“He’s got a better chance of flapping his wings and flying to the moon than getting within 50 points of that nomination.”
– VA Senate Minority Leader Richard L. “Dick” Saslaw (D-Fairfax), January 2017
That’s how Virginia Democratic gubernatorial primary candidate Tom Perriello’s campaign announcement was summarily dismissed from the start by the state Senate minority leader of his own party. And that one comment – in all its infinite condescension and hubris – served as an emphatic reminder that Democratic Party leaders determine nominees for the people, not vice versa. The people’s preference be damned. It remains a self-defeating prioritization of Party before people that has contributed to an alarming number of general elections losses for Democrats nationwide. And it continues to sour the image of a party that should otherwise be on the ascendant.
As we approach Tuesday’s Democratic and Republican primaries in Virginia, many are contemplating what to make of a Perriello campaign powered by relentless, direct and unfiltered engagement with the people of Virginia versus a Northam campaign that draws power from the traditional machine politics and endorsements of party incumbents – in this case secured almost entirely by default before Perriello even entered the race. The differing approaches have been striking. Northam pitches an insular, hidden-from-the-public Richmond political dynamic, suggesting only those with experience and relationships on the inside are fit to understand and influence it. Perriello’s direct engagement with voters parallels the people-powered resistance movements in which he has participated, and represents an opportunity for movements of people to drive the actions of the representatives elected to serve them. What ultimately defines this race is a referendum on centrally controlled versus distributed sources of power. And the role of Dominion Power and the fate of two ill-conceived fracked gas pipeline projects have been the perfect metaphor.
Throughout his campaign, Tom Perriello has argued that the proposed Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast fracked gas pipelines represent a $8.6B+ backwards investment in an antiquated, 50-year, fossil fuel infrastructure at odds with Virginia’s environmental, economic, campaign finance and private land protection interests. He likens the investment to betting the farm on Eastman Kodak right at the time digital cameras were hitting the market. He’s right on all accounts. Beyond the United States’ callous disregard for climate change laid bare by our withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, Virginia’s lagging performance in the booming clean/renewable energy economy should embarrass us all. The same can be said of our state “regulated” energy monopoly, Dominion Power, whose monopoly control over political power mirrors its monopoly control over our electrical power. The return on Dominion’s state-leading investments in both parties’ politicians? Dominion determines how our energy is sourced, how it is transported, what we are charged, who enjoys the profits and at what pace we transition from fossil fuels to a clean/renewable energy future that is otherwise available to us now. Dominion’s bipartisan campaign largess buys state-regulated, state-sanctioned monopoly control over the means of energy production that offends both liberal and conservative notions of free market dynamics, private land ownership, environmental protection and campaign finance integrity. Any Democrat who votes to nominate Ralph Northam on Tuesday willingly, knowingly and recklessly risks forfeiting broad coalitions of Democratic, independent and even segments of conservative Republican general election voters finding common cause with Tom Perriello’s position. Common cause and just cause.
The Democratic Party primary “contest” closely follows the Dominion command and control dynamic. Ralph Northam was pre-endorsed by virtually every incumbent Democratic Party leader before Tom Perriello even entered the race. The insinuation that Northam was selected for endorsement over Perriello (pushed aggressively by the Northam campaign) is inaccurate in almost every case. The Democrats’ insular, party patronage-based process for pre-determining and prematurely endorsing its nominees has become one of the Party’s most crippling, outdated, and disingenuous testimonials to the strength of a general election candidacy. It involves an anti-competitive suppression of alternative candidates that has become so severe in NJ that this millennial progressive actually opted to run in the Republican primary to circumvent it!
We now live in an interconnected world where data and evidence to inform decisions is more immediately and readily available than ever before. A primary, like a competitive market, should serve as intended to reward the best candidate based on the merits of his or her candidacy. The fact that not one (not one!) Democratic Party leader who prematurely endorsed Northam in advance of Perriello subsequently allowed even the possibility of a reevaluation in comparison to Perriello has been a stunning reaffirmation of Party allegiance before people’s interests (not to mention concern for general election victory prospects) at all costs. U.S. Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) at least offered an explanation, if not a convincing justification: “A lot of us had already declared and once you declare, you don’t go back.” Think about that admission for a moment. “[O]nce you declare, you don’t go back.” Ever? No matter what? Regardless of whether or not a better, more qualified and broadly appealing candidate emerges through a primary process intended to make that determination? Regardless of the conduct of the endorsed candidate and his or her surrogates throughout the primary campaign? Even if the qualitative and quantitative data indicate the prematurely endorsed candidate poses a higher risk to lose a general election this important? Kaine at least pushed the envelope of the Party’s unwritten code of unquestioned allegiance in adding, “I’m a big Tom Perriello fan.”
The traditional, establishment media outlets mimic a similar pattern of top down, commercially influenced exercise of power through their interpretation of events. Selective story lines (e.g. “It’s Bernie v. Hillary Part Deux!” “It’s Obama v. Hillary Part Deux!” “It’s the Democratic Party establishment versus the newly activated movement groups!”, etc.) fail to capture the larger common cause many former Obama, Hillary, Bernie, and even some Trump supporters have found in Tom Perriello’s people-driven brand of politics. A head-scratcher of a Northam endorsement from the Washington Post all but conceded Republican control of the VA House of Delegates, failed to cite the fracked gas pipelines and Dominion’s political influence as one of the most contentious issues at stake, and seemingly championed the Democrat who most closely approximates the Republicans due to a necessity to capitulate to succeed. The New Republic’s reaction piece featured a headline that was surely on the minds of many: “The Washington Post’s Ralph Northam endorsement makes a great case—for Tom Perriello.” No matter which opinion you favor, either major media outlet’s trusted voice of interpretation can now be easily and immediately countered by the smallest voices among us who take the time to offer their opinion on-line, where the merits of their argument determine the reach of their audience.
And therein lies the greatest challenge for a Democratic Party, a “regulated” energy monopoly and an establishment media accustomed to dictating political candidate options, energy access and interpretation of information to a formerly dependent, now increasingly liberated, informed, and activated electorate. We now live in a world where each of those entities find themselves under siege to distribute and democratize power to those over whom they have wielded it. And they’re not ceding control quietly. As threats to the centrally controlled power structure have become more real in this primary, we’ve seen increasingly desperate and brazen attempts to suppress them from Dominion, official and would-be surrogates of Dominion-funded/Dominion investor Ralph Northam, and media outlets that focus our attention (and their endorsements) on less controversial criteria by which to evaluate the candidates. Anything to deflect attention from the real “Virginia Way” that exists, but was never meant to be seen.
Candidates like Tom Perriello have leveraged social media, in-person town halls and similar channels to engage voters directly rather than dependently through the filter of a Party’s endorsements or demands for blind allegiance to it. The days of centrally controlled, unilaterally exercised power are numbered, regardless of the outcome of this primary. Dominion’s campaign contributions to establishment candidates like Ralph Northam (D) and Ed Gillespie (R) corrupt our political process and have become a hugely consequential fault line in this race. The threat of being forced to cede highly centralized and tightly controlled power to its rightful citizen owners too often victimized by it defines this race more than any other applied frame.
Dick Saslaw once may very well have been able to see to it that Tom Perriello has a “better chance of flapping his wings and flying to the moon than getting within 50 points of that nomination”. That was a less visible and openly discussed element of the “Virginia Way” of old. But we now live in a highly interconnected, post-Trump world where movements of people are uniting across traditional political dividing lines to resist those who prioritize their patrons before the people. That unacceptable compromise has undermined Virginia politics and the vaunted “Virginia Way” for far too long. Tom Perriello’s nomination and election would ensure that “elephant in the room” might no longer be just as easily labelled a “donkey”.