Q&A: The Pragmatic Populism of Tom Perriello

AP Photo/Steve Helber

Former Virginia Congressman Tom Perriello speaks to the crowd during a rally announcing his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for governor of Virginia in Charlottesville. 

The first time Virginia Democrat Tom Perriello ran for office, it was 2008, and Barack Obama was on his way to winning the White House. An Obama champion, Perriello nevertheless managed to win a House seat in Virginia’s ruby-red Fifth District by balancing his progressive instincts with a conservative sensibility. But two years later, Perriello was unseated after one term in a Tea Party wave that saw half of Virginia’s House Democrats voted out of office.

Now, Perriello is back on the campaign trail, having announced in January that he would jump into Virginia’s Democratic gubernatorial primary. The race had looked all but locked up by Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam, who has received endorsements from most elected officials in the state, including term limited Governor Terry McAuliffe. But most Democratic voters are undecided. Along with New Jersey, Virginia is one of only two states with off-year gubernatorial elections, the first since Trump’s arrival in the White House. In a contest that is shaping up to be a referendum on the newly elected president, Perriello has promised to deliver a ‘pragmatic populism’ built on middle-out economics and bipartisan problem solving.

In a conversation with The American Prospect’s Manuel Madrid, Perriello discussed campaign finance reform, nonpartisan redistricting, and fighting the Trump administration. What follows is a condensed and edited version of that interview:

Manuel Madrid: You’ve said before that Donald Trump’s victory inspired you to run for governor, and that you want to build a progressive firewall against his policies. Do you see a role for Democrats to obstruct Trump in the way Republicans did Obama during the Tea Party days?

Tom Perriello: Absolutely, but Democrats need to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. We have to be uncompromising in our resistance to both the policy and rhetoric of hate and bigotry. I will certainly look for every legal authority as governor to prevent the kind of actions we've seen that bully the vulnerable and undermine our best values. There's been some debate nationally about a false choice between whether this election was about race or about economic anxiety. The two things have always gone hand in hand. And the more we offer an agenda of truly inclusive economic growth that doesn't leave any region or community of color behind, then Trump’s offer of blaming people who don't look like you is less compelling.

If you are elected governor, you may have to deal with a Republican-controlled legislature, and there may be limits to what you can do. If you had to set three priorities, in terms of policy goals, what would they be?

First of all, I'm going to challenge the premise, because I think if our coalition shows up this year, we could run the tables on the delegates races and on local races. There are more than enough progressives to win back these seats. There are 17 seats in the House of Delegates that were won by [former] Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton. It's very important that we don't accept the premise that just because progressives haven't shown up in state elections before, that we can't show up now.

Second, the most impactful thing that I will do as governor is to oversee the redistricting process, and I will veto any map that comes to me that is partisan in nature. Progressives are the majority in Virginia, and we're growing. Third, we can create new coalitions for policy breakthroughs across the aisle. One example has been criminal-justice reform, where you've seen in a state like Virginia, partly because of the tragedy of the opioid epidemic, that some very conservative parts of the state are rethinking the question [of] whether investing so much money in prisons, instead of in people and prevention, really makes sense.

So those would be the top two. You’ve mentioned that you want to raise the state minimum wage. Does that factor into your top priorities?

Absolutely. I've supported a $15 an hour minimum wage with paid medical leave, but I've also been honest with people that the current legislature is not going to be supportive of that, so we're going to have to find common ground that puts us in that direction. One of the things I try to say to people is: Don't think about $7.25 an hour—think about $14,000 a year. Think about what it means to try and live in Virginia on $14,000 a year. Now, imagine doing it if you're a single mom. Let's think about $28,000 a year. That's a level, at least outside of northern Virginia, where you might actually be able to live without feeling like you are on the brink of going under.

We need to figure out the pathways into $28,000 a year jobs, or better. The priority is to create an economy that allows people to move into the middle class.

One of the first policy proposals I came out with was making two years of community college, or apprenticeship program, or a career in technical training free. Some people say: "Oh, we don't need another charity or another entitlement." This is an investment. If you help move someone from minimum wage, where they're getting public assistance, into a $28,000 a year job, where they're paying taxes, that program pays for itself. We need to reengineer our thinking of what it means to make an investment versus an expenditure.

You've described yourself as a “pragmatic populist,” your politics a combination of the politics of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. But your current education plan is actually less progressive than those proposed by both presidential candidates during the Democratic primary. Take the case of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who just recently proposed four-year tuition-free higher education for families making less than $150,000. Do you think that's feasible in Virginia?

It's a question of priorities. I actually do think higher education should be free, but I do think we should prioritize those who have the greatest need. The fact of the matter is, many people can take that two-year community college degree and matriculate into a Virginia Commonwealth University, or a George Mason, or a University of Virginia, still end up with a four-year degree, and they've effectively cut their debt in half. What we want to do is destigmatize and elevate the role of trades. There are a lot of people coming out of apprenticeships run by our unions with no debt at all. They’re getting paid for on-the-job training and moving well into the middle-class. So, part of what I do want to do is challenge the hierarchy that one of these paths is better than the other.

Virginia’s campaign-finance laws are some of the most lenient in the country, allowing, for example, the use of campaign funds for personal expenses. How troubling is corporate influence on politics in Virginia?

It's hugely problematic, and we'd love to look at any package of reforms that would limit corporate influence. We have a crazy system in Virginia, where we allow unlimited corporate contributions. In an era of deep partisanship in Richmond, the only truly bipartisan consensus is taking money from Dominion Power. A good rule in politics is to follow the money, and it’s a huge problem in Virginia. I think the fact that I'm not taking any money from the state-regulated monopolies is very important.

One of the things that I noticed while I was in Congress is that it's not just the kind of quid-pro-quo corruption that we've seen with some of our legislators. For example, they're against payday lenders, they take contributions from payday lenders, and suddenly soften on the policy. That's old-school corruption. What you see more of now is what I call the soft corruption of priorities.

The amount of time spent raising money requires spending time with people who can write checks of, say, $500 or more. You may be around liberal people, but there's a very good chance that the grinding issues of poverty, unemployment, or foreclosures are somehow a little less viscerally high on the priority list than other issues. It can affect a lot of how the Democratic Party thinks about the economy. It would be great to clean that up. In Virginia, we have the problem of an election every year, which … ends up wasting a lot of money and exhausts people from the constant campaigns.

Have you found that to be an issue in your campaign, a widespread unawareness of the coming election?

It's concerning, and the burden is on us to reverse this, how many people don't know a state election is going, and how impactful state elections are. We have in Virginia, for all of our progress, one of the most repressive criminal codes in the country. You steal a cell phone—that's considered a felony in Virginia—and you’re in the system.

On voting rights, we continue to have one of the worst laws in terms of people's revocation of voting rights. Governor McAuliffe deserves a lot of credit for restoring those individually. He got pushed back by the state Supreme Court a couple times and kept coming at it.

Is that something you would continue on doing individually?

We will, but we also want to focus on fewer people having their rights taken away in the first place, so that fewer people are on that prison pipeline. There's growing bipartisan consensus that we can do so. If you look at that school-to-prison pipeline, we have suspension rates that are not only extremely high, but disproportionately applied according to race. We still have a lot of work to be done in our system. But because of these changing winds, if we can build the right coalition, we might be able to see some real progress.

Would you consider decriminalizing marijuana or commuting sentences for persons that have gone to prison for a nonviolent offense that involved marijuana?

Yes. We've talked about the need to look at both medicinal use and low-level decriminalization. Overall, we need to be driven by the evidence, and the evidence is that criminalizing nonviolent offenses is very expensive and costly. That system's just not working. We have to look more generally at how we can try to getting people on a school-to-workforce pipeline, instead of a school-to-prison pipeline. And not destroying someone’s life for what might be a small mistake or not a mistake at all.

You said redistricting was the most important thing you’d do as governor. Would you consider establishing a nonpartisan committee to draw these district lines in 2021?

Absolutely. One Virginia 2021 is a great organization that has been advancing nonpartisan redistricting. There are a number of ways to get to the right product, but the principle is to veto any map that comes forward that is partisan in nature, from either party. We should not be afraid of a level playing field. Our ideas are better, our coalition is bigger. Momentum in Virginia is in our direction. It's better for democracy, it’s the right way to go, and I'd make that commitment as governor.

I wanted to quickly jump to climate policy. Given that this new administration is not likely to be as fervent on climate progress as the previous administration, and actually likely to go in the opposite direction, what role do you think states have in continuing the charge?

I want Virginia to be at the forefront of the clean energy economy, because that's where the jobs are, and because it has huge implications for our state's economy, including the resilience of our military bases in the Tidewater [southeast Virginia] area. We've already seen dramatic flooding increases. I met this week in Newport News with families who have been disproportionately affected by flooding already. We don't want a situation where climate impacts is one of the excuses cited for why the government may not continue to invest in our [military] bases.

I’ve come out in opposition to two proposed natural gas pipelines in Virginia because it's the exact opposite way of where we want to be going, which is linking more to a fossil-fuel economy. I think the gains of natural gas have been overstated when you include all of the leakage, the extraction, and the burning combined. This is a place where, again, you sometimes have to follow the money. Until we can loosen the iron grip the big utilities have on the legislature, it’s going to be difficult for Virginia’s policies to be as innovative and left-leaning as the state’s businesses and people are.

Virginia has its own interest in meeting our climate standards, independent of what the federal government does. I also think we have an interest in letting the federal government know the costs to our state of repealing the rules and the progress that have been made. [EPA] Administrator [Scott] Pruitt is probably the second scariest Trump nominee after [Attorney General] Jeff Sessions—though that's a highly competitive list—because the actions we're likely to see will be will be dramatic in terms of rolling back clean air, clean water, and climate progress.

Have any of your policy inclinations changed since you were in Congress?

One policy area that’s been really reinforced is looking seriously at inequality. When I was looking at the Quadrennial Diplomacy Development Review of the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, one of the interesting things being said by counter-terrorism experts is that GDP has become meaningless to them. They used to try to understand the stability of a country by looking at its GDP. But because GDP has become less and less connected to issues of job growth and the middle class, really what you want to look in terms of stability are things like: What is the inequality coefficient? What is the joblessness for youth? What is the age in which a young man can buy his first home, which in many countries correlates to when he can get married? How much exclusion is there in the economy for minority groups or others? If this is something we look at overseas to better understand the stability of countries, it's the same stuff we should be talking about at home. GDP isn't enough. We need to understand these more important dynamics of inequality.

Virginia Democrats are faced with a choice between two progressive candidates. What sets you apart from Lieutenant Governor Northam?

I give Democrats the best chance to win in the fall. I've had success running as a progressive in a very red part of the state. People really care a lot that I’ve come out against these gas pipelines and, more importantly, that I refused to take any money from some of the biggest companies in the state, including Dominion Power. Ultimately, this a moment where people are looking for a Democrat who's a fighter, and can stand up to the bullying we see from Washington, but also someone who has been ahead of the curve on these issues of inequality and disruptions in the economy. When Democrats run on a status quo message, we tend to lose. When we run on a change message, we tend to do well. I think that my time in the progressive movement, matched with my time in Congress, gives me a combination of insider pragmatism and outsider populism that can really help—not to just win the election, but also to govern well.