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Tom Perriello and the politics of principle


Virginia Democratic Rep. Tom Perriello is a major Republican target in 2010. AP Photo by Steve Helber

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.

By Chris Cillizza  |  May 6, 2010; 2:03 PM ET
Categories:  House  | Tags: Robert Hurt, Tom Perriello, Virgil Goode  
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Comments

ceflynline wrote,
"Perriello is making the classic Democratic mistake, voting on principle and hoping voters respond to that."

It would be classic alright; he'd be the only Democratic who's ever done it.

Posted by: Brigade | May 6, 2010 8:02 PM | Report abuse

There is an IMPORTANT ISSUE which has been brought up by a SMITHTOWN newspaper over a satire picture of an older Obama later in life becoming a character in Sanford and Son. Apparently few people find the image actually racism - however there is discomfort out there.


The Smithtown newspaper is on Long Island in New York.


The issue is this: it is about time to distinquish between DISRESPECT AND RACISM. Perhaps the picture in the Smithtown paper was disrespectful, but clearly it was not racist - so it is considered fair game.


This is an important distinction. There was a great deal of disrespect shown Bush by the democrats over his years in office - when racism was never an issue.


Surely the same level of disrespect is fair game.


There is a level of poison in our political discourse right now - and it comes from the sense that some people are crying false charges of racism - for speech and conduct which if against a white President would NEVER be questioned.


I will go one step further: The political discourse will CONTINUE TO BE RACIST UNTIL THE SPEECH REACHES THE SAME LEVELS OF DISRESPECT AS WAS COMMON UNDER BUSH.


In other words - in order for the political discourse to be FREE OF RACISM, the level of disrespect for Obama MUST equal the level of disrespect shown for other Presidents, Bush included.


If there is restraint, or false charges present, then there is a racial component - and it is racist.


The FIRST STEP again is to start to distinquish between DISRESPECT AND RACISM - and the political society and media has to regard the DISRESPECT AS FAIR GAME, NORMAL AND EXPECTED.


Surely, the democrats took the DISRESPECT FOR BUSH TO NEW LEVELS - for them to start crying foul right now when a democrat is the subject is simply NOT RIGHT - IT IS RACIAL AND RACIST.


I will make the point again: in order for our political system to be FREE OF RACISM, we NEED TO HAVE THE SAME LEVELS OF DISRESPECT PRESENT NOW AS WE HAD UNDER BUSH.


Smithtown Paper - Thank you very much.

.

Posted by: 37thand0street | May 6, 2010 7:39 PM | Report abuse

"Mark, Perriello is making the classic Democratic mistake, voting on principle and hoping voters respond to that. They don't. They are going to vote on his record, not how he feels about his record. Perriello and Democrats need to stop assuming that their positions sell themselves and do the work in convincing their constituents that they have the just point of view and explain how it is more just. Posted by: DDAWD"

It depends. You CAN stand regularly on principle, and vote on principle, against your parties perceived interests, IF YOU ARE DEMOCRAT. You also need an electorate that accepts principled opposition to ones own party. Blanche Lincoln my survive on that fact.

You CAN'T stand on principle against your party's orders and survive as a Republican. THEIR principles of the moment are paramount, fail to share them and you are RINOd. Ask Bennett in Utah.

A recovering economy, a growing appreciation of the facts of HCR, ("Once we pass HCR people will learn what it really means..."), and a steady list of campaign promises undertaken and at least partially fulfilled by the Dems in the current Congress, and the promise of more promises fulfilled in the next if obstructionists can be sent home, and Perriello has a lot to work with. Pit the usual Republican Idiot against him in the general and he may not be all that endangered. Run that same scenario again in 2012 and he ceases to be endangered and starts to become entrenched.

Posted by: ceflynline | May 6, 2010 5:13 PM | Report abuse

Mark I would include John Warner, Jesse Helms, and Paul Wellstone on that list with Moynihan of politicians who voted their views with very little regard for political ramifications.

And DDAWD I couldn't disagree with you more that this is a mistake for Periello to stand on his principle politics be d@mned. That is the ONLY way to hold a seat like his. If you are wishy-washy on the more serious issues facing our nation then what should we expect if the s#$# really hits the fan? Voters respond to honesty and I think they reward it too, but I guess we will find out in 7 months who is right or not.

Posted by: AndyR3 | May 6, 2010 3:41 PM | Report abuse

37th & O writes
"I will make the point again: in order for our political system to be FREE OF RACISM, we NEED TO HAVE THE SAME LEVELS OF DISRESPECT PRESENT NOW AS WE HAD UNDER BUSH."


Done. I respect you as little now as I did then.


.

Posted by: bsimon1 | May 6, 2010 3:28 PM | Report abuse

ddawd writes
"Perriello is making the classic Democratic mistake, voting on principle and hoping voters respond to that. They don't."

I was going to respond by saying 'nonsense' but will moderate my point. What you say may be true in some districts, perhaps where a Dem wins election in a conservative district. But here in MN, we have had very conservative and very liberal senators representing the state at the same time. Voters, here anyway, respond to authenticity.

Posted by: bsimon1 | May 6, 2010 3:25 PM | Report abuse

Surely, the democrats took the DISRESPECT FOR BUSH TO NEW LEVELS - for them to start crying foul right now when a democrat is the subject is simply NOT RIGHT - IT IS RACIAL AND RACIST.


I will make the point again: in order for our political system to be FREE OF RACISM, we NEED TO HAVE THE SAME LEVELS OF DISRESPECT PRESENT NOW AS WE HAD UNDER BUSH.

Posted by: 37thand0street | May 6, 2010 3:21 PM | Report abuse

Mark, Perriello is making the classic Democratic mistake, voting on principle and hoping voters respond to that. They don't. They are going to vote on his record, not how he feels about his record. Perriello and Democrats need to stop assuming that their positions sell themselves and do the work in convincing their constituents that they have the just point of view and explain how it is more just.

Posted by: DDAWD | May 6, 2010 3:03 PM | Report abuse

There is also a chance that Goode might enter the race as a third party. He has joined the Constitution Party. He hasn't declared himself in the running, but this might be a logical step in that process.

http://www.independentpoliticalreport.com/2010/05/exclusive-former-congressman-goode-joins-the-constitution-party/

And lest we forget, Goode is the wonderful piece of work who said we need to prevent Muslims like Detroit born Keith Ellison from joining Congress.

Posted by: DDAWD | May 6, 2010 2:59 PM | Report abuse

"If 50 percent plus one think I am authentic but don't agree with me, I can live with that," he said.

He will not be that good forever. That was once true coming from John McCain. Warren Rudman admitted in his autobiography that he thought that about himself - but that he had never been seriously challenged. Probably the late D.P. Moynihan voted his principles first without regard to his constituency as much as anyone - but I do not think he cared that much for the good opinion of others. That was an interesting trait in an elected pol.

Posted by: mark_in_austin | May 6, 2010 2:39 PM | Report abuse

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