Tom Perriello and the politics of principle
Ask freshman Rep. Tom Perriello (D) what his votes in favor of President Barack Obama's economic stimulus plan, cap and trade proposal and health care law mean for him politically and he readily admits he doesn't know.
What he does know is that "people evaluate authenticity", adding: "What people see from me is that I am trying to speak from a place of what makes me tick."
Perriello's authenticity-before-politics mantra has made him a hero to many Democrats -- and a figure of considerable regard in the eyes of the White House -- and simultaneously a top target for Republicans who believe he is voting his own interests and not those of his conservative-leaning 5th district of Virginia.
"Perriello seems to have come to Washington and been totally committed to dancing to the tune of [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi (Calif.)," said state Sen. Robert Hurt (R), Perriello's likely general election opponent. "That is who he represents."
The race in Perriello's seat, which won the Fix's latest choose your own House race contest, is a microcosm of the challenge that Democrats face across the country this fall: can freshmen and sophomore House Members get re-elected in swing and Republican-leaning districts after two years of tough votes on the president's agenda?
While Perriello's race is indicative of the broader struggle for Democrats this fall, his approach is far different than that of many of his colleagues.
Having ousted Rep. Virgil Goode (R) by just 727 votes in 2008, most political observers expected Perriello to hedge his bets when it came to supporting the major parts of the Obama agenda. Instead, Perriello went all in -- or close to it.
He did so, he explained in a recent interview, because he thought it was the right thing to do. "People expect me to do my homework and reach a decision based on my own sense of what is right," he said. "I have been perfectly willing to not just vote but champion the causes when I think they are right."
Perriello is quick to add, however, that he has stood against the Obama Administration too, noting that he is deeply skeptical about the approach the White House has taken to Wall Street and describing Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner as a clone of Bush Administration Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson.
For Hurt, that explanation isn't good enough. Standing on principle is all well and good but "the problem is the principle is wrong," Hurt said. "If you care about our children and grandchildren you can't saddle them with $1 trillion in debt."
Hurt's case against Perriello could be compelling but he still has work to do to ensure he gets the chance to make it.
While the establishment at the state and national level quickly lined up behind Hurt, who has experienced a rapid rise from the Chatham County Council to the state House to the state Senate in the space of the last decade, there are several candidates running to his ideological right in the June 9 primary.
Two of those candidates -- Laurence Verga and Jim McKelvey -- have made substantial personal loans to their campaigns and sought to make Hurt's vote for then Gov. Mark Warner's billion dollar tax increase plan in 2004 a central front in the primary fight.
Hurt told the Fix that he "hated" casting a vote for the plan but cast it as a necessary evil to keep the state government running. He added that the idea that he is anything short of a true conservative is a "distortion of my record".
Whether or not that's true, Hurt is likely to benefit from the fact that the Tea Party vote seems likely to splinter behind Verga, McKelvey and several other Republicans running in the primary, a development that should allow Hurt to cobble together enough votes to win.
Even so, Hurt hasn't done himself any favors by banking only $211,000 at the end of March; Perriello, by contrast, had nearly $1.4 million on hand at that time.
A Perriello-Hurt general election would be one of the marquee races in the country and a litmus test for the Democratic incumbent's appeal to authenticity.
For his part, Perriello is philosophical -- and seemingly at peace -- with the approach he has adopted no matter the ultimate political consequences. "If 50 percent plus one think I am authentic but don't agree with me, I can live with that," he said.
May 6, 2010; 2:03 PM ET
Categories: House | Tags: Robert Hurt, Tom Perriello, Virgil Goode
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