In Va.'s 5th, incumbent Democrat Tom Perriello sees voter frustration firsthand

By Karen Tumulty
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 8, 2010

CHARLOTTE COURT HOUSE, VA. -- The crowds that have been showing up for Democratic Rep. Tom Perriello's town halls have been smaller and more polite than the angry throngs he saw during last August's raucous congressional recess.

Catcalls about socialism and death panels have given way to substantive and pointed questions -- about the intricacies of the new health-care law and financial regulations, finding alternative energy sources, and that most perennial of Virginia problems, traffic.

Most of all, people want to talk about the economy.

Virginia's largely rural 5th Congressional District, first represented in Congress by James Madison, is a good place to see what Democrats across the country are up against in 2010.

In this district where unemployment is running in the double digits, "what you're seeing is a deeper anxiety," Perriello said Thursday after his second town hall in two days. "Can I just get through this quarter, and this month, and pay my bills? Can we ever get back" to where things used to be?

Gale-force outrage -- both the real kind and the kind manufactured for television -- has faded this August. There is still the occasional outburst: On Saturday, the Lynchburg Tea Party Patriots hastily called a rally outside a Perriello town hall in Fork Union to demand that he vote against $26 billion in aid to state and local governments when the House reconvenes briefly this week.

But when the shouting dies down, it becomes possible to hear something else, something Democrats know is an even greater threat to them this fall.

With polls consistently showing that dissatisfaction with Washington is at or near record levels, another word for what voters are feeling right now might be "frustration," or "despair," or "disgust." Ask Donald Burroughs which best describes his feeling about elected officials these days and he says, "All of it."

Two years ago, Burroughs cast his ballot for Perriello. It turned out to be the closest congressional race in the country, an election in which the Democrat came from 35 points behind in his own poll to win by 727 votes.

But Burroughs isn't sure he will support the 35-year-old freshman congressman again this November. Burroughs stood at the back of the Charlotte County Board of Supervisors meeting room listening to Perriello speak. A battered black cap in his hand identified him as a Desert Storm veteran.

"Put a man in office," he said. "Over a year later, I'm worse off than when he took office."

Burroughs, 45, has been looking for work for 16 months now, since the brake-shoe plant where he worked closed and moved to China.

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