Democratic Rep. Tom Perriello, shown speaking at an elementary school in Rustburg, Va., is being targeted by Republicans after narrowly winning his seat in 2008.
Democratic Rep. Tom Perriello, shown speaking at an elementary school in Rustburg, Va., is being targeted by Republicans after narrowly winning his seat in 2008. Art Silverman/NPR
In Virginia's sprawling 5th Congressional District, which covers historically conservative territory, seven Republican candidates are competing in Tuesday's primary to take on freshman Democrat Tom Perriello.
As Republicans try to make gains in Congress in this year's midterm elections, they are hungering to take back traditionally GOP-held seats that were lost in 2008.
Perriello, who won in a shocking upset two years ago, is considered highly vulnerable — and Republicans are making this seat a special focus of attention.
"This looks like a district that's ripe for the taking," says Isaac Wood, who follows House races at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.
He says Perriello's votes for the president's stimulus plan, for cap-and-trade legislation and for the health care overhaul could make him a one-term congressman.
"I think Perriello was sticking his neck out on those votes," Wood says. "And that's something he pledged to do when he ran for Congress. He talked about 'conviction politics,' which I call 'don't-try-this-at-home politics,' because he decided he was going to vote the way that he felt was right, regardless of what the polls said."
Two years ago, Perriello squeaked by the popular, longtime Republican incumbent by just 727 votes — in a district that went for John McCain.
At 35, Perriello is a newcomer to this business: He had never run for office before.
"You know, I don't come out of party politics. I don't come out of politics," he says. "And it's just hard for me to see the kind of economic crisis here, the kind of good, decent people trying to find jobs, and then go up to Washington and see that kind of just soulless, spineless absurdity."
Perriello visited constituent Irene Lewis last week to wish her a happy 105th birthday. Her granddaughter says Lewis still plants her own tomatoes.
Perriello visited constituent Irene Lewis last week to wish her a happy 105th birthday. Her granddaughter says Lewis still plants her own tomatoes. Art Silverman/NPR
Perriello's Virginia district is the size of New Jersey, which means he's put a lot of miles on his white Ford Ranger pickup truck as he campaigns.
On a recent day, there's Lynyrd Skynyrd on the radio, granola bars in the glove compartment and a visit on the schedule — to a woman who could be his oldest constituent, Irene Lewis.
"I understand you're turning 105 years old tomorrow," Perriello says when he arrives. "I wanted to come by and personally wish you a happy birthday."
"I appreciate that," says Lewis, who is dressed up for the visit, in a skirt and hose and low heels. Her granddaughter says Lewis still plants her own tomatoes.
"We hope you see many more birthdays," Perriello says. "I look forward to your 110th in five years."
"I don't know about that," she retorts, and gets a laugh in return.
An Economic Focus
Spend time with him, and you do sense that Perriello isn't so comfortable with small talk, the backslapping and glad-handing that's the stuff of a campaign. He has a serious intensity.
Perriello went to Yale for college and law school. Over the course of two days on the campaign trail, in conversations about his Catholic faith and "conviction politics," he folds in references to Martin Luther King, Seinfeld, the film director M. Night Shyamalan and Cato, the statesman of ancient Rome.
His passion is a granular focus on the local economy and jobs.
Last Tuesday, Perriello stopped by the Monogram snack food plant in Martinsville, Va., near the North Carolina border. Martinsville has the state's highest unemployment rate, a whopping 22 percent.
During her time in Rep. Tom Perriello's Virginia district, NPR's Melissa Block visited Martinsville, a town hit hard by the economic downturn. In a post for the Political Junkie blog, she examines the 5th Congressional District's economic woes and the effect they have on the campaign:
Twenty-two percent unemployment. That's the harsh reality facing Martinsville, Va., on the southern edge of the state, close by the North Carolina border. It's also the reality facing those trying to win votes in Virginia's 5th Congressional District.
If you drive around Martinsville, you see plenty of evidence of a local economy that's hemorrhaged jobs: huge, empty plants, with signs out front offering tens of thousands of square feet to buy or lease.
For generations, the southern part of Virginia was buoyed by vibrant textile and furniture industries.
The factory turns out more processed meat snacks than you can dream of: Slim Jim, Hannah's Big Pickled Sausage, Jeff Foxworthy Jerky.
Perriello is at the plant to talk up a local benefit from the stimulus plan he voted for: a nearly $6 million federal loan guarantee so this company can refinance at more favorable rates.
"Really appreciate everything y'all do on the line, and appreciate the business having the courage to expand in a tough economic environment," he tells the crowd.
Monogram is an unusual success story for Martinsville: It's nearly doubled its employees since September. But all around southside Virginia, you see one abandoned factory after another — furniture and textile plants that have closed their doors, gone overseas, whacked by NAFTA.
And when the congressman sits down to talk with the workers, jobs are on everyone's mind.
Perriello talks up his votes to extend unemployment insurance and to close tax loopholes for companies sending jobs overseas. He talks about the promise of using local biomass and cow manure for energy.
Fighting Washington's 'Games'
Back in his truck, between glances at his BlackBerry, Perriello gets fired up thinking about the many thousands of jobs lost in his district.
He's frustrated by what he calls the "games" played in Washington, especially by Republican leaders, whom he considers morally empty.
"You see these jobs bills that could actually be putting people to work — that are smart, pragmatic solutions," he says. "And you see them playing games. It's like, 'Go spend a day with someone trying to find a job. Go spend, you know, a week trying to live on minimum wage. And then come back and have the nerve to try to kill this jobs bill by doing something that will create a 30-second spot in the election.' "
Perriello comes from a well-known family near Charlottesville. His father was a pediatrician. After law school, he spent two years living in Sierra Leone, working on human rights and war crimes cases. He came back home and put his Catholic faith to work through progressive religious groups. He says it was his faith, in part, that called him to politics.
Last August, when the health care debate reached fever pitch, Perriello held 21 town hall meetings in his district — more than any other congressman. He would stay for five hours at a time, listening to people vent their anger.
He says he welcomed that debate at home. But not the million dollars in ads that interest groups took out against him.
"The demagoguing about death panels and other just outright lies are not worthy of the American people," he says. "They poison and corrupt a sacred space of public trust."
Perriello doesn't mince words about the failures of Democrats, either, who he says take a good, bold idea, and then cut it in half to appeal to the center.
"I think one problem that a lot of liberals have is that they feel like once they pass good policy and they get The New York Times editorial board to say it was good policy, that should be the end of the conversation," he says. "No, your job is to go out and communicate with your constituents; go out and make the case. And yes, it sucks that the other side has $100 million dollars' worth of free propaganda every week that we have to go up against. But roll up your sleeves, get to work, make the case — because the facts are on our side."
He pauses, then adds wryly, "But what do I know?"
What he does know is that days after he voted yes on the health care overhaul bill, his family was threatened. Tea Party bloggers posted his brother's address online. Someone stole his brother's security lights and cut the gas line to his grill. The FBI is investigating.
'It's Going To Be Tough'
Last Tuesday night, Perriello opened his campaign office in Martinsville, rallying the troops with a populist message.
"We got to have a level playing field. We can't have these corporate loopholes for jobs to go overseas. We can't have the trade deals that sell out the American worker, just so Wall Street can make a few bucks," he said.
The tiny room was packed with volunteers drinking in his pledge to make southside Virginia the capital of the new energy economy. He told them a year and a half in Congress hasn't been enough.
"I need a little more time," he said.
Martinsville is Democratic territory in a red district. Perriello will need a strong showing in places like this to overcome the district's deep conservative leanings. And he won't have President Obama's coattails to help him.
The Republican Party has promised to go all out to "pink slip" Perriello. Their primary Tuesday will shape the course of the campaign.
Perriello supporter John Bowles knows it will be a struggle.
"Well, it’s going to be tough. We're not going to roll over and play dead — I mean, that's pretty evident here tonight," he said. "That's what I'm excited about. So I'm ready to go!"