Social activists hunt for congressional seats ... in G.O.P. districts

Tom Perriello of Virginia is among a new breed of Democrats competing strongly in places that usually vote Republican.

Rob Chaddock
Inroads: Tom Perriello (D) campaigned in Virginia’s Fifth District last weekend. The race with incumbent Rep. Virgil Goode Jr. (R) is no longer in the ‘solidly Republican’ column, analysts say.
Rob Chaddock
Vote solicitor: Tom Perriello greets the public during the Fourth of July parade in Scottsville, Va. He is running for Congress.
Rich Clabaugh–STAFF

Except for the 10-year-old work boots he wears to every campaign stop, Tom Perriello – a netroots "social entrepreneur" – doesn't look like a close fit with the rural Virginia district he hopes will send him to Congress.

He's not donning hunting garb or endorsing a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. His credentials are not in elected office or business, but mainly in creating social-action groups over the Internet, working for reform in places that aren't exactly top of mind in Virginia's Fifth Congressional District, such as Sierra Leone, Kosovo, and the Sudan.

But in an election when voter sentiment is running high against traditional politics and politicians, Mr. Perriello's unconventional résumé – and those of a handful of other Democratic hopefuls with backgrounds similar to his – could be an unexpected asset for strategists hoping for a "blue" wave in November. Last week, two Washington-based handicappers upgraded the competitiveness of this race, from "solid Republican" to the less-certain "likely Republican."

"It's not a traditional profile for a political candidate, but ... it is playing very well," says Fred Hudson, chairman of the Democratic Party Committee in Virginia's Fifth.

Perriello's ability to raise a campaign war chest over the Internet drove out all primary contenders, he says. At the end of March, Perriello reported $500,000 cash on hand, compared with $593,000 for six-term incumbent Rep. Virgil Goode (R). Next week Perriello's campaign will report more than $900,000, much of it raised out of state over the Internet.

The hope for Democrats is that a synergy between Perriello's approach to politics and Barack Obama's presidential campaign will drive up turnout, especially in the local African-American community (almost one-quarter of the population), and yield an upset victory.

"You have to put it into context of the Obama campaign and who Senator Obama is and the way he's approaching the race – and Tom and the way his profile reads and its impact on a variety of the communities in the Fifth District. It has the opportunity of being a very, very good combination," says Mr. Hudson.

Take tithing. Early on, Perriello set aside 10 percent of the time and resources of his campaign staff to work on local projects. Larry Campbell, assistant pastor at Bible Way Cathedral in Danville, Va., says he was surprised that Perriello's campaign wanted more than a photo op when they visited his food bank.

"I've had many political candidates come through, but I've never had any work along with us in the area of social-action changes," he says, citing ongoing help from Perriello volunteers. "Most candidates who are running for national office have more programs just getting people out voting for them, but to give back to the community is a heavy statement for social change."

Born and raised in the district, Perriello graduated from Yale with a major in humanities, then consulted on youth and environmental campaigns in Washington at the Center for a Sustainable Economy (now part of Redefining Progress). After graduating from Yale Law School, he cofounded Res Publica, a Net-based organization of public-sector professionals; Catholic Alliance for the Common Good; and, most recently, (avaaz means "voice" in many languages), a global Web movement on issues ranging from human rights to climate change. With 3.4 million on-line members, is the largest on-line organizing movement in the world, says cofounder and executive director Ricken Patel.

Perriello sees himself as a part of Generation X that has committed to public service in record numbers.

"There was such a sense for us that the place to make a difference in the world was very direct. The entrepreneurial spirit was in the nonprofit sector," he said during an interview over two days of campaigning last week.

After a decade or so of working on nonprofit activity, he says, he and others in the social-entrepreneur movement saw a need to "take it to scale in the public sector."

"Politics was either going to be part of the problem or part of the solution, but it was no longer something we could ignore in the solace of the nonprofit sector," he says. "The struggle in our country right now is a struggle to replace the culture of corruption with a culture of service to country and community."

So far, the Perriello campaign's tithing project has included work at food banks and adult day-care centers, as well as building housing for the poor and repairing furniture.

"The tithing project is not just about ensuring that the least among us still has a voice in the political process. It's also about making sure we are part of a transformation in the country to restore a culture of service," he says.

It's a theme other insurgent Democratic hopefuls for Congress are adopting.

Larry Kissel, a high school social studies teacher who came within 330 votes of defeating Rep. Robin Hayes (R) of North Carolina in 2006, is organizing his 2008 campaign around the themes of public service.

The campaign office doubles as a "constant food drive," and staff requesting vacations are urged to "go anywhere you want to for as long as you want to as long as you help people where you are while you're there, " says campaign spokesman Tom Thacker.

"Larry is very much about leaving a positive footprint when you travel," he adds. "He's running for office because he wants to help people, and he's helping people while he's running for office."

Democrat Josh Segall, whose contest for Alabama's Third Congressional District is ranked by House Democrats with Perriello's as one of 20 "emerging races" in the 2008 campaign, is also combining an aggressive Internet campaign with local community service. While a college student, Mr. Segall started a farmers market as well as an advocacy group, Home Grown America, that urges Alabama colleges to buy food from local farmers.

"Our volunteers are not just volunteering for Josh but will be volunteering for public-service projects, such as farmers markets or highway maintenance," says campaign manager Don Weigel.

It's not clear whether social entrepreneurship on or off the Web will trump incumbency in November. Political handicappers caution that the district Perriello hopes to win is still heavily Republican and that the incumbent is well-known for high-quality constituent service.

"Perriello has a great profile in a very liberal district in Boulder, Colo., but that's not Virginia's Fifth," says David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report, who nonetheless has reclassified the race from "solid Republican" to "leaning Republican." "Voters in this district are hurting and don't consider Darfur activism to be a qualification for Congress."

"Unless there's a massive Democratic landslide and Republicans are so disillusioned they don't turn out, it's hard to see how [Perriello] gets to 51 percent," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia.

[Editor's note: The original version did not adequately reflect Tom Perriello’s stand on gay marriage.]

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