge of honor, Federal-Election-Commission-certified proof that he stuck to his guns (sometimes literally, at least until recently — more on that later) despite the pressures of re-election politics. Perriello fancies himself not quite of the system but still able to operate within it, which is why he’s positioned himself in the somewhat delicate position of an “outsider” speaking truth to power, even though he’s served in government and D.C. party organs for many years.
What the primary and Perriello’s entrance into it will now test is whether voters can be convinced to turn out for a message of against-the-system populism even if it doesn’t come with the Bernie Sanders brand — which grew into a phenomenon that verged on a cult of personality during the 2016 election. Perriello is an imperfect proxy for Sanders and his movement: He’s a diplomat, not a fiery agitator; he’s a Hillary Clinton admirer and a man with a pragmatically centrist voting record. His election could give hope to Democrats running in areas Clinton lost, like the industrial Midwest, where swing voters might favor a candidate with a populist economic message and positions that deviate somewhat from the left’s orthodoxy on cultural issues. Even Perriello’s core brand of populism is different from Sanders’s — it’s a more subdued, intellectualized of-the-people-ism. Where the Vermont senator could match 2016’s thirst for bombast and sloganeering, Perriello seems more at home measuredly explaining the systemic causes of inequality. “The nice thing when you’re talking to voters is that they don’t want or need a bumper sticker,” Perriello told me. “They want to have an actual conversation.”
In short, no one is ever going to get a tattoo of Tom Perriello’s hairline on her tuches. And he’s not asking them to — he just wants to talk. And, ideally, get some votes.
“Tom gets out a lot,” Perriello’s assigned tracker, Chris (no last name given), told me. Chris was from the conservative PAC America Rising, and the two of us were standing in the noisy back room of Winchester Brew Works — which bills itself as Virginia’s only majority-woman-owned brewery — watching the candidate talk fermentation with owners Bonnie Landy and Holly Redding.
Chris-the-tracker, with his petite video camera, has been sent to document Perriello’s every public move, but it’s early days yet; besides staff, the only other person around to witness Day 4 of what I was told was the “New Virginia Jobs Tour” was a reporter from The Winchester Star. Day 3 had been a visit to a rye distillery. I wondered momentarily, as I watched Perriello’s former chief of staff at the State Department buy a couple of growlers of beer, if this wasn’t just an elaborate way to stock up for the staff BBQ happening the next day at Perriello’s house. The campaign, managed by Sanders’s former national field director and filled with former Clinton staffers, was finally running at full capacity after launching just after New Year’s on, as Perriello put it, “spit and polish — really duct tape.”
While anti-Trumpism is an animating factor in both Perriello’s and Northam’s campaigns, Perriello’s competitive advantage over the Democratic establishment’s candidate is his populist economics, and Winchester — a town not far from the West Virginia border that has been home to both Patsy Cline and the author of “Deer Hunting With Jesus,” a 2008 book about the white working class’s loathing of liberals — turned out to be the perfect place for him to shop his message that global factors were colliding to “change the social contract and the promise of the American dream.”
Landy, while serving up some early-afternoon beer, talked about the rapidly changing face of the brewery market, bringing up the recent sale of a Virginia craft outfit, Devil’s Backbone, to Anheuser-Busch Inbev, a conglomerate that takes in 46 percent of global beer-market profits. There was a misconception, she said, that most small breweries were looking to be bought out. “But really I want this to be my job for a long time.”
Perriello sensed an opening. “We were talking about this problem before, actually, consolidation and monopolization of the economy,” he said to Landy — he’d told me earlier in the car that these two factors, along with automation, were the aforementioned social-contract-changers in America. “Things getting bought out by big money — you see it in tech, you see it in food, you see it in beverages — and everyone’s like, ‘Oh, the system’s working,’ but a lot of times companies will just kill that brand,” Perriello said.
Back in the car, on our way to lunch with the growlers rattling around in the trunk (one was later smashed to bits), Perriello was eager to highlight the conversation. “I hope that you noticed that they brought up issues of consolidation and the economy unprompted,” he said glowingly.
Some people have told Perriello that his economic talking points sound “too think-tank-y,” but he takes apparent pride in this. It’s a way for him to differentiate his self-professed “smart” populism from the more toxic form that has been floating around America lately, that which relies on race-baiting. It’s also, more subtly, a way for him to differentiate his populism from Sanders’s. Perriello knows he needs to draft off the senator’s popularity with the progressive base, but it’s clear he doesn’t always agree with the practicalities of Sanders’s plans, like, for instance the elimination of tuition at four-year public universities, a marquee issue during the presidential primary. Perriello prefers to advocate for free two-year technical programs and community college. “There are some regressivity concerns about going to the four-year university being free,” he said.
And when it comes to automation, Perriello professed to be frustrated by much of the conversation surrounding the topic. (President Trump’s treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin, recently brushed off worries about automation, saying it was “not on our radar screens.”) Automation would continue, yes, Perriello said — that wasn’t debatable. What he wanted was more talk about how to affect its “pace and breadth” by, for example, decentralizing the production of food and power to ensure that people would not be forced to buy these essentials from just a few companies. He’s counting on the idea that voters are primed to hear these sorts of solutions, and not just from the likes of Sanders, with his revolutionary rhetoric. “These are ideas that seemed a little quirky 10 years ago but now I think are becoming more mainstream,” he said.
This recognition of a sea change in the party, the mainstreaming of ideas once thought quirky, means that in his gubernatorial bid for what might become 2017’s most high-profile election — Virginia’s governor’s mansion is one of the first up for grabs in the Trump era in a state that has, over the last decade, turned increasingly blue, a bellwether of the New South and its politics.1 Perriello could become something of an avatar for this moment in Democratic politics. He’s trying to mainstream Sanders’ populism, but also serve as a bridge between the culture of the Clinton-Obama Democratic establishment and the ascendent progressive wing. Perriello’s spotty liberal record on guns and abortion make him especially interesting to watch in a Democratic primary, where he’s an easy target for Northam’s attacks from the left. When we spoke, Northam pointed out that he’d won his 2007 state senate seat race against a two-term Republican incumbent while supporting abortion access, gun control and the environment. “I ran on the very same issues I’m talking about today,” he said before going on to reference Perriello’s gun record. “Anyone who has an ‘A’ rating from the NRA, I can’t say they’ve been fighting in Virginia for progressive values.” But even the blemishes on Perriello’s liberal bona fides make him something of a test case for state-level candidates who hope to join the new bench the Democrats say they’re working to build. Can someone who’s gone against party orthodoxy on culture issues be forgiven their sins if they promise a powerful economic message? Can populism bridge the culture-wars chasm? Democrats in more culturally conservative areas — Ohio, for example, or Michigan — will be interested in the answer.
With his Yale pedigree (both undergrad and law) and precisely articulated worldview, Perriello doesn’t seem like he’s looking to break things too much, which may be why he’s a perennial pet of the establishment. Obama campaigned for Perriello in 2010 and Clinton’s former campaign chairman, John Podesta, has endorsed him in the race against Northam, as did a number of former Obama administration aides, including high-profile ex-staffers like David Plouffe. Perriello has held blue-chip Washington jobs, serving as president of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, and was chosen by Secretary John Kerry to run the State Department’s internal departmentwide review process in 2014. It also helps that Perriello is interpersonally nonthreatening and earnest — he’s a political opportunist in the age of Trump, to be sure, but he’s not necessarily the operator-type you’d see blowing his nose in a K Street steakhouse napkin. In the kickoff video for his current campaign — music swelling, rhetoric flowing — Perriello looks as wholesome and hopeful as a tall glass of milk next to a warm cookie, the Democrats’ next-generation golden boy.
This earnestness is central to Perriello’s public persona. He calls himself a “justice advocate.” He likes to distance himself a bit from the muck of politics and says he’s more of a “movement politics” man than a partisan one; no profile of him would be complete without a mention of his “conviction politics.” As much as it seems like his image could have been cooked up in a consultant’s conference room, those close to him say that this all very much “authentic Tom.”
“He is, what is the word — ascetic?” said Caroline Wadhams, a friend who served with Perriello at the State Department and the Center for American Progress. “He doesn’t believe in focusing on clothes or houses or cars. He’s very non-materialistic.” Of Perriello’s bent toward public service she said, “I think there’s probably a religious element to it. He was raised and continues to be an observant Catholic.” Perriello himself told me that he has a “complicated relationship with the Church.”
Perriello’s strength in electoral politics hasn’t just come from his vocational sense of it, though; it’s also the result of a calculating pragmatism that left him with a voting record that has been pilloried by some on the left. A central question of the primary campaign will be whether he can overcome that record. While in Congress representing the conservative Virginia 5th (Perriello beat a longtime incumbent, a Republican, to get to Congress, and since he lost, the seat has returned to GOP hands), he voted for the Stupak-Pitts Amendment to the Affordable Care Act, which would have banned using federal funds to subsidize health care plans that covered abortions. In a January Facebook post, published the day after he entered the race, Perriello said he regretted the vote. “I have always been pro-choice and a supporter of Roe v. Wade,” he wrote. “[I] pledged at dozens of public meetings that I would support health care reform only if it was consistent with the Hyde Amendment. I believed at the time that voting for the Stupak amendment was the only way to meet that pledge.”
His vote on the bill, Perriello told me, was an “Edmund Burke question,” a tussling over whether to vote as the people of his district would vote themselves or whether to vote according to his own best judgment, in the belief that voters had entrusted him to make that decision by electing him. He doesn’t believe abortion is murder or a sin, Perriello told me — “it was that question of, ‘Where in the social contract do you figure out that balance of beliefs that are held that way with many of your constituents?’” I got the impression while talking to Perriello that he was uneasy with the assumption that his Catholicism might have anything to do with his Stupak vote. He told me he didn’t struggle with the issue in the same way that Tim Kaine, a Catholic Democrat of a different generation, does.
The Stupak vote could still haunt Perriello — despite his mea culpa, NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia has endorsed Northam. “We’re going to be knocking on doors, burning up the phone lines, putting out information about Ralph Northam,” Tarina Keene, the organization’s executive director, told me the day of NARAL’s announcement. Northam has his own issues for the left to pick over, having voted for George W. Bush twice. When I asked him about the votes, Northam called himself “under informed politically” at the time — he was a full-time physician not yet in elected office — and then went on. “I was asked that question by a journalist, and there were several options: I could have danced around the answer, I could have not told the truth, but you know what? I sat there and I told the journalist the truth, I answered it honestly and my honor means a lot to me.”
The Bush votes could still be an Achilles heel, though, which is why Northam has seized on the support of pro-choice advocates; his campaign recently sent out a press email none-too-subtly subject-lined “Ralph’s Roundup: Ladies Choice Edition.”
And it’s obvious that the abortion issue remains a touchy one for the Perriello campaign. When I reached out to Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia, along with a number of other progressive groups, to see if they would be endorsing anyone in the primary — “We haven’t made a decision around making an endorsement in this race” board chair Paulette McElwain wrote to me — I got a late-night text from a Perriello staffer nervously asking if “this [was] turning into a more choice-centric piece?”
At the heart of this worry over abortion-rights advocates’ support is Perriello’s knowledge that he will need to win over the activist base in the state to have any shot at victory in June. A February Quinnipiac Poll of the primary race showed Perriello and Northam tied with 19 percent support each and 61 percent of the electorate undecided. A survey released Wednesday showed them tied at 26 percent.
Perriello might also need significant bolstering from national figures and groups. That’s because Virginia’s Democratic Party power players, including both senators and the governor, are all squarely behind Northam. The establishment is “furious with Perriello,” Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics told me. Northam, who thought he had the primary locked up, is now spending campaign cash in a fight against another Democrat. Perriello “isn’t well-known either, because he only represented the 5th for two years, but the activists who tend to vote in primaries tend to be more liberal, and they are charged up and they are everywhere,” Sabato said. Fred Yang, Northam’s pollster, told me that his work showed that the lieutenant governor led Perriello in name recognition with Democrats overall, 50 percent to 45 percent. But he did acknowledge one challenge for Northam: More new voters — those who didn’t vote in the 2009 or 2013 gubernatorial elections, who are likely to be younger and more liberal — know who Perriello is (31 percent) than know who Northam is (28 percent). Perriello will want to try to turn those voters out.
This desire to win over activists might account for a number of position shifts Perriello has made of late. In January, he pilloried the NRA as “nut-job extremist organization” in the post-Sandy Hook era, but during his time in Congress, he received campaign funds and an “A” rating from the organization. In January, Virginia GOP chairman John Whitbeck made a sneering prediction about Perriello’s stance on offshore drilling, which he had supported while in Congress: “I look forward to yet another heart-felt, tear filled Jimmy Swaggart-style Facebook post in which Tom Perriello repents for his previous sins against the church of far-left liberalism,” Whitbeck wrote. In early February, Perriello said he was “skeptical” of offshore drilling. Northam is quick to point out that he’s been firmly against drilling in this campaign.
But Perriello has also come out against the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which McAuliffe and Northam both support, and he has publicly stated that he won’t take donations from Dominion Power, the company at the center of the pipeline battle, both moves that could excite environmentalists.
Virginia’s Sierra Club is still deciding whether to endorse a candidate in the primary. The SEIU is similarly held up, while the AFL-CIO said it would not endorse in the primary. “I bet a lot of them don’t endorse,” Sabato said of state-level groups. Glen Besa of the Sierra Club told me that the group would be taking a close look at the next campaign filing reports, which are due on April 17. Perriello’s campaign staff said they had raised $1.1 million in the first month of the campaign. Northam had about $2.5 million heading into 2017.
Our Revolution, the PAC that came out of the Sanders campaign, could be an important source of support and money for Perriello, assuming he can win over its 11-person board, which includes the actress Shailene Woodley, pipeline protester extraordinaire. Former Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver heads the PAC and recently told me that the organization was “watching that race extremely closely.” Our Revolution’s endorsement would come with its email list, which is famous for helping Sanders raise millions in small donations, along with help on the ground from phone bankers and door-knockers, plus Sanders’s implicit — or explicit — support. Could Sanders, with the help of Our Revolution, become a progressive kingmaker in elections around the country? “I’ve met with Tom Perriello personally, and I anticipate that we would make a decision fairly soon,” Weaver said of the potential endorsement. And Sanders himself? “I know he’s got interest in the race.”
The day after the Winchester event, Perriello was out New Jobs Touring again, this time plying the rinse and repeat trade of retail politics at Falls Church’s Eden Center, a shopping center filled with Vietnamese businesses. He admired strands of pearls, asked exactly what bubble tea was, and inquired about small-business loans. Chris-the-tracker gave me a high five, happy to see a familiar face.
Skirting the edge of the packed parking lot to get to another of Eden’s endless restaurants, our little pack of photographers, videographers and press aides passed a group of college kids who looked somewhat perplexed by the whole show.
“I’m Tom Perriello, I’m running for governor of Virginia,” Perriello said, introducing himself to the group.
“What do you want to change?” asked Hamilton Tran, 21, laying down the quintessential political question of our time.
Perriello talked about jobs training and community college, getting the minimum wage up, clean energy. He and his staff were hammering through the numbers, too, Perriello assured Tran, when the college student brought up costs and taxes.
“Everyone’s heard rhetoric,” Tran told me later. “That’s why it’s important for someone running for public office to lay out what they want to achieve idealistically but also what it’s going to entail.” He had liked Perriello well enough but would need to know more before deciding how to vote. Tran, as it happened, had been more of a Trump guy during the election.
It was getting colder and Perriello needed to go, but first he had to film a short video spot to prove he’d been there. I watched as the group art-directed him, initially standing in front of a fountain by Thanh Son Tofu, then under the eves of the Eden Kitchen. It took a couple of takes, with Perriello’s press secretary filming him and Chris-the-tracker filming them, and everyone else looking on in the cold at the spectacle. As the digital recorder rolled, snow began to fall in big glops, and I felt bad for Perriello — he was wearing only a suit, his hands stuffed deep in his pockets, trying not to mess up the take, a stiff populist evangelist with a message to spread.
It seemed, at that moment, a very long way until June.
CLARIFICATION (March 29, 3:23 p.m.): In an earlier version of this article, Paulette McElwain’s quote, “We haven’t made a decision around making an endorsement in this race,” was attributed to her in her role as the president of the Virginia League for Planned Parenthood. She was speaking in her role as the chair of the board for Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia.
CORRECTION (March 31, 12:20 p.m.): A previous version of this article misidentified a mall in Falls Church, Virginia. It is Eden Center, not Eden Mall.