Former congressman Tom Perriello announced his surprise candidacy for governor of Virginia Thursday, upsetting the plans of many leading Virginia Democrats.
In a hastily arranged speech at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center in downtown Charlottesville, Perriello spoke of how his father first arrived in Virginia.
“He grew up in West Virginia, Italian immigrant parents, in and out of poverty,” Perriello said. “He got a local scholarship to come across the mountains and go to UVA.” His father spent his first day crying on a bench in Lee Park, thinking, “‘I don’t belong here, this isn’t a place where a mountain kid from West Virginia belongs,’” said Perriello, “but everyone here did make him feel welcome.”
Perriello won election to Congress in the 5th District of Virginia in 2008, ousting longtime incumbent Virgil Goode. A strong supporter of President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, he narrowly lost reelection in 2010 to Robert Hurt.
Following his defeat, Perriello became president and CEO of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, a progressive public policy research and advocacy organization. Most recently, he served as the Obama administration’s special envoy for the Great Lakes Region of Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
His unexpected campaign to become governor was only assembled in the last 10 days.
“My initial reaction is that it’s certainly a stunning development,” says Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam previously had been the only declared Democratic candidate for governor in the upcoming election. Northam had long since secured the endorsements of major figures in the state Democratic Party, including current Governor Terry McAuliffe, and was expected to run unopposed for the nomination.
“All those well-laid plans by McAuliffe, formulating these plans, all of this has been thrown off,” Skelley says. In Congress, Perriello “was progressive on the big ticket items, the stimulus, cap-and-trade, but he was endorsed by the NRA.” Skelley notes that Perriello also backed the Stupak Amendment to the Affordable Care Act, which would have prevented federal funding of abortion, “so his record, at least as a member of Congress, is not Sanders-esque.”
But in the context of running against Ralph Northam, who was the target of a party-switch effort in 2009, says Skelley, Perriello “is clearly to the left of Northam.”
As of June 30, Northam had $1.59 million in his campaign fund. With a campaign organization only 10 days old, Perriello has a long way to go to catch up financially. However, between 2009 and 2010, Perriello was able to raise $3,775,000 for his federal campaign fund, which was subject to tighter restrictions than his new state-level campaign in Virginia.
During his 2008 and 2010 campaigns for Congress, Perriello captured attention, support and donations from many progressive groups, both locally and nationally.
“He was a darling of the net-roots,” says Skelley. “He’s young and energetic. In terms of how he casts himself, he would be viewed as the more progressive of the two candidates. It’s probably more than just that in terms of the framing. Northam isn’t that well known. Lieutenant governor isn’t a job that draws a lot of visibility.”
“Virginia’s everything to me,” said Perriello. “It’s the place that gave my family a chance at the American dream, the place that gave me a sense of progress.” He recalled the first political race he worked on—Doug Wilder’s bid for governor—and “the fact that the capital of the Confederacy would elect the first black governor in the entire country. That said to me anything is possible. I’ve taken that spirit around the nonprofit work I’ve done around the state… and also into conflict zones around the world.”
Perriello did not mention any of his potential Republican opponents during his speech, which include former GOP party chair Ed Gillespie, former Trump state party chair Corey Stewart, state Senator Frank Wagner and Silverback Distillery owner Denver Riggleman, but afterwards he had only kind words for Northam.
“I think Mr. Northam is a really nice guy and I think he’d be a really good governor and we agree on an awful lot,” Perriello said. “This isn’t about me running against him, this is about me running for the voters of Virginia.”
“Northam is an early favorite but I think that Perriello is a very legitimate opponent,” Skelley says. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he ends up winning the nomination.”
Updated at 9:31am January 10 to correct the name of the public policy research and advocacy organization Tom Perriello worked for.