Across Virginia, progressive activists have been frustrated by the refusal of some Republican members of Congress to hold town hall meetings. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Perriello is offering to give them an audience instead.
It is the latest move by the former one-term congressman to appeal to Democratic voters newly engaged in politics or energized by their opposition to President Trump.
While Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, his rival for the Democratic nomination, has been tied up in Richmond during this final week of the legislative session, Perriello has held town halls in Manassas and Fredericksburg, with another scheduled for Friday in Harrisonburg. In those communities, GOP Reps. Barbara Comstock, Rob Wittman and Bob Goodlatte all have declined to face voters in person.
“They’d be much better off standing in front of their constituents and taking the tongue-lashing and the stories than running away,” Perriello told several dozen people who gathered for his town hall event in Manassas on Monday.
Perriello is speaking to much smaller and friendlier audiences than the raucous crowds needling Republicans at home this week while Congress is in recess. He said that he faced hundreds of angry constituents and tea party activists at town hall meetings during the debate over the Affordable Care Act in 2009 and that they continued showing up in Republican-leaning pockets of the state throughout his primary campaign.
“If we as progressives care about human suffering . . . we have to be showing up where people are in pain, and we have to be listening,” Perriello said at a gathering Wednesday at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg.
That won him praise from attendees who said they felt frustrated by Republicans who do not seem to want to engage with ideological opponents.
“A lot of people are looking for an antidote to Trump and Trumpism, and I think that’s what he can be,” said Sarah Hansen, president of the University of Mary Washington Young Democrats.
David D’Onofrio, a spokesman for the Republican Party of Virginia, said congressional Republicans communicate with their constituents in ways other than town hall settings.
“Virginia Republicans know their districts,” D’Onofrio said in a statement. “They won election because they know their districts, and they continue to win because they’re doing what their constituents want them to do.”
Perriello surprised many Democrats when he launched his campaign last month, upending plans for an uncontested march to the nomination for Northam.
Trump’s election changed the political landscape, Perriello said, adding that the governor’s race is Virginia voters’ first opportunity to reject the president at the ballot box. Only Virginia and New Jersey have gubernatorial races in 2017.
“What is going to get us into a winning strategy?” Perriello said at his Manassas gathering. “Tapping into the energy we are talking about tonight, and having someone who is outside of career politics is going to be crucial.”
That is a welcome message for some Democrats with lingering frustrations over the 2016 loss and the subsequent response to Trump.
Perriello is “one of us,” said Marilyn Karp, 75, a Haymarket retiree who joined a branch of the Indivisible grass-roots group after deeming her local Democratic Party committee ineffective.
“We are running one thousand miles an hour. The Democratic Party is moving two miles an hour,” she said.
Jennifer Duffy, an analyst who follows gubernatorial contests for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said that winning over the party’s activist base is crucial to Perriello’s chances in the June primary.
“The people who are the most fired-up voters, who really care about this stuff, aren’t that interested in hearing about the need for compromise or the way someone worked through a legislature,” Duffy said. “They want a purist, and in some regards right now, Perriello is more of a purist.”
Still, it is unclear whether new activists will show up to vote in an off-year primary, when turnout is usually low and dominated by the party faithful.
Northam, who has an edge in campaign cash and a longer history in state politics as a legislator and as a statewide officeholder, has spent years building support among local officials and party leaders across the state. A self-described fiscal moderate, Northam has also consistently embraced liberals’ goals on social issues, which is not the case with Perriello.
At the town hall meetings, Perriello explained his past support for the National Rifle Association and his vote in Congress to bar federal funding for insurance plans that cover abortions — shifts in position that have been flagged by Northam, who has long supported gun control and abortion rights.
Perriello also highlighted his opposition to two planned natural-gas pipelines in the state as a key policy difference with Northam, who has offered conditional support for those projects as long as they do not compromise property rights, safety and the environment.
Northam returns to the campaign trail full time on Monday after the legislative session wraps up. He announced a workforce development plan Thursday that would include state funding for training and community college degrees in certain high-demand fields.