Tom Perriello is currently running for Congress in Virginia’s fifth congressional district against an incumbent Republican named Virgil Goode. A tough district in which George Bush received nearly 56% of the vote in 2004. But Tom’s resume is impressive with a lifelong commitment to public service and the common good. He started as an Eagle Scout, served overseas to end the atrocities in Liberia and Sierra Leone, helped found Faithful America and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. You can visit his website but first enjoy the interview.
Q: Why have you decided to run for Congress against Virgil Goode in Virginia’s 5th District?
A: I have felt a call to service from an early age, and was raised to believe that from those to whom much is given, much is expected. The question I’ve faced since graduating college is how can I make the biggest difference and answer this call. Like many Gen-Xers, I originally saw the nonprofit sector as the most innovative and effective way to make a contribution. I moved to West Africa to do whatever I could to end the atrocities in Sierra Leone and then became heavily involved in the diplomatic showdown that forced the dictator Charles Taylor from power in Liberia. Since then, I have also worked in Afghanistan and Darfur, and what I witness time and time again is that the moral challenges of our time all have solutions. What we lack is the political will to solve them.
I feel like this is the right time to turn to the root causes of these dire problems, and believe that new political leadership must be part of that. Our country is hungry for new leaders who want to get things done, who are more interested in producing results than playing partisan politics. I am running for Congress because I believe politics can, and should, be a place to make our neighbors’ lives better. I just see it as community service by other means.
Q: How has your faith tradition helped shaped your political and social views?
A: I grew up in a church that preached the social justice message of the Gospels and called me to the teaching of Mathew 25. Sunday was a time that we heard about poverty, torture, and war and our moral obligation to care for and love our neighbor. My political views and my efforts to live a life of service were shaped by the prophetic call in Micah to serve the least among us and to “do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” As a Catholic, I know I will always fall short of this aspiration, but it remains my guiding light.
Q: Can you explain a little about transitional justice? What does it entail, and what is your philosophy behind teaching it at the University of Virginia School of Law?
A: Transitional justice is a set of tools for countries ravaged by dictatorship or civil war to break a vicious cycle of violence and oppression to become relatively stable democracies. The tools include war crimes tribunals, truth commissions, and reconciliation processes. One of the many gifts of the Greatest Generation was the revolutionary idea after World War II to prosecute the war criminals most responsible for Nazi and Japanese atrocities while simultaneously rebuilding their economies. From these experiences to the inspirational transitions in South Africa and the peaceful regime transition in Liberia, the international community has learned lessons that allow us to help nations break cycles of violence.
I have had the life-changing experience of witnessing transitional justice processes transform countries from places of terror to lands of relative security and hope. When I moved to Sierra Leone, it was ranked at the absolute bottom of the human development index after more than a decade of bloody civil war. Two years later, the country was stable, the warlords most responsible for atrocities were locked up or dead, and former child soldiers were being reintegrated into their communities.
Liberia, which was at the front end of yet another devastating civil war, witnessed the dictator Charles Taylor indicted for war crimes in the Special Court we had established and forced from power without a single bullet being fired. In his place, the first female head of state in all of Africa had just been elected. I served as the Special Advisor to the International Prosecutor during that showdown, and saw that the line between restarting a bloody civil war and breaking the cycle of violence can sometimes be wafer thin.
I was only one small part in these two transitions in West Africa, but I emerged from those experiences believing that the future is not written in stone. The difference between great human suffering and great progress is often a matter of whether we bother to show up and seek to abide by Micah’s call.
One thing I always try to teach is that each person has within herself the ability to change the world in some way. It is easy to look at the challenges we face and throw up our hands, but I am reminded of that great quote popularized in Akeelah and the Bee – “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond imagination.” Each of us has an awesome power to improve the lives of our family, our neighbors, and our fellow human beings when we dare to try.
Q: If elected to Congress how would you push the public debate back towards the common good here in the U.S. and abroad?
A: Our campaign slogan is the “Common Good for the Commonwealth” because we believe our nation’s problems run deeper than any single policy. We stand at a moment when we must replace “greed is good” with America’s historic commitment to the common good – to a sense that we are in this together.
Too often we’ve been faced with false choices in the political debate between one extreme or another that are meant to divide us and turn us against each other. I believe that it is time for a politics of right and wrong instead of right and left and that this new politics will be based on the concept of the common good. I believe that we are better off when our neighbors have health care and make a living wage. I think every American would rather be putting resources into educating our neighbors’ kids now than paying to incarcerate them later.
The challenges of a global economy, oil dependence and terrorism are not going to be met without an America that is inspired to ask what we can each do for our country and our fellow man.
Q: Virginia has been experiencing quite a surge in voting for Democrats. How do you hope to continue that trend?
A: Great Virginia Dems like Govs. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine – both of whom won my district in their gubernatorial elections – have showed that the key to winning in rural districts is first showing up and then getting things done. They have turned the state blue not by pandering but by producing results. Gov. Warner has blazed the trail of results-oriented politics, and we are proud to share the ticket with him this year.
And now we are proud to have Sen. Webb, who pulled off one of the greatest political upsets of all time, offer his own brand of conviction politics. Virginians know that he always speaks his mind, regardless of what the polls may say about an issue. People are hungry for that kind of leadership.
Q: After looking over your issues from your website, one gains the understanding of your populist beliefs with a living wages, health care for all, and alternative energies. How have these stances on the issues played in a district that gave President Bush over 55% of the vote in 2004?
A: People care deeply about these issues. I believe that every American who works hard and plays by the rules deserves the ability to make enough money to keep a roof over their family’s head. That’s not the situation right now. Especially in Southside Virginia, the loss of decent jobs has devastated many of our communities. Poverty, illiteracy, and crime rates have all skyrocketed. People are hurting and they just want to see some progress from Washington, but all they see are the political parties jockeying for power and the big corporations gaining more and more influence over the decisions that affect our lives.
I believe that people here stuck with Bush because Kerry spent too much time saying what he was against and not enough time offering solutions. And when he did offer ideas, he did so without talking about the values that informed those policies. Instead of relying on tearing down the other side, we win when we put better solutions on the table, and explain why they are the right things for America and for our most cherished principles.
Q: The demographics of the 5th district show a mix of rural and urban areas. How do you propose to form a large enough coalition to propel yourself into office?
A: By bringing my district together in common purpose for the common good. People throughout my district share many of the same values, and there are issues that unite us all – health care, affordable housing, astronomical gas prices, and the crisis in Iraq. We need to continue to strengthen the understanding that Danville, Charlottesville and all the areas in between share a common future and purpose. We all benefit from an improved economy in Southside and ensuring smart growth in central Virginia. For example, Southside is perfectly positioned to be at the forefront of the new energy economy, and Charlottesville has the economic and political capital to help make that happen. We can unite around an agenda of jobs and energy security.
Q: You were one of the presenters of the Responsible Plan to End the War in Iraq. Why did you decide to get involved and do you think that it will help you and your colleagues get elected in November?
A: The crisis in Iraq is the greatest national security mistake in US history, and we will spend the rest of our lives restoring America’s security. We are being offered a false choice between the disaster of staying the course and the nearly as disastrous option of precipitous withdrawal. This is one we have to get right.
I was proud to join with other Democratic challengers from across the country in endorsing this plan. I think we are all part of a new generation of leadership coming in who understands that we don’t have to wait until we get into office to make a difference. We care much less about posturing than we do about achieving results and therefore often don’t fit neatly into the old labels of right and left because we are more dedicated to getting it right and getting it done. This is a responsible solution, and people in my district are excited to hear a real plan being put on the table in place of just posturing.
Q: Do you believe this plan will be successful in changing the frame of the conversation in dealing with the war?
A: I do. Americans are already rejecting the false choice between staying on a disastrous course or opting for a precipitous withdrawal. The truth is that both would be equally devastating. There is no magical troop level that is going to change the underlying political dynamics in Iraq, and getting the politics right is the only sustainable solution. Our generals have made it quite clear that this is not a conflict that can be won by the military. It will require a political solution, and so that is where we need our focus. Committing to troop withdrawal is important, but only if it is part of a political strategy to bring all sides to the negotiating table and create a new power-sharing arrangement.
Q: You have been instrumental in starting organizations such as Avaaz.org, FaithfulAmerica.org, and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. These organizations are parts of the larger progressive faith movement. Where do you see these organizations and others taking progressive faith in the near future?
A: The progressive faith movement has always been a big part of this country’s transformative moments, but it went a bit dormant between 1980 and 2003. Now this prophetic voice can be heard echoing through our national public debate, raising a clarion call on issues of economic fairness, health care, and environmental stewardship. What is especially exciting right now is that groups previously considered part of the “religious right” have been joining progressive faith groups to champion these issues as well.
Perhaps the best example of this was the recent Compassion Forum on CNN where the heads of the Southern Baptists, National Association of Evangelicals, and former president-elect of the Christian Coalition gathered to talk to the presidential candidates about poverty, health care, torture, climate change, HIV/AIDS, and debt relief in the 3rd world. Of course, another huge change from the past that the Compassion Forum highlighted was that the Democrats were the ones talking about the role of faith in the public square and the Republican nominee was nowhere to be seen.
Ironically, while we are starting to build common ground with the Right, I think we can do a better job increasing understanding between the progressive faith movement and the people-powered politics movement embodied in the netroots. These two communities have not always understood each other, but having experience in both worlds, I can tell you that they should be natural allies for one another. Blogs like this one and StreetProphets are an important space in this regard.
The progressive faith movement has already had huge success shifting the debate about faith and values and making much needed gains on poverty, torture, climate and other issues. My hope in the years ahead is that this movement, independent from partisan politics, will challenge our celebration of greed and materialism – a decay started in our corporate and political leadership and now spreading to our communities. I hear from people throughout my district a deep sense that our country’s values are in the wrong place when we judge a parent more by what they buy their child than what values they impart or time they spend with their kids. Dr. King warned about the dangers of becoming a thing-oriented society, and we do well to remember his prophetic words.
Q: In 2004 as co-director of Faithful America you aired commercials on al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya featuring prominent religious leaders apologizing for the treatment of prisoners in Abu-Gharib. Why did you feel that was necessary to come from religious leaders and should they be apologizing for actions taken by military officials?
A: Torture is immoral and, in my reading, an act of blasphemy against the image of God in another human being. When our leaders make the decision to condone torture, something powerful in the soul of our country is suffocated.
Torture also undermines our national security, produces bad intelligence, and puts our troops at risk. The images from Abu Ghraib became powerful propaganda weapons for Osama Bin Laden to use in recruiting a new generation of terrorists to threaten our great nation. Terrorism is fundamentally immoral and a grave threat to our country, and one purpose of our ad was to blunt the recruiting bonanza that Bush handed to Al Qaeda in the wake of those images. One of the many things this Administration has never understood about the threats we face is how to fight back successfully against their propaganda battle. I am proud that we were able to produce an ad that spoke to America’s highest principles and helped make us safer at the same time.
As for whether one can ethically apologize for someone else’s actions, the theologians and faith leaders involved in this ad were careful to make it an expression of regret, and not an apology in order to clarify the lines of culpability. Our great nation could use a boost of people taking personal responsibility seriously, so it is distressing to see this Administration refuse to step up to the plate. In the wake of the Abu Ghraib scandal, it has repeatedly had our men and women in uniform take the blame without taking its own responsibility for this disaster. The religious leaders in our ad exemplified what moral leadership looks like.