A tale of two districts: Connolly, Perriello split on extending Bush tax cuts
Reps. Gerald Connolly and Tom Perriello are both freshman Democrats from Virginia, and they vote together more often than not. But occasionally an issue will surface that makes clear that the two men represent very different districts and constituencies.
At an event Wednesday morning sponsored by the centrist Democratic group Third Way, Connolly and Perriello split on the question that is causing tension within the Democratic caucus -- whether to extend President George W. Bush's tax cuts on the wealthiest Americans, or let them expire at the end of the year as scheduled.
Connolly's Fairfax-based 11th district is the most affluent congressional seat in the country, based on median household income, and he warned his fellow Democrats that the issue might not be the slam-dunk some think it is.
"I honestly think it's a danger," Connolly said of the tax debate. "I part ways, I think, with the dominant view of my caucus on this subject. I do not favor a permanent extension of the Bush tax cuts. I do favor extending the current rate for some period of time until the economy is on a sustained and a robust track."
Connolly argued that the top 5 percent of earners represented a disproportionately large share of consumer spending, so increasing their taxes could blunt the economic recovery. "Democrats need to abandon their ideology on the Bush tax cuts and look at the economic reality on the ground," Connolly said.
In Perriello's 5th district, which stretches from the Charlottesville area down to the North Carolina border, the median income is less than half of what it is in the 11th district. Perriello favors letting the top-tier tax cuts expire.
"I think there's an argument for at least temporarily extending the working-class and middle-class tax cuts, for the same logic of the stimulus," Perriello said, adding: "I think at the higher end, the logic is not there, particularly given that we have a medium- and long-term very serious deficit concern. I think reasonable people can disagree on this."
Connolly responded: "I think this is where Democrats need to reassess their views of who's wealthy and all that good stuff. ... These people voted for us. They are our constituents, and yet we have ... almost consistently picked on them to finance a whole plethora of wonderful ideas."
Acknowledging that the two Virginians were in "a little bit of a tussle here," Perriello disputed the notion that Democrats were picking on the rich. "If you look at who has benefited the most since President Obama came to office, it's been that top percent," Perriello said.
Despite that disagreement, Connolly and Perriello have plenty in common. Both face potentially difficult reelection races -- though Perriello's is universally acknowledged to be more difficult. The two lawmakers benefited from a joint fundraiser Tuesday night, hosted by Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) at the home of real estate developer Al Dwoskin.
Connolly and Perriello agreed Wednesday that Democrats' suffered from a serious message problem.
"If I had a criticism of my fellow Democrats in the time I've been in Congress ... I would say we have frankly not been very good at weaving the narrative," Connolly said. "There is a story to be told that's pretty compelling, actually, both about what we've inherited [from Republicans] ... and what we've done to clean it up."
Perriello added that "one side has had a very consistent message -- government is the problem," while Democrats have been all over the map.
"I think one of the challenges, frankly, with Democratic narratives is that we do have very different districts as we've noted with the two of us," Perriello said. "We share a lot of values but our districts are very different. Both of us want to stand up for middle-class folks, even though the middle class looks a bit different."
Both lawmakers said their party and the White House had done a poor job explaining and selling the economic stimulus bill. They also agreed that job creation was the No. 1 issue in both their districts.
"I think at the end of the day people know I live and breathe the jobs issue," Perriello said.
Perriello announced Tuesday that he planned to hold 20 town hall meetings in 20 different counties in his district in August. He also declared that he opposes the Obama administration's push for approval of a Korea-U.S. free trade agreement, while his campaign noted that his GOP opponent -- state Sen. Robert Hurt -- hasn't declared a position on the issue.
"We've got to start building things, making things, growing things again. That may sound folksy to people in Washington, but it's real," Perriello said Wednesday.
With Obama's approval ratings hovering in negative territory, both lawmakers were asked whether they'd welcome a visit from the president to their district, and whether they'd like a visit from former president Bill Clinton.
"Yes and yes," Connolly said.
"Sure," Perriello agreed. "The commander in chief's always welcome. Bill Clinton certainly knows how to talk to southern voters."
Connolly added that congressional races would be the only ones on the ballot in Virginia in November, so turnout would be key. "I need the base and Tom needs the base excited. If there's somebody who can excite the base, it's President Obama," he said.
July 28, 2010; 12:30 PM ET
Categories: 2010 Virginia Congressional Races , Ben Pershing , Election 2010 , Gerald E. Connolly , Tom Perriello
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