For better or for worse, Va.'s Perriello wins Obama's cheers

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 29, 2010

What is it about Tom Perriello that makes the president swoon?

It's not just that the first-term congressman is an unapologetic Democrat who defends his vote for the health-care overhaul with gusto. It's that, in the thick of the fight last summer, when some Democrats hid from view, Perriello held more town hall meetings than any other congressman in the country.

It's not just that Perriello is a tireless campaigner who has done such things as hold 20 events over 24 hours this week. It's that he's a young, charismatic Democrat in the mold of President Obama, the kind of guy whose appeal - and proximity to Washington - attracts national outlets like the New Yorker and "The Colbert Report."

But most important, it's that he's doing it in a conservative central Virginia district with some of the state's highest unemployment rates and a general distaste for Obama.

In a national election that is almost certain to be seen as a repudiation of the president and his party's policies, Obama would like nothing more than to point to Perriello as a Democrat who succeeded - not in spite of his party and his voting record, but because he championed them. Both Democratic and Republican polls show Perriello narrowly trailing Republican Robert Hurt.

Perhaps for all those reasons, Obama will travel to Charlottesville on Friday to stump with Perriello, making him the only House member in the country to be bestowed with his own presidential rally this fall.

"There are a whole bunch of Democrats, guys like Tom Perriello in Virginia or John Boccieri in Ohio or Betsy Markey in Colorado, who are basically in Republican districts," Obama told comedian Jon Stewart during a "Daily Show" appearance in Washington on Wednesday. "They won in the big surge that we had in 2008. They knew it was going to be a tough battle, that these are generally pretty conservative districts, and yet they still went ahead and did what they thought was right."

Perriello won with a razor-thin margin in 2008 against six-term incumbent Virgil Goode, largely on the strength of his vote totals in Charlottesville, home of the University of Virginia and one of the few natural bases for the Democrat.

He also got help from the top of the ticket, where both Obama and Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) drew supporters to the polls. Obama barely lost the district, but voter turnout surged in Charlottesville and other cities with significant black populations.

The 727-vote margin was certified only after a recount, on Dec. 17 - making Perriello the last winner to be declared that year. That gave his tenure in Congress an aura from the very start: On the one hand, Democrats hailed him as an emblem of the breadth of their victories in 2008; on the other, he was instantly branded a top target for 2010 by Republicans who promised to retire him after a single term.

"The conventional wisdom has been wrong about me since my first day in politics," Perriello said in a telephone interview late Thursday. "They said I couldn't win. They said if I had any chance, I had to tear the other guy apart instead of what I did, which is to say there's a better place to jump to."

Perriello's voting record is not strictly pro-Obama, and his stances are not strictly liberal, allowing him to tout his independence to his constituents in Virginia's 5th District.

He voted against financial regulatory reform and is a critic of Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner, even calling for his ouster early in 2009. He earned an endorsement from the National Rifle Association. A proponent of what he calls conviction politics, Perriello also talks regularly about his Catholic faith, and he played a role in ensuring that the health-care legislation did not provide federal funding for abortions.

"Tom . . . is a person of conscience," said former Virginia governor Timothy M. Kaine, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee. "He is in this job to do good things, not to put something on his resume," Kaine said.

Perriello is helped by an incumbent's financial advantage: As of mid-October, he boasted $729,000 on hand while Hurt claimed just $285,000. More surprising, however, is the fact that Democratic independent groups have in recent days outspent Republicans in Virginia's 5th District, too.

Obama's visit is not a clear-cut benefit to Perriello. His opponent, Hurt, an affable lawyer and state senator from Chatham, is planning a news conference Friday to talk up Perriello's embrace of the president in a district where he is not popular.

"[The president's] visit will certainly remind people of the fact that Congressman Perriello voted with Obama on all the major issues, and on all the issues that I think so many people are disappointed about," Hurt said.

Hurt also questioned the notion that Perriello has, before now, embraced his pro-Obama voting record.

"He launched right out of the gate with negative ads against me - not because he's proud of his record but because he's ashamed of his record," Hurt said.

If Perriello's campaign is heavy on his personal story line and the authenticity of his positions, it is not guileless. His commercials are quirky and fun but pointed, too, including one in 2008 that showed a race car with the corporate interests that gave money to his opponent painted on the car as sponsors.

Perriello is also running ads suggesting that Hurt was not the most conservative candidate to seek the Republican nomination. Hurt beat out a bevy of tea-party-backed hopefuls, and hard feelings remain among some who see the nominee as tied to the establishment.

Perhaps Perriello's greatest asset is his proximity to Washington. That was no small factor in Obama's decision to visit Charlottesville. It also helps explain the raft of stories about Perriello's tenure in national publications and helped elevate his stature in Washington.

"Win or lose, I hope people will see in the way that we outperformed expectations that there are more important things than winning elections," Perriello said.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company