Tom Perriello scored his first and only campaign victory in 2008 when he ran for Congress in a mostly rural part of Virginia that had long been hostile to Democrats. While sharing a ballot with Barack Obama helped the then-34-year-old win the closest House race in the country that year, he did not—like many swing-district Democrats—run away from the White House in 2010. He still lost that race, but his 3 percent margin of defeat was far closer than the walloping many of his colleagues took that year.
After being bounced from Congress, Perriello did a stint at the Center for American Progress Fund before being appointed as the United States’ special envoy to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where he helped broker a deal on New Year’s Eve that allowed for the first peaceful transfer of power in that country’s history.
As that deal was being finished, Perriello, now 42, was also planning his own political comeback. On January 5, he announced his campaign for governor of Virginia, upending a Democratic primary that Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam was primed to win by default. (Former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie is an overwhelming favorite for the Republican nomination.) A poll released last week by Roanoke College had Perriello and Northam tied at about 12 percent, with the other three-quarters of Democrats undecided, or “nil-nil,” as Perriello put it in an interview at an Alexandria deli.
Perriello also insists that were it not for the election of Donald Trump, he might not be running for office again. Even though Trump lost Virginia by bigger margin than Mitt Romney did in 2012, many parts of the state—including Perriello’s old House district—were deep-red Trump territory. If he wins the Democratic nomination, Perriello can count on Northern Virginia to pad his vote total in November, but he also says he can reconnect with the voters who once supported him and Obama but turned toward Trump.
“I’ve only been called into politics twice,” Perriello says, “once out of hope and once out of fear.” This race is the latter.
This is your first race in seven years, and now you’re running statewide. What have you learned about Virginia so far?
I spent most of my life in the nonprofit sector, and I think right now, the energy is incredibly strong in wanting to protect progressive gains and resist this unprecedented—at least within recent decades—onslaught of hateful politics. If you spent a lot of time out at the [Women’s March] as I did last weekend, the energy is in the movements right now. That’s been true at most of the inflection points of American history, and I think you’ve seen a stronger and stronger women’s movement and inequality movement and movement for black lives. It didn’t seem strange to people to have signs about reproductive rights next to signs about climate change or criminal justice reform.
What did you think is different about the Women’s March?
I’ve been to a dozen rallies on the National Mall, but never one like that. The sheer size of it was certainly unlike something I’d ever seen, the way it had been built from the grassroots, the organic energy was exciting. And I think we’ve come a long way as progressives on issues of intersectionality. I think the biggest problem I had was how few Virginians knew there’s a governor’s race going on. I think to some extent it’s the challenge President Obama gave us in his farewell speech when he kicked off the training wheels and said, “You’re going to figure out a way to get out the Obama coalition without someone named Obama on the ticket.”
You talk about popular movements as engines for change. We now have a president who ran as a right-wing populist. You were described as a different kind of populist nine years ago.
In some ways it’s good that the issues we were talking about then—rising inequality, the consolidation of our economy at the expense of small business and forgotten communities—at the time was seen as outside the mainstream and is now central to the mainstream. I think something some Democrats continue to struggle with is the understanding that macroeconomic figures no longer track as well with the lived reality of most Americans, most Virginians.
But Trump owns that turf right now.
The problem is he’s selling a bag of tricks. Voters are a lot smarter than elites in both parties think. A lot of voters know Trump was selling false hope, but at least he was bothering to reflect the economic challenges they have. Something we’re talking about that does not make much political sense is the threat of automation over the next ten years to to the American middle class. Donald Trump is still talking about jobs going overseas. I’ve worked overseas. Jobs aren’t going there, they’re disappearing. Eighty-five percent of recent job losses have not been from outsourcing, they’ve been from jobs being rendered obsolete. Ultimately, Donald Trump has no answer. He knows that coal jobs went away because of natural gas, not because of Hillary Clinton. Automation is something most politicians want to avoid because it doesn’t give you a good issue. Donald Trump wants to be able to blame black and brown people for your job losses. Bernie Sanders is focused mainly on Wall Street, and there’s some truth to that. But none of us are against computers.
The solution Trump sold about reopening coal mines and rebuilding steel mills is almost certainly a fantasy, but enough people bought it in the right places.
A majority of Americans didn’t buy it. Most Virginians rejected it. We’re not saying you have to choose. You can care deeply about fighting for the American promise of social mobility and addressing poverty issues without racial demagoguery, embracing that inclusivity. In Virginia, there’s always been a reactionary and regressive force, from slavery through the Civil War through Reconstruction and Jim Crow. And then there’s been this incredibly progressive Virginia tradition, sometimes within the same individual like Thomas Jefferson. I think we have this very forward-leaning Virginia. Our campaign, but also this moment, is about the next generation of ideas that are bold enough to tackle these deeper problems. I’ve only been called into politics twice, once out of hope and once out of fear.
I assume this time is the one out of fear?
I’ve worked in countries around the world on peace negotiations and transitional justice, and I’ve seen what racial demagogues do. And Donald Trump has shown in both how he’s campaigned and how he’s governed so far that he fits the mold of a classic demagogue that threatens so much of what this country is about. When I say he ran a fundamentally racist campaign, that does not mean the people who voted for him are racist. But we have to be honest about the extent to which this was the most explicitly and structurally racist campaign we’ve seen in half a century. And the hope part is that my state I’ve loved my whole life rejected that.
You were the only House Democrat for whom Obama made a personal campaign appearance in 2010. When’s the last time you talked to him?
Were you thinking about running then?
Trump changed everything. I got in both because the fight of this moment is something I feel called to be in the middle of, but also because I feel I give Democrats the best chance to win. I think that’s the problem with party leadership trying to decide ahead of time who the nominee should be. It cuts out the voters and because you don’t know what the landscape is going to be. The only question was of all the things I can do to stop what Trump represents and protect what Virginia represents as my home state.
Your old congressional district went very heavily for Trump. Presumably you’ve already talked to a lot of people who voted for him.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in every community around the country and around the world is that they’re going to be pretty skeptical when someone who is a politician shows up. It’s important not just to show up but show up a few times. A lot of folks know I was out there fighting against that elite consensus a decade ago, and now there’s a chance to break that open, but unfortunately that’s been done by someone who brings a lot of toxicity to the table. That doesn’t mean we don’t go back to the things we believe in and say, “No, Trump’s not going to own this page.” We’re going to have a better set of ideas.
This interview has been condensed and edited.