Interview with Representative Tom Perriello

By The NewsHour, The NewsHour - December 28, 2010

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MARGARET WARNER: This week, as the year comes to a close, we begin a series of interviews with congressional Democrats defeated at the polls in November.

First up: Tom Perriello of Virginia. He was swept into office in the Obama wave of 2008, only to be swept out in the Republican wave of 2010.

Judy Woodruff recently spoke with the departing congressman on Capitol Hill.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Congressman Tom Perriello, thank you for talking with us.

REP. TOM PERRIELLO (D-Va.): Thank you for inviting me.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You were elected to Congress two years ago, but with the narrowest margin in the country.

Different this time. What happened?

REP. TOM PERRIELLO: Well, we actually also lost this year by one of the narrowest margins.

We outperformed expectations by about 14 points over the national average this year. And I think what worked both times in some ways was conviction. I think people appreciate knowing your sense of right and wrong, knowing where you stand.

And I think two years ago was a time when people were really hoping for great things. I think there's a lot of concern right now. But we walk away with our heads held high, very proud of what we did and with a lot of respect, even from those who disagreed with us in the district. And I don't think that's a bad model for politics.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you think that the voters in your district changed their minds from 2008? Or do you think different voters turned out in 2010?

REP. TOM PERRIELLO: I think it was a little bit of both.

We actually did have a lot of the 2008 voters show up in our case, which is why we stayed closer than in many races. You saw a surge of people who were very concerned, particularly about the president and some of the Democratic leaders.

So, I think people had hoped perhaps for too much to be accomplished with us coming into power. And, you know, people said, hey, wait a second. Maybe we want a little more checks and balances and a little more bipartisanship.

But I think, at the end of the day, jobs trumps everything else. And I think what people want right now is a job if they don't have one and job security if they do have one. And they're still concerned.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is there something the president, Democrats, you could have done differently to change this outcome, do you think?

REP. TOM PERRIELLO: Sure. I think there are many things that you could do differently, but I think we made a serious attempt. We walked into the worst economic crisis since the Depression.

And we did something before the president was even sworn in that may be the only example in legislative history of preventing an economic depression. Now, I believe there was a chance to do something bolder, to really reinvent America's competitive advantage with a 10-year vision of how we're going to outcompete the world.

We didn't do that. We actually went, partly because of the need to get Republican support at the time, with a much tamer stimulus, frankly, that did prevent a depression and has led to 11 straight months of private sector job growth, which is somewhat of an economic miracle.

And, so, I do think that there's a lot to be proud of in there. But I think what people want is to make sure we're moving forward.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The president flipped Virginia in 2008 from Republican to Democrat. Is it out -- is Virginia out of his -- and you not only lost. You -- there were two other Democrats who lost their seats this year. Is Virginia out of President Obama's reach in 2012?

REP. TOM PERRIELLO: Certainly not. You know, he was actually ahead in the poll that was run the other day.

I think voters haven't made up their minds. I think they're concerned with what the Democrats did. They're concerned with what the Republicans did. And evidence shows they're even concerned about what the Republicans are continuing to do.

As Marco Rubio in Florida noted, this wasn't a mandate for the Republicans. And they shouldn't over-read it in the same way that Democrats shouldn't. What I think people hoped for was an era of post-partisanship. And I think what they're getting is, at best, bipartisanship. And there's a difference.

This tax deal, unfortunately, is an example of bipartisanship. Let's take the goodies from one side and add them to the goodies with the other side to get something through. Post-partisanship says, what solves the problem? And I think that we need to have a serious conversation about what that problem is.

What I see in a district like mine is that we have been getting outcompeted by the world. And too many jobs have disappeared or gone overseas. And we need the kind of jobs that someone coming out of community college or trade school can support their family with. And we need a real vision for that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That sounds like a good plan, Congressman Perriello, but, going forward, given the hyper-partisanship in this city, is that realistic?

REP. TOM PERRIELLO: I think it isn't. I mean, I will be honest. I don't come out of a party background. I didn't come out of a partisan background. And I was really shocked by the way the Republicans acted going back to January of '09, when your country is on the verge of a crisis, when a very popular new president comes in and meets only with the Republicans.

The joke in January and February, when I first came in, was the only way to get a meeting with the president was to become a Republican. And here you were, a country in crisis, a new mandate, a rejection of really conservative ideas that had gotten us into this, and the response from Republicans was: Hey, if this works, you're going to get the credit. If it doesn't work, we don't want any part of it.

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