COVER: Out of nowhere: How Tom Perriello's 450 mile Election Day made the difference in the race for Congress
Tom Perriello doesn't look like a rock star, but when the Democratic congressional candidate took the stage at Gravity Lounge on Tuesday, November 4 just before midnight, he got as loud and wild a reception as anybody with a guitar has ever gotten at this downtown music venue.
Hundreds of local Democrats, having already bounced up and down with giddy joy when MSNBC declared that Barack Obama had won enough electoral votes to be the next President of the United States, let loose a euphoric roar when their own conquering hero took the stage to share a bit of news:
"As I understand it," he said, "CNN has just called this race for us!"
To think Perriello would ever get the chance to utter those words would have been folly until recently. An August 13 poll from SurveyUSA showed Perriello trailing incumbent Rep. Virgil Goode (R-Rocky Mount) among likely voters by 34 percentage points, more than a ratio of two Goode supporters for every one of Perriello's.
Less than three months later, Perriello stood before a rhapsodic crowd of more than 200 and said, "We are confident at the end of the day, and with the precincts left to report, that we are going to win this thing!"
How did he do it? A nationwide Democratic tidal wave got Perriello close, but it would take a personal touch to seal the deal.
On Election Day, for 14 hours and 450 miles, Perriello careened across the Fifth District from Bedford to Charlottesville to Chatham and beyond in a Volkswagen Jetta, determined to meet every voter he possibly could.
At the time of this publication, the winner of the race was unclear, with an almost certain recount looming. Perriello leads Goode by 745 votes out of a total 316,661– a perilously thin lead of less than one quarter of one percent.
What is clear is that if Perriello pulls off the impossible and defeats Goode, the frenetic, rain-soaked, adrenaline-fueled scramble for every last vote in which he met personally with hundreds of voters across the Fifth District might have been the difference between a valiant effort and a seat in Congress.
Fighting the Goode fight
Though both he and six-term incumbent Rep. Virgil Goode (R-Rocky Mount) were both raised in the Fifth District, that's where the similarities end.
Goode grew up in rural Franklin County, went to the University of Richmond and UVA Law, and started his political career early, winning a seat in the Virginia State Senate in 1973, the same year he received his J.D., and the year before Perriello was born.
Perriello grew up in the leafy Charlottesville suburb of Ivy, went to Yale and Yale law, and has never before run for elective office. Instead, he spent some of his career working for a civic advocacy non-profit group in New York (a fact often pointed out by Goode), but most of the time using his legal training working alongside government officials in places like Liberia, Kosovo, Sudan, and Afghanistan to stabilize those fledgling democracies.
In each of his six elections to Congress, Goode has always won at least 60 percent of the vote. Twice he's run unopposed, but each time he's had an opponent, that candidate hailed from the Charlottesville area, and each time proved utterly incapable of connecting with rural voters living south of Charlottesville who make up the vast majority of the district.
Not even Al Weed, who served in the Army's "Green Beret" special forces in Vietnam and went on to become a farmer and businessman from Nelson County, could muster more than 40 percent of the vote in either of his two runs– 2004 and 2006– against Goode.
So what made this boyish looking, Ivy League-educated political neophyte with a hard-to-pronounce name think he had a chance what other Democrats couldn't do?
"We wanted to run a campaign where we gave people credit for being smarter than a lot of politicians think they are," says Perriello, "and a lot of people want competence right now.
"I can't count the number of times people have said, 'Tom, stop talking about debt/equity ratios. But I think people want someone who understands what debt/equity ratios are and why they've gotten us into the economic mess we're in right now."
As of only a few months ago, hardly anyone outside of the Charlottesville area supported Perriello. Then he aired a few clever campaign ads centering on how even many of his supporters mangle the pronunciation of his last name (for the record, it's "PEHR-ee-EL-o"), and the gap began to close.
Then came a Goode ad that painted a bearded Perriello as nothing but a "New York liberal," and the gap closed a little more.
Then came Perriello's assertion that Goode had received illegal campaign contributions from defense contractor MZM. Indeed, MZM CEO Mitchell Wade had ties to Republican lobbyist turned convicted felon Jack Abramoff, and pled guilty to, among other things, coercing employees into making campaign contributions to certain political candidates. In 2006, Goode would donate $88,000 in MZM-connected campaign contributions to regional charities, but would still sail to a 20-point victory. But when Perriello raised the issue again in a press release and in TV interviews, the gap closed a little more.
Then came the economic crisis of October that shook the financial foundation of Wall Street and Main Street alike for which Republicans were receiving most of the blame, and the gap closed a little more.
Finally, on the eve of the election, SurveyUSA released a poll that said only 50 percent of the Fifth's likely voters supported Goode, with Perriello only behind by three points at 47 percent and with a four-percent margin of error.
"We had a feeling we were doing well," says Perriello communications director Jessica Barba, "but we didn't know how close we were until we saw that poll."
When he arrives at Meriwether Lewis Elementary School in Ivy to cast his own ballot at 10:40am, Perriello has already gotten in a full day's worth of campaigning. He began the day at 4am, having slept overnight in Goode's hometown of Rocky Mount, and was at Thaxton Elementary School in Bedford County near Lynchburg by 5:30am to greet early bird voters on their way into the polls. He made stops at eight other precincts on his way up Route 29 back to his hometown.
Still, despite the drizzling rain, Perriello looks as bright-eyed and crisp as his commercials, as though he had simply stepped out of the television and onto the sidewalk.
"I got a rip-roaring three-and-a-half hours of sleep," he tells the Hook. "That's more than I thought I'd get."
If Perriello's energy was flagging, the hero's welcome he received at his home precinct must have picked up his spirits. About two-dozen passers-by, some who know him personally, some who know his father, pediatrician Dr. Vito Perriello, and some who just know him through television, welcome him with warm embraces.
And if that weren't enough to make Perriello feel at home, the local Cub Scouts are having a bake sale and they are there to feed him some literal home-cooking.
As Perriello pays for a muffin, he strikes up a conversation with the youngsters.
"What are you guys, Webelos now?"
"Almost," says one of the boys.
"What troop are you guys with?"
"114!" another offers.
"114 was my troop!"
What Perriello doesn't tell the boys is that he made it all the way to Eagle Scout, and, according to Perriello, it's his scout's honor earnestness that's made this race close.
"What's been valuable in this campaign is that I've spoken from the heart," he says. "That may sound simplistic, but when I'm in a room, the moment I win over lots of Republicans and independents is when I disagree with them, because then they know that I'm willing to tell them to their face when I disagree."
Since Perriello is on home turf, he's relaxed and makes himself at home. On his way into the polls, with nieces Caroline and Allison Rice holding each of his hands, a polling volunteer asks for his address.
"New York City," he replies, unable to resist a dig at the ads Goode has run painting him as a "New York liberal."
"Having to deal with that issue has been disappointing," Perriello later says. "I assumed going in that if someone said something about you, you would just respond and move on. But now I realize that they want you to spend your time and money talking about how I'm not a New York lawyer, because then the whole campaign becomes whether I'm a New York lawyer. It's ridiculous when we're in the biggest economic crisis since the 1920s."
And then there is the picture that kept popping up in many a Goode ad of Perriello wearing a beard. On his way out of the school gym, one woman exclaims, "You don't look nearly as scary in person and without the beard!"
What most voters didn't realize was that Perriello didn't grow the beard for aesthetic reasons.
"It was important for the work I was doing in Afghanistan," he says, referring to his time as a national security analyst for the non-profit Century Foundation. "It was actually much thicker when I was there, and it was important to be able to go out and gather the kind of intelligence I needed."
Not that Perriello ever thought his former facial hair required an explanation.
"I didn't bother to make a point of it," he says, "but the idea that Goode would take a swipe at me based on that is indicative of–"
He doesn't finish the thought, instead stepping away to shake the hand of one of the hundreds of voters he'll meet today, once again, not wishing to spend his time deflecting his opponent's attacks.
'A nerd factor'
As Perriello leaves Ivy and heads into Charlottesville, he joins State Sen. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath) outside Clark Elementary School. Deeds has already declared his candidacy for governor in 2009. As the two stand side by side talking up voters, the difference between their styles is stark.
Deeds looks and sounds more like the politicians who have historically done well in the Fifth District. He stands tall, speaks with a mountain-bred twang, he slaps voters on the back while he shakes their hand, all done with a wide Jimmy Carter-style grin.
Perriello looks and sounds more like he just stepped off the Grounds of the University of Virginia than the hills of Bath County. When he speaks, he does so with only a slight accent. While listening to voters, he purses his lips slightly, folds his arms and grips his chin between his thumb and index finger, looking more like a professor than a politician.
By all accounts, Perriello hasn't gone out of his way to close the "folksy" gap with his opponent, save for an allusion in one ad to "huntin' gear." But Perriello says that his decision not to do ads wearing blaze orange or affecting a drawl is in keeping with what he senses the electorate desires from a congressman.
"We had a bit of nerd factor," says Perriello, "with [Al] Gore and [John] Kerry"– neither of whom won more the 43 percent of the vote in the Fifth when they each ran for president– "but when you're on the verge of an economic crisis, you prefer competence to cool, and prefer authentic to folksy."
This perception, he says, was made manifest after the first debate of the campaign.
"That was the moment when I knew this was working," says Perriello, "and Goode did what he's always done, which is try to get by on folksy charm. But the fact was that the answers just didn't add up, and I was able to point out just why that wasn't working. People got it that it wasn't about tearing Goode apart, but leaving Goode behind."
According to UVA professor and political pundit Larry Sabato, that wasn't the only factor leading to how close the Fifth District race ended.
"Looking at the results," Sabato says, "it's obvious that many Republicans– unhappy with Bush, the economy, McCain, and other things– just didn't show up at the polls, as was the case all over the country."
But not even Sabato, who correctly predicted 98 percent of this year's House races, saw a Perriello victory coming.
"I considered flipping my prediction for the Fifth based on what I was hearing at the end," Sabato says, "but, every now and then, a long-shot manages to convert a district and wins."
Deeds says that while a number of factors certainly helped Perriello, it's the way he's spoken with voters one-on-one that has won the respect and the votes of a large number of people who had never before voted for the Democrat in the Fifth District race.
"A lot of it has to do with how [Mark] Warner and Obama have caught fire in these last few months," says Deeds, "but I've seen Tom connect with people all over the district in ways that just haven't happened before."
Converting the unconvinced
It was Perriello's mission this day to make just a few more of those connections before the polls closed.
After a 90-minute drive south, both the advantages and hinderances of Perriello's wonkish tendencies become evident.
Standing outside the firehouse in the Pittsylvania County town of Hurt (population: 1,276) gone are the Dem-friendly crowds of deep blue Charlottesville, replaced by the skeptical constituents whom Perriello has to wait to court as minutes go by without a single voter passing through. When he does have the chance to speak to a voter, few of them stop to hear what this candidate has to say. But, while Perriello would lose this precinct by 20 points, he won a few votes he might not otherwise have.
At around 2:15pm, for instance, a young man in his 20s wearing a Jack Daniel's t-shirt, a thin goatee, and a Virginia Tech Hokies cap strides across the parking lot. Perriello literally reaches out to him with a handshake and a smile. The man does not return the grin, but does take the opportunity to ask Perriello a question about the economy.
Five minutes later, Perriello has finished delivered something of a mini-dissertation on the current state of economic affairs. The man's expression goes unchanged as he shakes Perriello's hand and speaks a few words before going to vote. Moments later, the man in the Jack Daniel's shirt emerges from the firehouse.
"This is why I like our chances," says Perriello. "To look at that gentleman, you would expect him to vote Republican, but he just voted for me."
Still, Perriello's academic style can have its downsides. In Chatham, Perriello discusses his position on abortion to a man in his 40s for between five and ten minutes, before finally settling on, "Well you probably won't agree with me on my position, but we can certainly agree we need to do more to cut down on teenage pregnancy."
In Gretna, he talks with a woman wearing a McCain-Palin button for several minutes in the rain, before she finally concedes, "Alright, I like you, just not that much."
Over the course of the next 10 minutes, he talks to a man about the finer points of uranium mining policy.
Outside American Legion Post #325 in Danville, Perriello spends another five-plus minutes telling a voter that Congress should have spent more money after 9/11 funding local fire and rescue operations.
All this, with mere hours left before the polls close.
"You think this is bad," says communications director Barba. "You should see him at something like a county fair, when he spends 20 minutes talking to one voter. But that's the way he does it, and we've stopped trying to get him to do it another way."
Sprinting to the finish
Darkness begins to fall just after 5pm, long after the rain has mussed Perriello's hair and turned his suit a deeper shade of blue. There are a little less than two hours before the polls close, and Perriello still has six more precincts he wants to visit.
And so the campaign ends as it began, with Perriello in the driver's seat.
From Chatham, to Blairs, to Danville, Perriello jumps out of the car, courting every last voter he can find. This is not time to be a professor; Perriello is now in full campaigner mode.
At 6:15pm in Danville, he paces in the parking lot waiting for someone to persuade to his side. Perriello has long since changed out of his wingtips and into a pair of ragged brown work boots.
"I got them for my 16th birthday," he explains. "I used to leave them with my brother every time I'd go into a conflict zone in Afghanistan or Darfur and pick them up when I got back."
Are they lucky boots?
"They got me where I am now, haven't they?"
Perriello can barely get that last word out before eyeing a potential voter and literally running up to the man, "Excuse me! I'm Tom Perriello! I'm running for Congress!"
If Perriello loses this race, it will not be for lack of effort in the campaign's final moments. Finally, at 7pm, satisfied that he's done all he could, a wet Perriello draws a deep breath and heads back to the Jetta for the long drive back to Charlottesville.
"It's been an interesting finale," he says. "It's in the hands of the voters now."
Defying gravity at Gravity Lounge
By 11pm, the Democrats assembled at Gravity Lounge are already riding high on a wave of euphoria. With the closing of the polls on the west coast, TV networks have just declared Barack Obama the next President of the United States.
Some stand on their chairs and scream at the top of their lungs. Some hug each other and cry. Some pump their fists and chant, "Yes we can!"
But soon, once the tears have been wiped away and the adrenaline level has dropped slightly, they will all realize that the night is not yet over. With 98 percent of precincts reporting, Perriello leads Goode by a mere 557 votes.
In the back of the room stands State Sen. Deeds, who remembers all too well another night like this. In 2005, he lost the race for Attorney General to Republican Bob McDonnell by only 337 votes.
"It's the Election Night that wouldn't end, again!" he jokes to the Hook.
Still, he remains confident that tonight will turn out better for Perriello than the one for him three years earlier.
"With the precincts that have yet to report, and his lead being what it is, I think we'll be able to sort this out pretty soon and Tom will come out on top," says Deeds.
Perriello refuses to watch. Instead, he stands in a darkened backstage area alone, collecting his thoughts, amid a flurry of aides and supporters. Like a baseball team refusing to disturb its pitcher who's in the middle of throwing a no-hitter, it seems as though nobody wants to jinx him.
Finally, as late night becomes early morning, and the precincts left to report grow fewer, the crowd can wait no longer, and Perriello emerges to the loudest cheers he's heard in some time.
"I want to thank everyone here who took on this race," he says. "Nobody gave us much of a chance."
But according to Perriello, he knew all along that although he had a long, steep hill to climb, he always had the wind at his back.
"I started the day in Franklin, went up through Bedford, Nelson, Charlottesville, Albemarle, and back down 29 through Buchanan, Pittsylvania, and ended in Danville, and what I saw today is what I've seen throughout the last year," he says, "that people are hungry for a new kind of politics!"
Should the current vote totals hold, he'll have the chance to show what exactly that new kind of politics look like. But if the way he spent Election Night is any indicator, he's ready to do the legwork to make such a change happen. Just after giving his victory speech, he fights through a crowd of joyful supporters and goes sprinting down the Downtown Mall, off to go do a series of radio interviews from a quieter spot.
Even when the race is over, Perriello can't stop running.
NOTE: The original print version of this story misstated that Perriello had worked for a law firm in New York, and the years that Al Weed ran for Congress. They have been corrected in this online edition.
Tom Perriello (D-Ivy) had been up since 4am traveling the Fifth District, but looked chipper when he spoke with a TV crew at 10:45am at Meriwether Lewis Elementary School just before casting his ballot.
PHOTO BY LINDSAY BARNES
NFL Hall of Famer and Ivy resident Howie Long bumped into Perriello just before casting his own ballot. The two swapped stories about each other's hectic travel schedules this fall, Perriello busy with the campaign, Long flying to Los Angeles every week to co-host Fox NFL Sunday.
PHOTO BY LINDSAY BARNES
State Senator and 2009 gubernatorial candidate Creigh Deeds (D-Bath) talks strategy with Perriello outside Clark Elementary.
PHOTO BY LINDSAY BARNES
Of this voter, Perriello said, "This is why I like our chances. To look at this gentleman, you would expect him to vote Republican, but he just voted for me."
PHOTO BY LINDSAY BARNES
After a stop at Gretna High School, Perriello races back to his campaign manager's Volkswagen Jetta with six more stops to make and only two-and-a-half hours before the polls close.
PHOTO BY LINDSAY BARNES
Both night and rain were falling hard at 6:15pm, with 45 minutes to go before the polls closed, as Perriello waited outside American Legion Post #325 in Danville.
PHOTO BY LINDSAY BARNES
Just after 11:30pm, a now dry Perriello declared to the hundreds of supporters packed into Gravity Lounge, "Change is coming to the Fifth District!"
PHOTO BY LINDSAY BARNES
With just a handful of precincts left to report, Perriello allowed himself to smile just before making one more round of TV interviews.
PHOTO BY LINDSAY BARNES