There’s been a lot of talk about the Democrats retaking Congress in 2018, but in Virginia, my home state, the fight starts earlier. While most states have elections every two years, here in Virginia there is a major election every year, which has historically advantaged Republicans. For reasons I’m still figuring out, Democrats across the nation don’t show up as regularly for midterms, and during off-off years this impact is compounded. I myself have missed most of my state’s elections because I didn’t know they were going on.
This year is a big one; among other key legislative positions, we elect a new governor. In this past month and a half, Democratic governor Terry McAuliffe has shown just how much a state government can do to protect their constituents from bad policies like those coming down from the Trump administration. He fought the Muslim ban, spoke out in support of the ACA over Trump’s block grants, and has repeatedly vowed to veto any bill that attacks transgender bathroom rights. As great as all that is, we only have him for another year, and if the usual turnout rules hold, we could end up replacing him with a Trump puppet.
When Democrats show up to the polls, Virginia can go blue easily. In fact, it was the only former confederate state last year to go to Hillary, and it went to Obama twice before that. What we need is a way to get the word about this election spreading fast. One hope for the state is if somebody interesting is running; somebody who can excite the young progressives who are allied with the Democrats but disenfranchised with the way they seem stuck in the mud. Recently, Tom Perriello joined the race. He has distinguished himself from the other Democratic candidate, Lt. Governor Ralph Northam, not with his policies but with his passion. He doesn’t stick to the language of normal politics from years past, when presidents spoke in complete sentences and at least pretended facts matter, but talks about the fight ahead in an intensely divided nation. He’s been giving town halls throughout the state, and I went to one nearby to see if he could really be the start of the grassroots progressive movement in Virginia, or if he was just an opportunist capitalizing on that language.
Frankly, he blew me away.
First, I was impressed at how he was willing to call the racism and bigotry in this nation for what it was. He didn’t shout and rant, he simply was willing to call privilege privilege and call oppression oppression. Democrats are only just starting to have the guts to do that. It’s like there has been an unspoken code; you will disguise your racism with dog whistling, and we won’t call you bigots to your face. It’s a nonsense tradeoff that helps no one and solves nothing. If it ever served a purpose, that purpose was invalidated the moment Republicans nominated somebody who unironically talks about “bad hombres.” The time to hold off calling political opponents bigots is long gone.
Second, despite that refreshing frankness, he had practical solutions for how to reach out to rural red district voters who are genuinely hurting. The reality is that solutions championed by Democrats, like green energy and socialized healthcare and education, would help the poorest in our nation most, including those rural blue collar workers who tend to vote Republican. But we don’t make our case for them in ways that will reach them. Their well being still matters and we have done a terrible job communicating that. He showed me he can get that message out. He got away from the normal rhetoric and talked about the practicality of education as an investment that, in the long term, saves the taxpayer money by creating someone who can take care of themselves. He also gave concrete examples of green energy investments creating jobs and revitalizing struggling regions.
As we put together our rising progressive movement, those two qualities paired are going to be absolutely essential. We cannot afford to keep letting bigotry off the hook, but neither can we afford to keep neglecting people struggling in red districts. In fact, the longer we neglect rural and blue collar workers, the easier it is for the white supremacist “alt right” to sweep them up with fearmongering and scapegoating. We can win this fight, but we can’t do that if we keep using the same talking points that Democrats have used for a generation. We need to find new ways to get our message across.
Which brings me to the final thing I liked about Tom Perriello. There’s things you learn about a person by seeing them react to questions in the moment. I loved the way he listened. I never saw him try to evade a question or change the subject. He gave responses that were practical, focused, well thought out and clear. I saw him remember details of people’s often long questions and answer them thoroughly. (My boyfriend was impressed, at the end, when, to save time, he took four questions in succession and then answered them all at once. Going in reverse order, he answered them as thoroughly as any other question, without needing to ask anyone to remind him of what they had said.) He never sounded rehearsed either. Obviously he had thought about these issues and prepared himself, but you can tell when someone has prepped soundbites and is waiting to deliver them. That wasn’t what he sounded like. He just sounded like a smart, well read human being who did his homework and was ready for your question. I had almost forgotten politicians could sound like that.
Needless to say, Tom Perriello has already convinced me that he’s the kind of politician I need to be backing right now. I’ve already signed up to volunteer with his campaign, and I look forward to reporting on my experiences there.
Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with this. When asked about his prospects for the race, Tom Perriello said the biggest fight won’t be against any of his opponents, but against apathy. If anything like the number of Democrats who showed up last year vote in November, this election will be a cakewalk. But, as I said, a lot of Virginians don’t even realize there’s an election every year.
So do me a favor. If you have friends in Virginia, ask them if they know there is a race. If you are a Virginian, look into the race. Read up on the candidates. I’d love it if you agreed with my conclusion that Tom Perriello is the best man for the job, but it’s honestly fine if you don’t. The most important thing is that, whoever you support, you remember to vote.