By Mike Elk for The Guardian, 13 June 2017
“The state ends at Roanoke, we are the forgotten corner of Virginia,” says local Democratic activist Oliver Keene of Tazewell, where 20% of the town lives in poverty. “In our eyes, past Roanoke, nobody cares about us. We don’t exist.”
Campaigning for statewide office, most Democratic candidates have typically ignored the deep red Appalachian corner of the state where Trump won many of the counties by 70% margins.
However, in his quest to become governor of Virginia, former congressman Tom Perriello has made campaigning in south-west Virginia a priority. “There is a lot of pain there and a lot of potential,” says Perriello. When the polls close on Tuesday, all eyes will be on whether his progressive agenda, embrace of unions and rejection of corporate money could form a blueprint for Democrats preparing to run against Trump in the midterm elections.
So far his effort seems to be paying off in his battle to defeat the much more moderate Democratic lieutenant governor Ralph Northam. According to the most recent Washington Post opinion polling, the two are locked in a neck-and-neck battle statewide while leading Northam by a margin of nearly three to one in south-west Virginia.
Perriello’s success here isn’t the result of a traditional Virginia campaign. Unlike most Appalachian politicians, Perriello isn’t embracing coal or natural gas. Instead, he is calling for moving away from what calls an “economy of extraction” towards “an economy of restoration”.
He has rejected contributions from fossil fuel industries and criticized his opponent Ralph Northam for receiving over $40,000 in campaign contributions from Dominion Power.
Drawing a further contrast with Northam, Perriello has campaigned heavily against the Mountain Valley Natural Gas pipeline. A project expected to cost $3.5bn, when completed the pipeline would stretch over 300 miles across south-west Virginia and West Virginia, fueling the growth of the fracking industry in those regions even further.
The pipeline has faced massive opposition from residents concerned about the effect it would have on their water supply as well as their properties. Many say that the environmental destruction caused by the pipeline’s construction could hurt the region’s growing tourism industry, which brings in nearly $1b a year to the region and has grown by 53% over the past decade.
Perriello’s coalition, however, isn’t just made up of pipeline opponents. It also includes those in favor of the pipeline such as construction unions whose members would be employed by the pipeline’s construction.
“We have supported the pipeline from the beginning and that hasn’t changed,” says Jeff Rowe, president of the 10,000 member-strong Virginia Association of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. “That being said, this election is about a lot more than pipeline.”
The IBEW said that they decided to endorse Perriello after he became the only candidate in the race to call for free two-year community college and repealing the state’s “right-to-work” law, which allows workers to benefit from union contracts without paying dues to those unions.
Rowe says that he was also impressed by Perriello’s organizing style and his ability to bring people together who disagree. “He is better suited to expand the progressive coalition than anyone else in the race,” says Rowe.
Perriello says that his skills as peace negotiator, serving as Barack Obama’s special envoy to the Great Lakes region of Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo, makes him uniquely suited to listen to people and bring them together in what he calls a “Bobby Kennedy-style coalition”.
“One of the things that gives me hope right now about building this Bobby Kennedy-style coalition is when I spend time in communities of color, particularly in the urban areas, I hear a lot about reducing poverty,” says Periello. “I hear a lot about what happened to the trade schools and apprenticeship programs, why aren’t we building and making things anymore, and [how] we can’t afford this ridiculous criminal justice system.
“Then you go out again to rural Virginia and you hear, lo and behold: we need to build and make things again, we need trade schools and apprenticeship programs, how are we going to address poverty wages, why do the corporations have too much power and even criminal justice reform, which is different than growing up,” says Perriello. “Growing up there was no question that this law and order dystopic language was very appealing there, but I think people are beyond that.”
His ability to bring people together extends to warring factions of the Democratic party too. Perriello has not only been endorsed by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, but also by many top Obama administration officials.
John Podesta, who served as chairman of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, has argued that if Perriello is successful it could provide a “blueprint” for the future of the Democratic party.
Chris Fury, a Bernie delegate from Roanoke, agrees with Podesta. “I think we have seen a lot of folks moving towards the left,” says Fury. “Perriello can be a bridge from traditional Democrats and his vision that he is now on the progressive side.”
If Perriello, a devout Catholic much like Kennedy, wins the governor’s race in Virginia, many say the 43-year-old could be poised to run for president in 2020 – bringing establishment Democrats, minorities and the left together much like Kennedy aimed to do in 1968 before he was killed.
“They shouldn’t see the comparison to me. I’m no Bobby Kennedy, but it’s the moment,” says Perriello. “The basic disconnect right now I think is between leaders in both parties who are comfortable enough that they essentially think that the system is working and we [just] need to tweak it around the edges.
“I think when you spend time outside of those circles, what you hear is the tectonics themselves are shifting in very scary ways,” said Perriello. “I don’t know what the next generation of organizing looks like in Virginia or across the south, but what I can tell you is that those struggles have rarely been simple or smooth.”
Mike Elk is a member of the Washington-Baltimore NewsGuild. He is the co-founder of Payday Report and was previously senior labor reporter at Politico.