Politics

Democratic Populism That Can Win

In Virginia, Tom Perriello’s focus on black voters could make him succeed where Bernie Sanders failed.

Official Congressional portrait of Rep. Tom Perriello (VA-05) in 2008 and 2017 Democratic Gubernatorial candidate Ralph Northam
Tom Perriello in 2008 and Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam in 2017.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos from U.S. Congress and © 2015 Lieutenant Governor of Virginia.

Casual observers have portrayed the Virginia Democratic gubernatorial primary as a retread of the endlessly rehashed contest between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. But for all the real similarities between the two primaries, the analogy fails under closer examination. Yes, like last year’s presidential primary, the race is between an establishment figure, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, and an insurgent, former congressman Tom Perriello, a self-described “pragmatic populist” who has positioned himself against both the Republican and Democratic establishments. And in an echo of 2016, Northam holds support from the state’s most prominent Democratic officeholders, including outgoing Gov. Terry McAulliffe and Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, while Perriello is the candidate of high-profile progressives like Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and, of course, Sanders. But the parallel ends there.

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The significance of this race—beyond the much-discussed question of anti-Trump energy and sentiment—isn’t how it maps onto the somewhat-overstated divide in Democratic Party politics. What matters is how the insurgent, Perriello, is channeling the lessons of the 2016 presidential primary into an approach that, if successful, could light the way forward for future populist progressive candidates in similar circumstances.

It’s first worth highlighting why the Bernie/Hillary analogy doesn’t work. For starters, Perriello isn’t a gadfly or movement leader. He’s a longtime Democrat with strong ties to the party’s political and policymaking infrastructure. After losing his congressional seat in the 2010 Republican wave, Perriello worked as president of the Center for American Progress Action Fund and later served in the State Department under John Kerry. He is on the Sanders slate, yes, but he’s also backed by Clinton’s former campaign chairman, John Podesta, as well as a phalanx of former Obama aides, including campaign manager David Plouffe, former deputy chief of staff Nancy-Ann DeParle, and former senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer. He is of the national Democratic establishment as much as he’s oriented against Virginia’s political status quo.

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Likewise, the contest isn’t a race between a liberal or a moderate, or between heterodoxy and orthodoxy. Both Northam and Perriello have blemishes on their records that render them imperfect avatars of the progressive movement. Northam backed George W. Bush for president in 2004, and Perriello voted for an anti-abortion amendment to the Affordable Care Act. Both have apologized for their respective apostasy. Both, if elected, would be among the most liberal governors in the state’s history, having campaigned on free community college, a $15 minimum wage, and extensive job training.

Where they differ is in their larger view of where the state’s problems lie. Northam roots Virginia’s ills in gridlock and bills himself as the candidate best able to break that gridlock. “The politics of getting things done in Richmond can be very complicated, and it takes someone who has spent the time to know the issues and develop the relationships with key members of both parties to make progress,” said the lieutenant governor in a Washington Post interview.

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Perriello, however, takes a broader view, seeking to change a political culture that is beholden to corporate interests and monopolistic power. “We have a crazy system in Virginia, where we allow unlimited corporate contributions,” said Perriello in a March interview with the American Prospect magazine (full disclosure: I worked there from 2010 to 2013). “In an era of deep partisanship in Richmond, the only truly bipartisan consensus is taking money from Dominion Power.” Perriello has positioned himself against entrenched interests and for the small towns, rural enclaves, and inner cities that encompass the state’s landscape. It’s a variation on the populism of Bernie’s campaign, one that captures the spirit of Sanders’ appeal even if it doesn’t match the particulars.

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Perriello’s populism isn’t just about monopoly and corporate interests, however. It’s also explicitly about anti-racism and racial justice. And this makes it unique.

Over the course of his campaign, Bernie Sanders developed a strong racial justice platform. His key policies—universal health care, free higher education, action on climate change—would have disproportionately redounded to the benefit of black Americans. But Sanders, a veteran of Vermont politics, struggled to connect in predominantly black communities, especially in the South, where his campaign devoted too little time despite the region’s strategic significance. That move, of failing to develop a robust strategy for appealing to black voters—against a candidate with long ties to black political establishments across the country—was likely fatal. Had Sanders closed the gap with black voters, he might have won the nomination.

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It was a painful lesson, and one Perriello seems to have taken to heart. From the start, he has pitched his populist message to black Virginians, speaking to the state’s larger challenges as well as the particular concerns of those black communities. In a remarkable Medium post titled “Tackling the Racial Wealth Gap,” released a few weeks after he announced his campaign, Perriello outlined the history of racial discrimination in housing and education, decried predatory lenders and wage theft, and tied criminal justice reform to economic opportunity. “There’s a tremendous amount that we can do on a state level to reverse these discriminatory trends and help families gain financial stability and economic empowerment. But if we’re going to close the racial wealth gap, we have to address these problems head-on by acknowledging the role of race in economic disparities,” he wrote in a bold statement of priorities. In selling a higher minimum wage, Perriello has focused on the particular impact low wages have on black women and black families, called for greater investment in minority-owned businesses, and in debates, campaign stops, and advertisements has promised to “tackle systemic racism” and discrimination, even advocating a statewide commission on “racial healing and transformation,” to discuss the legacy of racism and Jim Crow in Virginia.

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This racial egalitarianism—which goes beyond traditional interest-group politics aimed at black communities—is unusual for white candidates anywhere, much less in Virginia, much less from a figure who has also touted his outreach to white rural Trump voters. And it is a real and substantial contrast with Northam’s softer-edged approach, and it reflects political reality: The Virginia electorate is about 20 percent black, and the Democratic primary electorate is roughly one-third. Northam, who represented heavily black areas of Hampton Roads as a state senator, enters the race with substantial support from black leaders in Virginia, including Rep. Bobby Scott, the state’s first black congressman since Reconstruction. Assuming an even split of white voters, the only way Perriello wins is with a substantial number of black ones. An early, consistent, and direct appeal to the full interests of black communities could get him there.

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We’ll soon learn if it’s successful. If it is, if Perriello wins the primary by breaking through to black voters, then his campaign will have real implications for the future. His success will suggest there isn’t an unbreakable establishment grip on black voters, who tend to back known quantities in politics, and that white progressives can win their support through deep and consistent engagement with black communities—speaking to all of their concerns. In turn, a white progressive candidate who can win substantial support among black voters is one who—in the South, or the mid-Atlantic, or the Rust Belt, or nationally—has a serious advantage over his or her primary opponents.

In other words, to build a successful progressive insurgency within the larger Democratic Party, you may have to start with black voters.

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