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Government Officials

An Interview with Rep. Tom Perriello

A graduate of Yale (’96) and Yale Law (’01), Perriello has a variety of experience in international law that includes working for the Special Court for Sierra Leone and the International Center for Transitional Justice in Kosovo, Darfur, and Afghanistan. He is a co-founder of the web sites faithfulamerica.org, darfurgenocide.org, and avaaz.org.

The Politic: Since The Politic is a Yale journal and since you are a graduate of both Yale College and Yale Law School, I want to begin by talking about your time in New Haven. Which courses have most influenced your world view and why?

TP: I remember, actually when I was an undergraduate, taking an environmental policy course with Dan Esty that was a joint course between the forestry and the law schools, and what was interesting about it, was that it was taking on what were seen as traditionally liberal issues like the environment, but looking at market-based solutions, which have now become very mainstream, but at the time were considered quite cutting edge, even a little controversial. I think that idea of Yale being a place at the cutting edge of ideas, at the cutting edge of how to solve some of the great generational challenges we face, and doing so by putting the best ideas on the table regardless of ideology was a very exciting thing to see.

The Politic: You have a variety of international experience ranging from assisting Sierra Leone Civil War victims to helping prosecute Liberian warlord and President Charles Taylor to serving as a security consultant in Afghanistan; experiences that most members of Congress have not had. Given that your district in mostly rural Virginia is a world away from these places, how do your global ventures affect how you represent the people of Virginia’s 5th district?

TP: Well first of all, the way I was able to get so much international experience was Yale Law School sponsoring me to do a lot of work overseas during my time there, and it’s a gift that I’m going to appreciate for the rest of my life because I was able to get comparative experience from very different emerging markets and conflict zones over those 3 years that many people don’t get in a lifetime. I think that one of the great things to take advantage of at Yale is the ability to do service work, both in the US and overseas. In terms of the perspective it brings, I think the most important lesson I took away from that is that problems from a distance seem absolutely impossible to solve, but when you get up close and really dig your teeth into it looking for solutions, these problems are not intractable; they are looking for entrepreneurial solutions. It’s easy to take, for example, a problem in West Africa, and say well, these people have been fighting each other for a long time and accept a certain fatalism, sometimes even a racially hinged fatalism about parts of Africa. Then, when you’re there, you realize hey, these are just like any other problems, you just need to figure out the players, look for opportunities, and you can be part of the solution. So that experience made me feel like you should never break down from a problem just because it’s large. Instead, you should figure out a way to break it down. Being able to watch and be part of one of the worst dictators on the planet being forced from power without a single bullet being fired, in the case of Liberian dictator Charles Taylor, was incredible. It wasn’t just millions of lives in Sierra Leone and Liberia affected, but it also created a precedent of regime transition through international law that can reverberate and ripple out from there.

The Politic: When it comes to health care, rural areas are at a major disadvantage with higher uninsured rates, lower percentages of doctors, and fewer health care options. The new health reform plan seeks to eliminate these disparities, yet you have been on the fence about it. Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein recently argued that with your mostly liberal background in a typically Republican district, your position on health-care reform is likely more reflective of your constituents’ beliefs rather than your own view. Would you agree?

TP: I don’t. I have a lot of respect for Ezra, but I think what I’ve been very clear about from the beginning is that while I’m a “no” on the current bill, but I’ve been trying very hard to get to a “yes.” I’ve been making the case in over 100 hours of town hall meetings of why the status quo is broken, but I think sometimes, for political reasons, we focus on a single litmus test on what it means to support a real bill, for example the public option, instead of actually looking at the details and seeing if this is doing the most to protect consumers and bring down costs. So, in addition to the public option, I think there are issues of competition, affordability, and accountability that we can continue to work on to make the bill stronger. One of the things that I think we do too quickly in our politics is accept a very narrow view of what’s possible, ie only the bill in front of us or the status quo. We’ve got to have the courage to keep fighting for what is possible and I think we can do a lot more in health care reform to really transform, for example, the underlying incentive structure that rewards quantity over quality. Those are things that I want to do for my constituents, but they’re also things that having grown up as the son of a pediatrician, and as a person of faith who cares about the least among us, I feel that there are still paths out there to fight on in health care reform.

The Politic: The May 26 The American Prospect article “New Kids on the Hill” said, “it’s [Periello’s] task to pursue a progressive agenda without alienating voters who are more exasperated with Republicans than committed to liberalism.” This brings up the classic political science debate of the representative as a delegate or as a trustee. What do you see as your role? Are there any issues on which you would vote against a policy position held by a majority of your constituents?

TP: My answer to this question is very much a work in progress. I come out of the non-profit sector where I was very able to focus entirely on answering my own sense of calling on change, and i think there are some rules that I feel very clear on: you should always take the time to listen to your constituents, and however you vote, you should take the time to explain that vote to them, whether that’s through letters, town hall meetings, emails, etc. I don’t believe in a version of representation which says that we should just simply take a flash poll on every issue and the representative should be just a robot who waits for 51% and then takes it from there. If you just have a really good pollster, they could just do the job for you. One of the things we do is elect someone on what they stand for, and you vote for the whole package. So, one of the things that was very important to me when I was running was that I want to run the way I would legislate, which I call conviction politics. I don’t always agree with my constituents, but I think they respect, though they may disagree, that I let them know where I stand, and I make my case. At the end of the day, you have to vote for what you think is right for your community, your country, and your conscience.

The Politic: What are some of those issues where you would disagree?

TP: There is a great scene in an old West Wing episode where this guy is running a campaign and his candidate has died, and he keeps running the campaign even though people don’t want him to. He talks about issues, and they say to him, “well 60% of people in your district don’t agree with that.” Well, he says, “60% is a landslide, but you flip one person and you’re even, you flip two people and you’ve got a landslide in your direction.” I don’t think there is a static notion of what I believe and what my constituents believe. I learn a lot from them. For example, when I started this I don’t think I had nearly enough appreciation for the role that vocational skills training and the community college system need to play in our economic development. I learned so much about that from my constituents. In return, when I started, people said “you can’t talk about Africa and extreme poverty in the rural South,” and I said “no, I think people are good and decent and they do care about this stuff and will be interested if we bother to explain it to them.” I think that we’ve seen this in our district with my election. So, it’s not just about where they are and where I am, it’s about finding a place that you want to go with people. So on energy independence, that was an area that was flooded with negative ads and information from the right, but I believe my constituents do want energy independence, and they like the idea of a market based approach. Where do we start with the question of where are my constituents and where am I? At that level of core principle, we’re at the same place. Rather than saying, I know there are going to be a lot of nasty spots that turn people against it, I went out and worked hard to make the case and I think I’ve been able to convince a lot of people that this is crucial for our country and our region.

The Politic: Conventional political thought has assumed that areas such as your district are against cap and trade pollution control policies. Freedom’s Defense Fund, a conservative PAC, ran a television ad in July that attacked your support of cap and trade as harmful to your constituents. A Garin-Hart-Yang Research Group poll released September 21st showed that while a plurality of your constituents polled actually support cap and trade, a majority of them have heard little to nothing about US energy legislation and 74% were unsure how you voted on the energy reform bill. Since you’ve held more recent town hall meetings than any other congress member, what accounts for this information gap? More importantly, why do you think conventional wisdom has been wrong on this issue?

TP: I think the real division in our politics today is between people showing leadership and focusing on solving problems, and those who are trying to score political points. I think that one objection I’ve had with Democrats over the years, is that we tend to fight battles issue by issue. So, if it polls highly enough, then we go out and we’re for it. Health care and energy independence both polled at nearly 70% at the beginning of the summer, yet we lost huge ground on them. This wasn’t because people stopped supporting health care and energy independence, but rather because we were treating these as stand-alone issues rather than a generational shift to the service generation becoming the problem solving generation in politics. I think that what you’re seeing is that we have a better story to tell. It’s not just that our ideas are better for creating new jobs in this country and helping to cover the uninsured and bring down premiums for those who have insurance. What you saw in August was a revival of the 1960’s and 1980’s debate between bleeding heart liberalism and anti-government conservatism. When we leave those things behind, we can focus on how we can combine the forces of the public, private, and non-profit sectors to solve problems. I think that Democrats who are governing will sometimes just assume, we ask a question and if the answer is a majority of people, then we pursue. The question really is where are we trying to take this country? I think my constituents and I share a deep sense that both parties have blown it in recent years because they haven’t had the courage to do tough things. I think people are going to look back on things like health care reform and energy independence and say “wow, that was a gusty thing to do.” The easy thing to do be to kick them down the road like everyone else does, have some “mom and apple pie” – really simplistic, symbolic stuff – and let other people solve the problem. I think we’re going to be defined by what the President ended his speech with. Americans, in our DNA, don’t back down from problems, but our leaders haven’t been living up to that. I think that what people are going to see from this is not whether we were too liberal or too centrist, but that these people didn’t miss the moment to solve generational challenges, and I think we’ll be really proud to look back at that.

The Politic: Your “Perriello Energy Blueprint” focuses mainly on Southside Virginia job creation. Democrats have traditionally approached climate change issues from a moral perspective, while Republicans have framed them in an economic light. Why have Democrats mostly been losing the economic debate on climate change? Will this focus on job creation allow Democrats to shift this debate in their favor?

TP: Well, I don’t think we are, when you look at polling numbers. What the other side has been effective at doing is strongly mobilizing and amplifying the voice of a minority of folks, who actually oppose this on ideological grounds, not on cost grounds, and it’s very difficult for us to win an argument with folks who just make things up. One other thing that our party has not done effectively is we have this idea that if we just convince The New York Times editorial board of our plan, then that is the end of the conversation. We have to go out and make our case to folks, and it’s tough and exhaustion. Doing over 100 hours of town hall meetings was exhausting. Our ideas are better, our solutions are better, and when we actually talk to people, they are actually quite smart and they are listening. They see that the other side is taking an issue like cap and trade, an idea that their own party actually came up with for good reason, and then have people come out against it just because Democrats come out and support it. That is really upsetting peoples’ sense of fairness, especially when they realize how far behind we’re falling in job creation and economic competitiveness to other countries in this field. They hear from one side that we are going to do all this stuff and China’s not going to have to, and then they find out that China is outpacing 5 or 10 to 1 in investment in these areas. We need to show up and have conversations with people rather than simply being angry that people don’t agree with us.

The Politic: When you took office this January with Congress and the Presidency controlled by the Democratic Party, a lot of talk among Democrats, particularly President Obama, revolved around bipartisanship, an always popular notion. At a time of so many crises, which should require bipartisanship more than ever, today’s political climate seems to be hyper-partisan, with previously unimaginable incidents such as Congressman Joe Wilson’s (R-SC) “you lie” interruption only throwing more gas on the fire. Given a seemingly obstinate Republican leadership, is it time for Democrats to abandon any further attempts at bipartisanship and just rely on their majority status, or do you see another solution?

TP: Frankly, I think that the Democratic caucus is much more diverse, and if you are able to reach an agreement between Blue Dog Democrats and the Progressive Caucus, you basically do have what represents bipartisanship in this country; it’s a pretty wide political spectrum. I think that people will look back historically on how the Republicans acted in January and it will be a very very negative reading. This was a moment where our country was in economic free-fall, we had a mandate from the election, and President Obama reached out to Republicans. I think people will see this as a great failure of statesmanship. At the end of the day, our goal isn’t to get a certain amount of votes from one side or the other; it’s to come up with a policy that our country needs. We have tried to make bipartisanship work, but ultimately, we can and should be judged by whether we did what America needed, not by some artificial standard. I think the President was right to make effort after effort in this regard, but the ultimate decision has to be made based on what America needs.

The Politic: Finally, is there any public servant, past or present, whose career you would like to emulate?

TP: I think one of the leaders that certainly comes to mind is Bobby Kennedy, particularly at very end. His authenticity and conviction with with he engaged the world, as well as his willingness to meet with, and also challenge, those who disagree with him are inspirational. One of the things that I’ve enjoyed most in politics has been meeting with different party groups, and going out and working with the evangelical community, not because I believe we’re always going to agree on everything, but because there is a belief in the fundamental decency in all folks that can be engaged with. In the absence of that, there is often a call to the lowest impulses in each of us. So, he’s just one of those figures, who also through the highs and lows of his earlier career, is a real inspiration.