Is Moving Left the Democrats’ Best Bet?

A conversation with Tom Perriello, the Virginia progressive who’s running for governor on the promise to fight the Trump agenda.

U.S. Representative Tom Perriello (D-VA) listens to U.S. President Barack Obama during a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia October 29, 2010.
Virginia Rep. Tom Perriello listens to President Barack Obama during a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia on Oct. 29, 2010.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

As a congressman, Virginia Democrat Tom Perriello made national waves for holding a series of town hall meetings with Tea Party critics and for supporting the strongest elements of the Obama agenda despite representing a deep red district. In January, he surprised the commonwealth by challenging the Democratic lieutenant governor, Ralph Northam, in the race for Virginia’s governorship, which is up for grabs this November as Terry McAuliffe steps down from his term-limited position.

Perriello’s entry into the race as a populist, running on the pledge to fight gerrymandering and work for Virginians who’ve been left behind by the 21st century economy, has met with a mixture of enthusiasm and worry among state Democrats. Despite the fact that almost every elected official in the state had already endorsed Northam, Perriello has managed to draw even in polls and appears to be setting the tone of the debate, with calls to make Virginia a firewall against Trump and for a policy agenda that includes free community college and criminal justice reform. The Virginia gubernatorial race draws together big themes of the 2016 presidential election about the place of populism, the value of primaries, and what the future of the Democratic Party looks like. It’s also threatening to devolve into battles about the future of progressivism, from identity politics to ideological purity tests, that turned off so many Democratic voters in the 2016 race.

I reached out to Perriello to get his thoughts on the lessons he learned from 2016, how progressives should think about “states’ rights,” and the place of faith in Democratic politics. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Dahlia Lithwick: A lot of party leaders saw your entry into the race as late and disruptive. How do you respond to those who say this will re-create the problems of the 2016 Democratic presidential primary?

Tom Perriello: Trying to fit this primary into a frame of last year’s race is lazy. Unlike Hillary, neither Ralph nor I have had to overcome decades of gendered public attacks. Neither of us have shattered glass ceilings, run the State Department, or systematically elevated the role of women around the world. Unlike Bernie, neither Ralph nor I have inspired millions to join a grass-roots revolution against inequality and corruption.

Democrats should be more focused on producing the next generation of ideas than on clearing primary fields that might help produce them. We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to change the political balance in Virginia, but only if our voters care enough to show up in November. I was inspired by the vast number of Virginians who showed up to the Women’s March and the protests at Dulles Airport. But I also was concerned that the majority of marchers didn’t know there was a governor’s race in 2017. My goal—my hope—is to build a campaign that connects the governor’s race to the movement we’ve seen rise in response to President Trump’s attacks on our core values. But Democrats should not assume anti-Trump advocates are sold on our party. We have to earn that support.

I want to give you a chance to respond to critics from the left, including here at Slate, about your support of the Stupak Amendment, and your voting record on abortion and women’s reproductive health.

I have always been pro-choice and marched and organized to defend Roe v. Wade before and during my time in Congress. I voted for Planned Parenthood funding and was proud to vote for the Affordable Care Act, which prohibits insurance companies from discriminating against women and provides universal access to contraception. However, during the health care debate in marathon town hall meetings, I made a promise to my constituents that I would stick to the commitment previously made by the White House and vote for the Affordable Care Act if it excluded federal funding for abortion. I have expressed my deep regret for that vote and engaged actively after my tenure in Congress in fights against TRAP laws and other efforts to limit reproductive health access in Virginia and around the country. I have promised as governor to veto the onslaught of anti-choice legislation that passes our heavily gerrymandered legislature, including draconian restrictions on abortion providers in Virginia, efforts to restrict the availability of contraception, and moves to defund Planned Parenthood.

I know you have thought an awful lot about the role states may play in the coming years: You were at Dulles Airport the day after the president’s executive order on immigration went into effect. What do you think might happen at the state level, and what role will states’ rights and federalism—not words that trip off the progressive tongue—play in the next four years?

As governor, I will use all legal executive authority to block federal abuses of power and fundamental rights. I don’t say this lightly. Growing up in Virginia, I know firsthand that the “states’ rights doctrine” has often been used to block progress. Racists in my hometown of Charlottesville were at the forefront of Massive Resistance, shutting down public schools rather than allow the federal government to integrate. However, there are other examples throughout American history where states have been progressive leaders and used the 10th Amendment and every other tool at their disposal to stand up to unjust and inhumane federal policies. Jefferson and Madison used similar arguments to resist the Alien and Sedition Acts under President Adams.

As the great historian Eric Foner and others have noted, progressive governors in the 19th century heroically refused to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act. They barred the use of state jails, state judges, and state law enforcement officials in the rendition of fugitive slaves, and the Supreme Court upheld their actions, holding that the Constitution did not permit the national government to conscript states into the enforcement of federal law. Only 20 years ago, the Supreme Court reaffirmed that ruling in a decision joined by all of the court’s conservative justices. I believe the fierce moral urgency of the Trump moment requires that same resistance from deep within our American progressive tradition.

Do Democrats get too focused on the meta stories and forget to act locally and at a state level? If so, why is that? Is the Tea Party model of resistance a useful template for Democratic organizers?

Democrats must be able to resist and advance at the same time. We must be fearless in opposing President Trump’s policies of hate and attacks on our democratic institutions. But we must respond with equal intensity to his actions that risk the pensions and Medicare of our seniors. There is nothing meta about resisting Trump if you are an African American parent wondering what Jeff Sessions will do to civil rights or a second-generation immigrant wondering if your family will be torn apart.

States are increasingly the first line of both attack and defense for progressive causes, from reproductive rights to criminal justice reform to student debt. Some of the clearest victories thus far for the movement for black lives have been in local prosecutor races. Our race for governor will determine the political map of Virginia for a generation with enormous implications for justice and fairness. This is not just about three years from now, when I would be able to veto any of the radical redistricting maps that have paralyzed Virginia politics for a decade, but also about this year redefining the Virginia electorate that shows up for state elections.

The breadth, depth, and creativity of the resistance since November has been awe-inspiring. I am particularly proud of Indivisible’s rise because one of the authors of the Indivisible Guide, Leah Greenberg, was a member of my congressional staff and now serves as a policy adviser for my campaign. Social change is not a majoritarian enterprise as much as an intensity enterprise, but at this point I think we have both factors on our side.

As a veteran of the crushing town halls of the ACA era, what are your thoughts on the fact that so many Republicans in Congress are going home this week and not meeting with their constituents?

In Congress, I held more marathon town halls than any member during the contentious health care debate, with some lasting as long as six hours. Even when my constituents were angry, I showed up—because I worked for them. This week, I have spent time in Republican districts hearing directly from folks about how we can advance an inclusive Virginia. These town hall meetings aren’t scary. They give Virginians a chance to hold their leaders accountable, ask questions, and participate in their democracy. Right now, Republicans should have the courage to meet with their constituents.

If there is one lesson you take from the 2016 election, what is it? I have almost no patience for postmortems and finger pointing, but I am wondering what your vision of how to move forward from such a colossal defeat looks like.

The forces of economic and racial anxiety, if left unaddressed, are on a collision course in America. Internecine debates about which factor is stronger obscure the interconnection and thus acceleration of both. We also often miss the fact that economic anxiety is not limited to those below certain income levels.

Too often, Democrats defend the status quo, noting positive GDP and unemployment numbers instead of speaking to the underlying forces that threaten economic security. When we say our only problem is with messaging, we imply that voters are too dumb to realize how great we have been for them or would be for them. People are smarter than elites think. They already know that both parties were naïve about the costs of globalization and can see that both parties are again failing to address the impact of new forces like economic consolidation, automation, and exclusion.

Many people I meet know that Trump is full of smoke and mirrors. They recognize that he is two decades behind, and that we are no longer losing our manufacturing to China, but rather to computers. But at least Trump showed up and acknowledged their pain. As Democrats, we need to show up. We need to tell the brutal economic truth that of these jobs aren’t coming back, and we need to offer a better solution than blaming minorities. We can do this.

One of the things you and I have talked about in the past is whether there is a role for faith and religion in Democratic politics. I know it’s an incredibly fraught proposition, but am I wrong in thinking that ceding all discussion of religion to the right has been kind of a disaster for progressives? Do you have an idea for how to think about this in ways that don’t cause more rifts on the left?

North Carolina provided a preview of Trump’s agenda, and Moral Mondays created a blueprint of how to respond. We take this seriously in Virginia because winning this governor’s race is the only way to prevent the entire onslaught of the Carolina crisis—the gutting of public education and voting rights, the bigotry of bathroom bills—from setting Virginia back a generation. The Rev. William Barber’s prophetic response, like Sister Simone Campbell’s “Nuns on the Bus” tour against the Ryan budget’s impact on the poor, pulled back the cobwebs of progressive faith leadership in calling our nation to its best self.

Some liberals dismiss faith as part of the problem. Pluralist faith leadership inspires us to find the best of the role of spirituality and universal moral values while limiting the frequency with which it is used to otherize and divide. In general, the progressive movement has a tendency to be all logos and no mythos, and it is true that American conservatives overcorrect in the other direction. But the art and culture we celebrate on the left draws heavily from the truth of mythos, and we are wrong to dismiss this space. It is part of why we tend to err towards policy depth over narrative. We see this too often as intellectually more sound, but only within a narrow framing of intellect. Policy and decisions should be based on evidence, but our values and our story come from a deeper place.