In Virginia’s 5th District, Bull’s-Eye on Perriello Is Hard to Miss

Posted August 23, 2009 at 11:00pm

The Board of Supervisors meeting hall at the County Administration Building in Charlotte Court House, Va., isn’t a very big room. Measuring perhaps 30-feet wide by 50-feet long, the hall has just eight short benches facing the dais where the supervisors meet every third Tuesday of the month. But Rep. Tom Perriello (D) still needed a microphone when he addressed a crowd of more than 75 people who had packed into the room last week to hear his views on the health care legislation that Congress will take up in September.

“I lost my voice,— Perriello explained apologetically on Tuesday, one night after a three and a half hour town hall event. “But I’m very committed to doing these.—

Covering more than 9,000 square miles in the heart of central Virginia, the 5th is the Commonwealth’s largest district. Tuesday’s “Tom in Your Town— event was No. 10 of 21 town halls that the freshman Congressman is holding over the August recess as he tries to reach out to constituents in all parts of his sprawling district.

Geographic size aside, the 5th district is also one of the biggest targets for national Republicans in the 2010 elections. The conservative territory voted for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) by three points in the 2008 presidential race and was represented for six terms by former Rep. Virgil Goode (R) before Perriello beat him by less than 800 votes last year.

[IMGCAP(1)]To put it in electoral terms, it’s the type of district that Republicans have to win back in 2010 if they want to begin to turn the tide after the Democratic waves of 2006 and 2008. After all, at this point last year, Perriello was still viewed as a long-shot candidate.

After a meeting with Charlotte County officials earlier Tuesday, Perriello acknowledged that he’s probably at the top of the GOP’s 2010 target list.

“I know that this loss was particularly painful for some of the Republicans in the state,— he said in an interview. “They severely underestimated me the first time and I think they’ll do that again.—

He said Republican leaders in Washington get too caught up in “cookie cutter things,— such as the 5th district’s underlying political leanings which, according to the Cook Political Report’s partisan voter index, favors Republicans.

The National Republican Congressional Committee has already targeted Perriello in two television ads, one radio campaign and a round of targeted phone calls since the beginning of the year. But the Congressman shrugged off those attacks. “Voters are a lot smarter than either party gives them credit for,— he said. “They understand my values are more important to me than the normal political games, that’s why the things they’ve thrown at me really haven’t worked,— he said.

What voters will have to decide next November is if Perriello is an independent who will turn his back on his party leaders when it’s in the best interest of his district, or if he’s a party loyalist who will fall in line whenever his vote is needed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Will Perriello’s votes for the controversial cap-and-trade bill and for the $787 billion stimulus become an anchor around his political neck in the 5th district? Or has the freshman Congressman proven his conservative credentials by voting against the release of the second $350 billion in bailout funds for the financial industry and fighting to keep a health care bill from being brought to the House floor before the August recess? Those questions were certainly on the minds of some attendees at Perriello town hall events last week.

At Monday’s gathering in Fluvanna County someone had written the words “Don’t be a Pelosi pup— on a large piece of paper that Perriello staffers had set up for attendees to leave a message for the Congressman.

At Tuesday’s town hall in Charlotte County, George Hayes of Halifax waited in a long line for speakers so he could remind Perriello that “You don’t work for Nancy Pelosi, you don’t work for the unions and you don’t work for President [Barack] Obama.—

Since Goode announced in late July that he is passing on a rematch with Perriello, more than a dozen Republican names have been floated as potential candidates in 2010. Among those being mentioned are a slew of GOP state legislators, including state Sens. Robert Hurt, Frank Ruff and Steve Newman and state Del. Rob Bell.

In interviews just off the state Senate floor in Richmond last week both Hurt and Ruff said they intend to make a decision on the race by late September.

Hurt said he was particularly concerned with Perriello’s cap-and-trade vote because he does not believe Perriello cast that vote with the best interests of his constituents in mind.

“I, along with many people in the 5th district, was very concerned with the position he took with respect to that vote,— Hurt said.

But Perriello vigorously defended his vote on that bill last week before constituents and in his smaller meetings with local officials.

“I genuinely believe [the cap-and-trade vote was] probably the most important national security vote I will perhaps ever cast,— Perriello said. “I think continuing the status quo on energy is absolutely a gift to al-Qaida and [Iranian president Mahmoud] Ahmadinijad.—

As he stopped for coffee on his way to meet with yet another potential Congressional candidate, 5th district GOP Chairman Tucker Watkins acknowledged Goode was the only candidate who could have had the primary field to himself. Now that Goode is gone “nobody is going to clear the field completely, I just don’t think that can happen,— said Watkins, who was Goode’s 2008 campaign manager.

But Watkins acknowledged that one of the three state Senators could quickly dominate the Republican field if they jumped into the race. A candidate who is only known in their locality and not outside their home county would have a much tougher time establishing himself or herself because of the sheer size of the district and its multiple media markets.

Referencing a Goode attack on Perriello’s Ivy League education during the 2008 campaign, Watkins said that regardless of how many Republican candidates jump into the 5th district race, “the number one priority is that we reclaim this district from a gentleman who moved here to run and will probably move away as soon as he loses.—

Perriello brushed off that shot. “Trying to question my Virginia roots was clearly a brilliant strategy,— he said, referring to 2008. As for 2010, Perriello said he’s comfortable being judged on his record. “What I hope people are seeing [at the town hall events] is this is a guy who is going to really burn the midnight oil to figure out what’s right for the county and what’s right for the region, and he’s going to cast that vote and let the chips fall where they may,— he said.