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Perriello ready to challenge Goode in Fifth

Story by Chris Graham

He knew he could make a difference. He didn’t know how.
“When I first moved to West Africa, it was about 11 years into a brutal civil war that most people here don’t know about because of the blood diamond issue. Tens of thousands of 7- and 8-year-old boys were forcibly abducted, forced to commit atrocities in their own community. It was a decade of systematic sexual violence – the destabilization of the entire region. And it just seemed like one of those things where I was like, I don’t know how I’m going to make a difference on this. But maybe if I just show up and listen to people who are suffering, then they’ll be able to tell me a path and say, Hey, this is going to impact our lives,” said Perriello, 33, a candidate for the Fifth Congressional District seat in the United States Congress, in an interview for today’s “Augusta Free Press Show.”

Perriello is a native of the Fifth – born and raised in Albemarle County and a graduate of St. Anne’s-Belfield. He accepted an assignment in Sierra Leone and Liberia after graduating from Yale Law School – and ended up being part of peace-negotiating teams in Sierra Leone and Liberia that brought democracy to West Africa.

“I felt called by my faith at a very early age to try to make a difference in the world – and I’ve been doing that work in Afghanistan and Darfur and West Africa,” said Perriello, who is challenging incumbent Republican Virgil Goode in the Fifth District race in the November general elections.

“I think it’s really something about my generation – Generation X. A lot of us started out doing community service and nonprofit work. We felt called to service in that way, and felt that that was the best way to try to make a difference, by working directly in communities,” Perriello said. “What I think a lot of us found was you can only work in a broken school so long before you want to try to fix the schools, or work in a soup kitchen so long before you start wondering, why are so many people showing up there. And at the end of the day, you realize that politics matters – and the reason we don’t pay attention to it is because the politicians don’t seem to be doing anything good for us.

“The fact is, like it or not, this is a space that has an enormous impact on our lives – whether it has to do with predatory lending and credit-card companies or what makes us safe at our borders and overseas. These are things that matter a great deal to our lives,” Perriello said.
“I think that our whole generation is starting to see politics. If you look at how many younger people are voting, this is a situation where we’re starting to see politics as just another way to do community service and take that up to another scale,” Perriello said.


It’s not going to be easy – even for someone who went from not knowing how he could do anything to make even a sliver of a difference in wartorn West Africa to leading peace negotiations.

But Perriello is rolling up his sleeves and beginning the hard work of building a Democratic base in the sprawling Fifth.

“It’s a tremendous district. It’s 22 counties and municipalities. It’s about three hours driving north-south and another three driving east-west. And it really is a jarring experience to begin a day in Albemarle County, where things are going real well in terms of economic development, and then go through town after town where factories have been closed, and people are out of work. And you really get a sense, I think, of where America is right now – where you have both tremendous opportunities and growth, and at the same time people who have been left out of the globalization process,” Perriello said.
“We have to have an answer for folks. We have to be able to invest in a way that’s going to create the jobs for the next generation for folks. And do it in a way that can help make our country safer and make our climate safer by looking at the new energy economy, by looking at rails and transportation programs to reconnect Southside,” Perriello said.

His approach is direct.

“I’ll tell you what we’re doing about it – and I think this is how the new generation is approaching politics, is we’re not just looking at 30-second TV spots; we’re looking at direct relationships with people. So we’re investing – we’ve just broken two straight fund-raising records, and we’re putting those resources into opening offices in Danville and Rocky Mount, and spending lots of time on the ground talking directly with people about what’s going on in their lives, and what’s going to make their lives better,” Perriello said.

“That’s the kind of campaign we want to run – particularly in a district that is this large, where we can’t knock on every door, but we can be in every community, and we can be there early, and we can be there often. That’s the way that I think we’re going to win this race – and more importantly, suggest a new kind of politics, one where people don’t see their politicians and their government as far away, something distant, but something that is part of the conversation directly between the people and Washington,” Perriello said.


Perriello would seem to be well-qualified to offer solutions to the current stalemate in Iraq, given his work in West Africa and in Afghanistan and his work on international issues since his return with and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, among others.

“When it comes to a solution in Iraq, I’ve already been working for the last two-and-a-half years on something called the NEW Plan For Iraq – doing briefings and work around it,” said Perriello, explaining the acronym as “N is negotiating with all internal, non-foreign, meaning non-Al-Qaeda, factions, E is empowering mediators trusted on all sides, and W is withdrawing responsibly within that context.”

“I think we’re so often offered a false choice between cut-and-run and stay-the-couse – both of those are disasters that miss the point. The whole point is not whether we have more troops or less troops. Every single general has been clear. This is a political problem, not primarily a military problem in terms of how to solve the crisis in Iraq,” Perriello said.

“Let me be clear. The Iraq was has made us less safe. It has made us less safe on a generational scale. It has been a great boon to Al-Qaeda and its recruitment. But we have to look now at, how do we solve this situation,” Perriello said.

“All civil wars in history have ended one of two ways – either overwhelming force, which isn’t going to happen here, or a negotiated settlement. And negotiations – I’ve done peace negotiations before, it’s like negotiating any other contract in business. You’ve got to have the right people at the table, and you’ve got to have mediators that people trust. That means getting all these internal factions to the table, empowering the right mediators – and the way to get them to the table is to commit to a full and complete withdrawal. That doesn’t mean you do the full withdrawal before the negotiations – you need to commit to it in order to it,” Perriello said.

Chris Graham is the executive editor of The Augusta Free Press.

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