A Darfur-supporting, time-tithing, self-deprecating newcomer becomes Virginia's big electoral surprise.
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va.—It's been more than 72 hours since the polls opened on Tuesday, and Tom Perriello is only 19 minutes away from the official declaration that he has won—in one of the most dramatic upsets of the 2008 election—the congressional seat for the 5th District in Virginia. Perriello is sitting outside a coffee shop in Charlottesville, besieged by voters dying to know whether they've stopped the ballot-counting marathon yet. "Can I say congratulations yet?" asks a woman. "What's the final count?" A man says he is getting tired of hitting "refresh" on the Virginia State Board of Elections Web site. Perriello grins, explaining that after days of what he calls "cinematic"vote counting, the official count now gives him a 747-vote lead. This after the AP prematurely called the election for incumbent Virgil Goode on Tuesday night, then called it for Perriello on Wednesday. Vote totals seesawed back and forth as military ballots, paper ballots, and write-in ballots were counted and recounted.
The 5th District spreads from Charlottesville (the Tribeca of the South) down to the border of North Carolina. It's been Virgil Goode country since 1997—Goode being the congressman whose re-election campaign was predicated on insulting immigrants, Muslims, the mentally ill, homosexuals, teenagers, Northerners, and, eventually, pretty much everyone, in as many different ways as possible. In August, polls showed Perriello running 30 points behind Goode, who, right up until the night before the election, refused to learn how to pronounce his opponent's name.
"Part of what I've loved about this race," Perriello (it's Perry-ello) says this morning, "was that they just weren't able to make it about 'Charlottesville liberal outsiders.' And that's because we didn't take the bait." So when Goode ran an ad accusing an ominously darkened and anachronistically bearded Perriello of being a "liberal New York lawyer," Perriello hit back with a cheeky spot shot in front of a New York backdrop. "Even if I had been a New York lawyer," he tells me, "if I had had a better plan for the economy, I should have won because voters needed leadership and competence right now. Not fear."
If Tom Perriello had been a fancy celebrity New York lawyer, you'd have heard his name by now. Here in Virginia, when Democrats talk about him, cartoon birds sing and cartoon butterflies play small cartoon harps. A graduate of Yale College and Yale Law School, Perriello worked to end atrocities in Liberia as well as with child soldiers, amputees, and local pro-democracy groups in Sierra Leone. He became special adviser for the international prosecutor during the showdown that forced Liberian dictator Charles Taylor from power. His work as a security analyst has taken him to Afghanistan and Darfur. Perriello has also been a part of a groundswell of young progressives whose religious faith motivates them to seek social change through public service. One of the most startling aspects of his 2008 campaign was his pledge to tithe 10 percent of his campaign volunteers' time to local charities. Time they could have spent stuffing mailers and phone-banking went to building houses for the poor.
"Ours is a community-service generation," he says. "Our background is in not-for-profits, the netroots, and problem solving. We understand that the big divisions in America are not even about politics; it's a whole new way of thinking that throws traditional politics out the window." Perriello says he was warned not to talk about Darfur in the rural South but did it anyhow. When the Goode campaign got snarled up in controversy over a gay art film last month, Perriello didn't go there. Why not? "That's old politics. People are smarter and better than the media thinks," he says, promptly apologizing for insulting my profession. "We didn't run ads with Darth Vader voices, and my favorite conversations have been with people who told me they voted for Virgil but still loved the way I campaigned."
Perriello doesn't doubt that the economic crash benefitted him. "That doctored picture of me [in the Goode ad] wasn't half as scary as losing 10,000 jobs in the 5th District," he says. "Hey, ask him about the NASCAR ad," says a coffee shop patron, who ambles up to congratulate him. "That was the turning point, wasn't it?" Perriello describes the ad tweaking Goode for his extensive corporate sponsorships. "People want to be called to serve," he says. "If after 9/11, President Bush had asked us to work toward energy independence or asked college students to learn Farsi so they could assist State or CIA on the ground, we would have done it. ... But our leaders from both parties were never willing to ask us to do anything. There was no call to service."
With three minutes to go before the announcement of his new gig, it sounds like job security isn't much of a concern to him. Hanging on to a congressional seat is not his first priority. Not at the expense of doing the right thing. Perriello muses that this new generation of leaders seems to feel that if they don't get re-elected, it would be OK. "I love what I did in Afghanistan and Darfur. If I have to go back to that, it wouldn't be the worst thing." That's why he so admires Virginia Sen. Jim Webb. "I think he's a great politician because he's a bad politician in the conventional sense. He says what he believes without any care for polls or messaging. It's about right and wrong."
It's now one minute until the race can be called for Perriello, and the wait for Goode to request a recount—or not—can formally begin. Perriello is racing off to Martinsville, Va., to make the announcement. "Possibly tonight will be my first sleep night," he says, having endured a brutal 72 hours since Election Day. The Perriello ad that had everyone in Virginia chuckling this fall was this one, in which it became clear that even some of his most ardent admirers had no idea how to say his name. As the race over the 5th District winds down today, Perriello's new blend of intelligence, deep faith, humility, humor, and optimism tells me it's a name you may want to remember.
Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate.
Photograph of Rep. Virgil Goode by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.