The XX Factor

Tom Perriello Wants to Be a Progressive Candidate. Can He Overcome His Anti-Abortion, Pro-Gun Record?

Tom Perriello at a town hall meeting oat Fluvanna Middle School in Fork Union, Virginia, on Aug. 17, 2009. 

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Update, Jan. 6, 2016: Perriello has apologized for supporting the Stupak Amendment, stating that his vote “caused real pain to constituents and other women.”

Progressives greeted Tom Perriello’s recent entrance into the Virginia governor’s race with something akin to ecstasy. Perriello is a close ally of the president’s who won a single term in a fairly conservative Virginia district in 2008 and embraced Barack Obama’s legislative agenda during his short time in the House. A Yale Law School graduate and former human rights attorney, Perriello is being pitched as a liberal challenger to the purported centrist Democrat Lt. Gov. Ralph S. Northam, who had hoped to replace the term-limited Gov. Terry McAuliffe without a primary challenge.

But this narrative isn’t quite right. Northam may have crafted a moderate image, but in reality he is a fierce advocate for liberal causes who hews closely to the Democratic platform. And Perriello, for all his progressive bona fides, has a voting record that clashes with the party’s current support for gun safety measures and, more importantly, reproductive rights.

During his unsuccessful 2010 re-election campaign, Perriello boasted of his A rating from the National Rifle Association, which was a result of his opposition to an assault weapons ban. When his Republican opponent attacked Perriello on gun rights, his communications director told reporters that he was “a strong supporter of the Second Amendment and has consistently opposed reinstatement of the so-called assault weapons ban, among other gun control efforts.” She was correct: When then–Attorney General Eric Holder proposed reinstating the ban, Perriello wrote a letter to Obama asserting that “to even consider reinstating an ‘assault weapon’ ban is an affront to our Founding Fathers, who so clearly understood the importance of the ordinary citizens’ right to keep and bear arms.”

Northam, an Army major, ran for lieutenant governor—a position elected separately from the governor in Virginia—on a platform of common-sense gun control.

In 2010, of course, it was widely understood that Democratic candidates in Republican-leaning districts could not openly support gun safety laws. Perriello can probably overcome his vehemently pro-gun history by professing a change of heart following the recent sharp uptick in mass shootings, which often involve assault weapons. Or, if he’s feeling especially honest, Perriello can confess the likely reality—that his pro–assault weapon position was mere political expediency. (Don’t bet on that.)

Either way, Perriello’s anti-abortion record will be harder to explain. In 2009, Perriello voted for the odious Stupak amendment, a dramatic extension of the infamous Hyde amendment. The Stupak amendment would’ve prohibited insurance companies that participate in the Affordable Care Act’s exchanges from covering abortion. Its stated purpose was to prevent federal subsidies from paying for abortion, since insurance plans on the exchanges are subsidized for most customers. But the amendment was phrased so broadly that it would’ve forced insurance companies on the exchanges to drop abortion coverage for all woman.

The upshot of the Stupak amendment was that women with plans that covered abortion would see that coverage dropped. An analysis by the George Washington University Medical Center Department of Health Policy also found that the amendment would restrict insurance companies’ ability to offer supplemental abortion coverage. Moreover, the amendment would’ve hampered liberal states’ ability to offer abortion services using state and local funds. The analysis concluded that the Stupak amendment was so sweeping that it could bar insurance companies from covering procedures linked to abortion, however tenuously. For instance, an insurer might feel compelled to refuse coverage for surgery to repair a damaged pelvis following a car accident if the procedure necessarily involved abortion.

After derailing ACA negotiations in the House in the last weeks of 2009, the Stupak amendment wound up excluded from the Senate bill. Perriello ultimately voted for this version of the ACA. But he only did so after he and a group of anti-abortion Democrats extracted a concession from Obama, who promised to issue an executive order ensuring that no federal money would fund abortion through the ACA. Compare that record with Northam’s, who is unapologetically pro-choice, campaigned on reproductive health care, and spearheaded the fight against Virginia’s anti-abortion transvaginal ultrasound bill. (Northam, a physician, drew national attention to the invasive measure when he railed against it on the floor of the state Senate.)

The Democratic Party of 2017 is quite different from the Democratic Party of 2009. Controversially, the 2016 Democratic Party platform states that “we will continue to oppose—and seek to overturn—federal and state laws and policies that impede a woman’s access to abortion, including by repealing the Hyde Amendment.” Hillary Clinton campaigned on overturning Hyde, which forbids the use of federal funds to pay for most abortions, noting that the measure makes it “harder for low-income women to exercise their full rights.” That phrasing was no accident: Clinton has called access to abortion a “fundamental human right.”

Obviously, Perriello’s anti-abortion vote does not disqualify him from Virginia’s Democratic gubernatorial primary. It does, however, call into question the lazy narrative that Perriello represents a progressive challenge to Northam’s centrist disposition. Northam is a liberal with a strong track record on gun safety and reproductive health, two core tenets of the contemporary Democratic Party. Perriello’s voting record suggests he is a blue dog Democrat who deviates sharply from the party line on gun control and abortion rights. If the Perriello of 2017 wants to run as a proud progressive, that’s his prerogative. But he owes it to voters to explain why he deserves to be seen as a liberal champion for Virginia.