Perriello Walks Tight Rope on Health Care Reform

Posted August 18, 2009 at 12:04am

FORK UNION, Va. — Two and a half hours into Rep. Tom Perriello’s (D-Va.) town-hall meeting at Fluvanna County Middle School on Monday evening, the line of speakers still snaked along one wall of the cafeteria and some of the 100 remaining attendees were headed for the vending machines.Perriello, who had removed his coat and rolled up his shirt sleeves in the first hour of the meeting, had yet to sit down and was stretching his right shoulder as he listened to the latest question about the health care reform proposals that Congress will consider when it returns to session in September.The meeting in Fluvanna County was the ninth of 21 “Tom in Your Town— meetings that Perriello has scheduled during the August recess. The freshman Congressman, who is a top target for House Republicans in 2010, was greeted by more cheers than boos Monday evening and a crowd that numbered well over 300 people at the beginning of the evening.But while Fluvanna County Sheriff Eric Hess had informed Perriello’s staff at a county board of supervisors meeting earlier in the day that his deputies would be on hand for Monday’s event, the meeting never devolved into the type of rowdy affair that required police intervention.Perhaps that is because Perriello continues to walk a tight rope on the health care issue. At the beginning of the night, Periello said he’s currently “a no on health care, [but] I’d really like to get to yes.—Throughout the night, Perriello earned a healthy amount of cheers from attendees holding “Obama for America— signs, as he touted his vision for a bill that can help bring down the federal deficit while decreasing costs for families. But he also expressed his opposition to a single-payer system and made sure to discuss his opposition to any language in that bill that would allow federal money to fund abortions.His answers left some self-described conservatives hopeful that there was still time to persuade him to vote no on the eventual bill that comes to the floor.But another group that came out for Monday’s meeting felt Perriello was simply paying lip service to conservative voters who make up the majority of his district.“It’s like Truman said, if you can’t convince them, then confuse them,— said Dave Flynn, a retired Fluvanna County resident. “He’s riding the fence on it so he can try to make both sides happy. All this is right here is he’s campaigning for next November’s election.—Perriello won his 5th district seat in November by fewer than 800 votes, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) won the district by 3 points in the presidential election. GOP activists point toPerriello’s vote in support of the controversial cap-and-trade bill and for the $787 billion stimulus bill as evidence that he is liberal Democrat who will fall in line with his party leaders when they need his vote.According to Tucker Watkins, the chairman of the 5th district Republican Committee, 15 Republicans have already expressed an interest in running against Perriello in 2010, including state Sens. Robert Hurt, Frank Ruff and Steve Newman.“Congressman Perriello has the best ability to evade giving a straight answer of anybody I’ve seen in 40 years of politics,— Watkins charged, saying that has been on display in nine town-hall meetings so far.But Perriello may soon have to start worrying about a backlash from playing up his conservative views too much.“If we don’t get a public option I’m going to be furious,— said Jan Cornell, who recently lost her job with the Communications Workers of America and came to Monday’s town hall to askPerriello to try to help the health care legislation move through Congress faster. “I didn’t want to be up in his face and be all partisan. I wanted to give the guy a chance. [But] if he bails on this, he’s not going to get support for his re-election— from progressive Democrats in the 5th district, she said.Democrat Richard Koepsell said Perriello has proved to be a savvy politician when it comes to reading his district.“Tom’s a smart guy,— Koepsell said. “He’s a conservative Democrat and he’s going to balance his behavior so that he appeals to those in the middle of the road. … If you take an extreme position at these things, you are going to have people swinging fists at each other.Sure enough, three and a half hours after his town hall began, Perriello, his voice hoarse, finally finished his last answer.“I want to thank you for being here … and for being civil,— he said.