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A New Breed of Congressman

By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 7, 2009; B01

In his new Capitol Hill office, Rep. Tom Perriello, 34, displays a diverse collection of mementos. There's the camouflage hunting ballcap on the bookshelf, and the painting of Virginia International Raceway in the back corner.

But the shelf also shows a photograph of the boyish Democrat posing with Darfurian councilmen from genocide-ravaged Sudan, and on his desk sits a shell casing he acquired in 2005 while meeting with the Sudanese Liberation Army.

"I am in a very different kind of conflict zone here in Washington," Perriello said in the Longworth House Office Building suite vacated by the conservative Republican from southern Virginia whom he defeated in November. He said his experience in impoverished areas, from Sudan to Southside Virginia, has broadened him. "It is a perspective to keep -- that as much as I am being asked to put in 18 to 20 hours a day, it's nothing compared to what folks in Danville or Martinsville are going through."

Perriello joins several Democratic newcomers from Maryland and Virginia on Capitol Hill: Rep. Frank M. Kratovil Jr. from Maryland's Eastern Shore, Rep. Gerald E. Connolly from Northern Virginia, Rep. Glenn C. Nye from Hampton Roads and Sen. Mark R. Warner (Va.). All were sworn in yesterday as the 111th Congress convened.

In the 5th District in southern Virginia, which includes Charlottesville but is dominated by more than a dozen largely rural counties hit hard by unemployment, few predicted that a political novice with a background in environmental and social justice work could accomplish what eluded other Democrats: unseating 12-year incumbent Virgil H. Goode Jr.

Now that Perriello has the privilege of redecorating Goode's office -- secured with a 727-vote margin of victory after a recount -- he has proclaimed himself part of a "Service Generation" of young leaders who come to politics from backgrounds in the nonprofit sector or in social entrepreneurship.

In his district, voters and mystified pundits, who have been trying to figure out how Perriello eked out the win, conclude that no single factor was responsible. Statewide victories by the Democrats at the top of the ticket -- presidential candidate Barack Obama and Warner, a popular former governor -- helped. But Republican presidential candidate John McCain won the 5th District, and Perriello received more votes there than Obama did.

Waldo Jaquith, a local blogger who helps run the Web site Richmondsunlight.com, which follows the General Assembly, said Perriello's win was so stunning that Jaquith and his brother are hunting for crow -- so they can eat it, figuratively and literally.

"We have hours of videotape of us walking through woods, carrying guns. We really feel like we have to eat crow," Jaquith said. "We just kept saying during the campaign there was no way he'd win. Having seen how other candidates lost spectacularly, I had no faith that Tom Perriello could do differently."

But with the help of more than $1.7 million in donations -- nearly three times the amount raised by Goode's 2006 Democratic opponent, Al Weed -- Perriello devised funny and memorable television advertisements to boost his name recognition south of his home in the Charlottesville area.

The ads reached into distressed areas near the North Carolina border, where textile and furniture factories once reigned. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee also poured in money in its "Red to Blue" program.

Weed, who lost to Goode in 2006 by nearly 20 percentage points, said Perriello's ease in talking about his Catholic faith and his support for gun rights appealed to voters. Also, Democrats in southern Virginia were more organized in 2008. "If I was the sacrificial lamb [in 2006], that's fine with me," Weed said, chuckling.

Democratic strategists and other analysts note that Perriello got an early start in setting up offices in the district's rural parts and that there were tens of thousands of newly registered voters. They also point to Goode's widely reported comments in 2006, when he strongly suggested that he wanted Muslims out of Congress and said he feared that the nation's Muslim population would rise if the country did not adopt more exclusive immigration policies.

Fred Hudson, the district's Democratic Party chairman, said voters felt that Goode, who first won the seat in 1996 as a Democrat, had moved too far to the right. "They felt, 'This guy's getting to be embarrassing,' " Hudson said.

Goode did not respond to a message left with his wife yesterday.

Perriello grew up just outside Charlottesville in Albermarle County, where his father, Vito Perriello, is a well-known pediatrician who recently retired. In high school, Perriello joined his father on a volunteer trip to Honduras, helping to provide medical care in poor communities.

After graduating from Yale in 1996, Perriello worked for various environmental nonprofit organizations. He then went back to Yale for a law degree. Afterward, he turned down a consulting job at McKinsey & Co. and began working in Sierra Leone through a fellowship sponsored partly by Yale. He eventually got a job as a special adviser to the prosecutor trying Liberian dictator Charles Taylor.

He returned to the United States in late 2003, helped start some religious-based nonprofits and worked as a security consultant in Afghanistan. Inspired by James Webb's improbable 2006 victory over Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), Perriello decided to run for Congress.

"A number of my colleagues -- 'newly electeds' -- served in the Peace Corps, worked for charter schools and were part of affordable-housing nonprofits. I see a lot of that in the new members," Perriello said. "I call us the Service Generation. What's changed is we've gone from being the community service generation to the public service generation."

Yesterday, Perriello, with a morning fix of Diet Dr. Pepper and a chicken biscuit, scrambled around Capitol Hill like a giddy student. As he was en route to pick up his congressional identification and pins, a security officer tried halting him as he bypassed monitors meant for visitors.

Finally, his parents, Vito and Linda, came, bearing homemade cookies. As the three Perriellos waited for the elevator, the doors opened and a young woman recognized the young congressman. "I talked to you on Facebook!" she said, extending her hand for a shake. Perriello was blushing.

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