Focus | Perriello: Baptism by fire
Story by Chris Graham
With AFP Audio
Tom Perriello picked a great time to be a freshman congressman, what with the country in January on the verge of the next Great Depression and with so much unresolved in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the push from the electorate in the ’08 elections for change on health care.
“Never a dull moment. It’s hard to imagine a more contentious year,” said Perriello, D-Fifth District, who was elected in 2008 on a mandate of change in the country and in the Fifth and will head into his first re-election battle in 2010 on the heels of news that a Danville-area conservative group had broached publicly the idea of burning him in effigy to protest his votes on cap-and-trade legislation and the still-contentious health-care issue.
Perriello did his best to shrug off a question on the burn-in-effigy item. “I’ve been targeted by warlords in West Africa, I’ve now been threatened with being burned in effigy here. I think you’ve just got to know in your core that you’re doing what’s right and stand by that,” said Perriello, who to his credit has made it a point to reach out to constituents of all political persuasions in the Fifth, which stretches from the Charlottesville area to Southside, including hosting several town-hall meetings on health care in the summer and making regular rounds of the large geographical area encompassed in the Fifth year-round.
“We don’t have to agree. I do think there’s a level of civility that people appreciate. I think there’s a level of respect that people appreciate. Some groups have crossed that line, but that’s really about them and what makes them tick, not about me, and I’m just going to stay focused on trying to do what’s right, not what’s easy,” Perriello said.
Interview with Tom Perriello (6:44)
Nothing has been easy for freshmen in Congress this year. There was no time for getting the proverbial feet wet with the issues facing lawmakers from the oath of office in January on. “We really were on the verge of a Great Depression in January. I think being able to step in and prevent that depression from happening is a big deal. And then taking on these generational challenges, like energy independence, that I’ve been hearing both parties talk about my whole life, but not do a darn thing about, and be a part of actually moving the ball forward on that, is pretty exciting,” Perriello said.
On health-care reform, “Like most people in my district, I desperately want something to happen on health-care reform, and like most people in my district, I have mixed feelings about the product we’ve put on the table,” said Perriello, who voted with the slim 220-215 majority to advance a reform bill in the House last month.
“I think there are some great parts to it. Being able to negotiate cheaper drug rates for seniors under Medicare, getting rid of the antitrust exemption to force competition, getting rid of discrimination based on pre-existing conditions. But there are other parts that I thought could have been a lot stronger. So my hope is the Senate will produce something even stronger than what we had in the House. But we’ll see once they’re done with it,” Perriello said.
The freshman has learned that a good congressman is a good multi-tasker, and as the eyes of his constituents have been on health care, Perriello has put as much emphasis on what he considers job one.
“The best way for me to get re-elected is to do my job well, and the best way to focus on my job is to focus on other people’s jobs. And we are doing that, day in and day out. And it’s a knockdown-dragout right now. There’s no silver bullet or easy solution,” Perriello said.
Perriello wants to play a role in redefining the economic-development strategy in Southside. “One of the things that I think is most important to look at right now is not defining our region by what we used to be – the former furniture capital, the former textile capital. See what we are in the future. The future green-energy capital. The future automotive capital,” Perriello said, selling the idea that Southside can be “an absolute leader in the country and in the world on green energy and on automotive technology.”
Never a dull moment, indeed, not with his next election 11 months away.
“Day in and day out what I focus on is trying to find the grants and the economic-development opportunities for Southside and Central Virginia, trying to promote policies that will get economic relief to working-class and middle-class families, trying to do the things that America really needs to move forward for the next quarter of a century. I think when you focus on that, people appreciate it. That’s what I’m going to try to do, take these two sacred years that I have to represent the Fifth District and do the most that I can for the people of the Fifth and the people of the country with them and leave the chips fall where they may,” Perriello said.