John Podesta, the chair of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, served as counselor to President Barack Obama and chief of staff to President Bill Clinton.
This column has been updated to note Virginia gubernatorial candidate Tom Perriello’s previous affiliation with the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank founded by the author.
The recent race for Democratic National Committee chairman was frequently presented as a fight for the party’s future between its activist wing, which backed Rep. Keith Ellison (Minn.), and the establishment wing, which backed former labor secretary Tom Perez. That framing was misleading: Ellison and Perez are both longtime progressives. It was a big choice, but one thing was always clear about the Democratic Party’s direction: Progressivism would win.
Now, in Virginia, another battle for the future of the Democratic Party is being waged by two progressives: Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and former congressman Tom Perriello. Both are strong candidates for Virginia governor, but Perriello is the better choice for the party’s future during a Trump presidency.
Each candidate has impressive credentials. Northam has served his country as an Army physician for eight years and the commonwealth of Virginia as an elected official for the past nine years. He has the support of much of Virginia’s senior elected officials, including Gov. Terry McAuliffe. Perriello was elected to the House of Representatives in a conservative district in 2008. He was defeated two years later because he put people before politics, casting politically courageous votes for the Affordable Care Act and President Barack Obama’s stimulus package. He later served with distinction in the Obama administration’s State Department. (Disclosure: From 2011 to 2014, Perriello was president and chief executive of the Center for American Progress Action Fund and a policy adviser at the Center for American Progress, the progressive advocacy group I founded and remain involved with as a board member.)
Because, as with Ellison and Perez, both men are progressives, the differences on issues are relatively minor, particularly compared with the gulf between Democrats and Republicans. But picking the best nominee is crucial, because Virginia provides the first big electoral test of the Trump presidency. It’s the first chance to take to the ballot box and make President Trump the thing he hates most: a loser. Historically, Virginia’s off-year gubernatorial election has foreseen big trends to come. In 2005, Tim Kaine’s victory set the table for the 2006 Democratic wave, when the party regained control of the House and Senate. In 2009, Robert F. McDonnell’s victory presaged the tea party wave of 2010, when those Democratic majorities were decimated.
In 2017, Virginians will serve as a bellwether on not just whether the nation will repudiate Trump, but also what kind of Democrat can thrive in this new political order. Northam’s establishment support should not be ignored, but the real question before Virginians is who can harness the enthusiasm and energy unleashed by Trump’s assault on traditional American values during the early months of his erratic presidency. Here, Perriello has the edge.
I met Perriello more than a decade ago, when he was unifying the progressive faith community to resist the efforts of the Bush administration and religious right to divide Americans and wage culture wars. He is running as an avowed critic of Trump — decrying his Muslim ban and deportation raids, joining the Women’s March and the protests at Dulles International Airport and holding Trump’s feet to the fire about the bill of goods he sold working Americans.
What’s particularly impressive about Perriello is that he has his ear to the ground. He speaks to the economic anger and anxiety of families he meets and is offering new ideas to grow their incomes; he opposes natural-gas pipelines that threaten private land, and hesupports clean-energy development and real solutions to our climate challenge; and he is elevating racial justice and poverty as central problems to be addressed by a state with a checkered past. He’s also vowing to veto any redistricting map drawn on a partisan basis, one of any governor’s most significant responsibilities in 2020.
The future of the Democratic Party will be defined by who can tap the anxieties, frustrations and energy of millions of Americans rising up to resist the Trump administration and forge a different path forward. Tom Perriello is offering a blueprint. Democrats should pay attention.