CHARLOTTESVILLE — At the first large rally of his upstart Virginia gubernatorial campaign, Tom Perriello on Friday defended progressivism in the era of President Trump and offered himself before a packed concert hall as the candidate raring to fight for liberal causes.
Bluegrass bands warmed up the crowd of about 500 before the former congressman emerged on a stage wearing a black blazer and blue jeans, standing in front of a drum set with theatrical smoke curling behind him.
His speech quickly turned to the White House instead of the governor’s mansion. He said he has seen demagogues up close as a State Department envoy to Africa and he denounced Friday’s federal immigration raids.
Perriello (D) called the November election a “game changer for me,” inspiring him to jump into the race to try to defend progressive values. He noted that Trump’s loss in Virginia — the only Southern state to vote for Hillary Clinton — was “the worst of any Republican candidate in my lifetime.”
“That’s because progressive values are Virginia values,” he said. “Progressives are a majority of Virginia. Progressives are the future of Virginia.”
Perriello shocked the Democratic establishment by deciding in early January to mount a late primary challenge to Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam. Since then, his campaign says it raised more than $1.1 million, and has staffed up with veterans of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) and Clinton’s presidential campaigns.
Northam’s campaign on Saturday struck back against Perriello’s attempt to claim the mantle of progressive champion, the first direct criticism leveled by either candidate during the campaign for the June Democratic primary.
A spokesman criticized Perriello’s conservative stances in Congress — including supporting a measure to allow oil and gas drilling off Virginia’s coast, defending the National Rifle Association and voting for an amendment to the Affordable Care Act that would have restricted funding to insurance plans that cover abortion.
“When it came time to stand up to big oil, stare down the NRA or commit to being pro-choice, Tom’s boldness vanished,” Northam campaign spokesman David Turner said. “Dr. Northam has been standing up for women’s health care, civil rights and gun reform his entire career, winning the fights in Virginia.”
Perriello now says he’s skeptical of off-shore drilling, calls the NRA a “nut-job extremist group” and penned a Facebook post in the first days of his campaign apologizing for his vote on the abortion amendment.
So far, Perriello has avoided direct criticism of Northam. Without mentioning his genteel opponent’s name, Perriello sold himself as the candidate best able to turn out voters anxious about Republican domination of Washington.
“I’m not scared of a fight,” Perriello said at the rally. “I’m not scared to be bold because that’s what our times deserve.”
Perriello said earlier in the week that he opposes two planned natural-gas pipelines in the commonwealth, putting him at odds with Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) but winning plaudits from environmentalists. His loudest applause of the night came when he reiterated that stance.
Charlottesville is friendly territory for Perriello, 42. It is the liberal bastion of the conservative central and southern Virginian congressional district he represented from 2009 to 2011. Many attendees said they have been fans of Perriello since his days in Washington, and one even sported a button from his 2008 campaign.
But many local activists and officeholders had already endorsed Northam, including Charlottesville Mayor Michael Signer (D) who showed up at the concert hall but said he was still backing the lieutenant governor.
Diane Hillman, a Charlottesville resident who researches health policy, said a key lesson from the presidential election was the importance of turning voters out, and she said Perriello’s “enormous energy” and the diversity of Friday’s crowd boded well on that front.
“I was shocked to see how many people under 40 are here,” said Hillman, 68, who said she’s a fixture at local political rallies. “A lot of time it’s the same old people my age.”
In interviews, attendees who paid $50 to get in said they’d be happy with either Northam or Perriello as their party’s nominee. But they said they preferred the newcomer’s forceful style for the current political environment, and were willing to forgive Perriello’s past conservative stances such as his opposition in Congress to an assault weapons ban.
“Tom has more energy and passion,” said Kathryn Laughon, a 52-year-old Charlottesville nurse. “Have you heard Ralph speak? It’s just not what he does. He’s a good man, he’s a smart man, his policy is sound. I just don’t think he inspires the passion that Tom does.”
Perriello ended his speech with a rousing appeal to reject Trump by supporting his campaign.
“This year, the first chance to defeat Donald Trump is in this election here in Virginia,” he said.