Why I’ve been fighting for Tom Perriello

Me (right) and Aisha Han (left) after we marched with Tom in the Falls Church Memorial Day parade

The days after the end of final exams at Penn State were days of palpable joy and energy. A campus that had previously felt blanketed by an overbearing and unshakable dread was now electrified with a youthful optimism. Instead of worrying about the next exam, students were now excited, to return home to their friends and family, go on vacation, and generally enjoy a recess from the stresses of academic and social life. Even though many had career-defining internships and research positions lined up, most did not begin until a full month later, giving students the opportunity to, for once, appreciate and absorb that feeling of summer freedom that permeated the air.

Instead of joining in this moment of carefree liberation, I decided to spend the first month of my summer in Virginia campaigning for gubernatorial candidate Tom Perriello. I have spent dozens of hours working for Tom, knocked on hundreds of doors, and made thousands of phone calls to Virginia voters. Of the countless conversations I have had, I distinctly remember having extended conversations with a former union leader concerned about the appeal of Trump among his members and close friends, a Latina woman unsure that a choice between two white men was a choice at all, and a small-business owner that believed neither party represented the middle and working classes anymore.

Most voters were simply concerned about having a Democrat that could win in November, or about having a Democrat that could do something about the havoc that Trump was causing at the federal level.

To each of these voters, I ultimately gave the same answer as to why they should vote for Tom come June 13th, which is also the answer I would tell anyone interested in why I’ve spent my first month campaigning as hard as possible in a state that is mostly foreign to me, for a Governor that will not ultimately represent me.

That answer is that this race is more important than just who will occupy the Governor’s Mansion, and even more important than Virginia. This race is about defining what the Democratic Party, in both Virginia and on a national level, will become during, and long-after, the Trump era. Both candidates for the Democratic nomination, Lt. Governor Ralph Northam and Tom, represent sharp and contrasting visions for the future of the Democratic Party: Ralph, to continue the strategies of the past, and Tom, to build new strategies for the future.

Although much of the Democratic Party’s work over the last eight years is admirable and praiseworthy — avoiding a second Great Depression and saving American industry, reigning in the worst excesses of the financial system, enacting the Affordable Care Act, advancing LGBTQ rights, and holding back the Republican agenda — that progress is, as I write this, being torn apart and rolled back.

While Dr. Northam is indeed a man of integrity, what the Democratic Party needs, in both Virginia and nationally, is not a candidate that seeks to continue the strategies of the past, but rather a candidate that offers a new and fresh vision: a vision that manages to create the energy, enthusiasm, and turnout needed to translate public support for Democratic policies into legislative control, and legislative control into comprehensive, lasting, and tangible change. A vision that revitalizes American democracy, and brings previously-uninterested voters into the fold. A vision that speaks to young generations, and shows that politics is something to embrace, rather than avoid. Anything less, I fear, will only result in us fighting the same battles twenty years from now, with little progress to show for it.

What exactly is this new vision that Tom offers, which ultimately compelled me to spend the beginning of my summer away from my home, and which I believe can help revitalize and strengthen the Democratic Party?

On one hand, Tom offers a policy agenda and speaks in a manner that doesn’t treat each of the disparate coalitions that make up the Democratic Party — communities of color, women and mothers, the poor and working classes, the elderly and the sick, the LGBTQ community, the disabled, environmentalists, those suffering from mental illness and addiction, undocumented immigrants, college students, felons — as distinct and separate communities united only by the party they share, but rather as a single community unified by their common fight against systems of inequity in power.

That is, instead of offering policies to each group that merely appeal to their individual interest, Tom speaks to each group in a manner that appeals to their collective and common interest, that makes the struggles of these groups feel interconnected and related. Despite what some, like the Washington Post Editorial Board, may say, this collective vision for change is what appeals to people’s greater sense of self, it is what will increase enthusiasm among the young and typically disengaged, and it is what Democrats need to win back the Statehouse and Congress. Like Penn State after final exams, Tom leaves every crowd he speaks to electrified, optimistic, and unified, and that feeling is the only thing that will ultimately be able to shift votes and seats.

On the other hand, Tom is not afraid to reach out to, in an unflinching and principled manner, two specific groups that are often thought of as having competing interests in Trump’s America: communities of color, who feel that Trump only represents the structural and implicit racism that they have been experiencing for decades, and rural voters, many of whom voted for Trump.

While he has reached out to rural communities with policies that would directly help them in both the short- and long-term, such as universal broadband access, universal preschool education, and clean energy job programs, he has also been willing to call out structural racism, Confederate monuments, mass incarceration, the racial wealth gap, and the school-to-prison pipeline. Tom doesn’t view one strategy as compromising the other: he views the both as just and necessary for our future. Democrats will need to show the same courage if they ever hope to build, and turnout, the coalition needed to enact their vision.

This is the message that Tom offers, and this is the message that will carry Virginia, and the country, forward. If Tom is able to succeed on June 13th, not only will Virginia prosper, but Democrats across the nation will realize that this type of politics can and will succeed.

This is why I have sacrificed my time to fight for Tom: I do it not for the man himself, but for the sense of optimism and hope that underwrites his vision. I do it for the future of my children, the future of my party, and the future of my country. If, like Tom, we stand together, unflinching and united, I know that we can and will succeed.

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