During his first public stop in Prince William County Friday, Tom Perriello had some blunt things to say about Corey Stewart, President Donald Trump and what he considers the key problem vexing Virginia’s public schools.
And, no, it’s not just too much testing.
About 100 people came out to the Southlake Community Center in Montclair on Good Friday to hear Perriello, a 42-year-old former congressman and State Department official, pitch local Democrats on why they should support him as the Democratic nominee for governor in the upcoming June 13 primary.
Perriello is running against Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, a 57-year-old pediatrician-turned-politician who seemingly had the nomination tied up until Perriello, a Charlottesville native who now lives in Alexandria, jumped in the race in January.
Perriello, who was recently endorsed by Sen. Bernie Sanders, is inching ahead in the race, garnering the support of 25 percent of Democratic voters to Northam’s 20 percent, according to a recent Quinnipiac poll. Most voters – 51 percent — remain undecided, the poll found.
Perriello appeared with Prince William School Board Chairman Ryan Sawyers, a Democrat and the first elected official to endorse Perriello in Virginia. School Board member Justin Wilk, also a Democrat, endorsed Perriello last week. Montclair, a subdivision of nearly 20,000 residents, is located in Wilk’s Potomac District.
‘What would you do to stop Corey Stewart?’
It was Elizabeth Guzman, a Democratic candidate for the 31st District delegate seat, which includes Montclair, who asked Perriello about Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart, who is campaigning for the Republican gubernatorial nomination on a platform that includes tough talk on illegal immigration and a staunch defense the Confederate Flag as key to Virginia’s heritage.
Guzman, an immigrant from Peru and a social services manager for the City of Alexandria, said she’s especially concerned about Stewart’s promise to require every Virginia locality to enter into 287(g) agreements to deputize local law-enforcement officers to act as federal immigration-enforcement officials. Right now, the Prince William County jail is the only facility in Virginia to hold an active agreement. The Fauquier County Sheriff’s Department, however, applied for the program last month.
“What would you do to stop Corey Stewart?” Guzman asked.
Perriello initially hesitated and then plowed right in. “I take some real comfort and pride as a Virginian in just how terribly he’s doing,” he said of Stewart’s campaign. The answer was met with cheers and loud applause.
Stewart is trailing Republican front-runner Ed Gillespie in both fundraising and voter support. The Quinnipiac poll found Stewart’s numbers on the rise but still well behind Gillespie’s 28 percent. At 12 percent, Stewart is ahead of state Sen. Frank Wagner, who charted just 7 percent support. Still, the poll found that 51 percent of Republican voters are also undecided.
“It is encouraging to see how few people are flocking to that message of overt hate,” Perriello added about Stewart.
Noting that 56 percent of Virginians voted against Trump “and his agenda of hate and bigotry,” Perriello added, “and you’re seeing even fewer people excited about the message [Stewart] has brought.”
Trump’s win “heart-breaking and soul-crushing”
Speaking of Trump, Perriello said the president ran “the most viciously racist campaign of my lifetime.”
Perriello made the remark while answering a question about his past positions with the State Department and with nonprofits. Perriello, who earned his bachelor’s and law degrees from Yale, served as the U.S. special envoy to the African Great Lakes and helped negotiate a peace agreement in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
But after Trump’s win last fall, Perriello said he felt compelled to return to his home turf and run for governor.
“Watching he rise of a racial demagogue on my own home soil was absolutely heart-breaking and soul-crushing,” Perriello said. “And having seen those kinds of authoritarian leaders rise in other countries [and] knowing how you push back on it, which is: You don’t give an inch, you fight like hell, you punch in the nose if you have to, and you offer a positive alternative, so you’re not forcing people to choose them.”
Yes, Trump won, Perriello adds, “But what happened in the wake of that? It has ignited an energy at the grassroots level across the commonwealth and across the country like I have never seen before.”
The question, Periello says, is whether Democrats can translate that energy and enthusiasm into political power. “That’s what every Republican across the state is asking right now,” he said.
‘We ask teachers to do too much’
And what’s the key problem plaguing Virginia’s public schools? Not enough support staff, Periello said.
“We have balanced the budget in Virginia using gimmicks that reduce the ratio of support staff to teachers. We ask teachers to do so much, but there’s a lot they can’t do,” he said. “If you have a kid who’s acting up and your only choice is to suspend them because you don’t have enough counselors in the school, the very kids that most need help are the ones that we start to write off.”
Periello also blamed too much testing for “chok[ing] out the kind of creativity and flexibility we want in the classroom.” The state spends “tens of millions of dollars” on testing, he added, “to tell us what we already know.”
“If a school is in an area of concentrated poverty, there’s going to be an underperforming school. And I think it’s about time that instead of lecturing teachers and principals about why they can’t fix it, we need to turn the question back on us,” he said. “Why are we still allowing concentrated areas of poverty in the richest country on earth?”
Perriello talked about funding free community college tuition, expanding Medicaid to cover non-disabled, low-income adults and raising the minimum wage, which he said needs to be $15 an hour, “or what I call dignity.”
“In Virginia, we pay poverty wages,” he added.
Some in the audience grilled Perriello on his positions on gun safety, abortion rights and charter schools, three issues on which the Democratic faithful find the most reason to criticize him.
As a congressman, Perriello had an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association and voted for the controversial Stupak Amendment to Obamacare, which would have barred federal subsidies from paying for insurance policies that covered abortions. Perriello also previously supported school reform measures that included standardized testing and school choice.
NRA “a nut-job extremist organization”
Perriello offered long and wonk-ish explanations for his previous votes and told the crowd how his positions on all three issues have changed since he represented Virginia’s 5th District in Congress from 2009 to 2011. Perriello lost his seat in the “tea party wave” election in 2010.
Perriello said he’s been a supporter of abortion rights “my entire life” and called the Stupak Amendment vote “a bad mistake.”
Perriello acknowledged the 10th anniversary of the mass shooting at Virginia Tech and said he would be in Blacksburg on Sunday to take part in the events planned to remember the 32 students and faculty members lost there on April 16, 2007. “It was something that shocked the conscience across Virginia and across the country,” he said.
Perriello said he initially considered gun control measures “a third rail of politics” and something “impossible to change.” But now, he said he supports gun-safety measures such as universal background checks and added: “This is something I’ve come late to, but it is something I’m deadly serious about now.”
Perriello called the NRA “a nut-job extremist organization” and predicted he would be “on the F end” of the NRA’s rating scale this year. Perriello said he would “play defense” on gun laws as governor, promising to veto measures that loosen gun laws, and would look for opportunities to pursue “common sense reform” where possible.
On standardized testing and charter schools, Perriello’s answers were more nuanced. Periello said we need to embrace “evidence-based measures,” some of which have proved that, on charter schools, “the evidence is not always there.”
Perriello said he supports Virginia’s policy that leaves charter school approval to local school boards but also backs measures to “bring back” instruction in the trades and enhance programs, such as magnet and specialty schools, that allow students to pursue their individual interests and strengths.
Perriello concluded his blunt talk by noting that Virginia must change the political landscape in the state General Assembly to pursue “bold” progressive policies. Republicans now hold a 66-to-34 majority in the House of Delegates. Periello said he wants to “put all of state in play,” which is possible by recruiting national support for Democrats his fall. Virginia is one of only two states in the country to hold elections in 2017.
“I don’t really want the title of governor, I want to govern,” Perriello said. “What we want to do is be able to make a difference and that requires winning the House of Delegates or at least getting close.”
At the close of the two-hour talk, both Wilk and Sawyers said they’re not sure if Periello made headway with Prince William County’s Democratic “establishment,” which remains lined up for Northam.
“But he doesn’t need them,” Wilk said, noting he came to support Perriello partly because his staunchly Libertarian late brother-in-law talked approvingly of him years ago, demonstrating Periello can win support across the political spectrum.
“Democrats are looking for someone to galvanize Virginia voters,” Wilk added. “I think he’s the fighter we need right now.”
Reach Jill Palermo at firstname.lastname@example.org