WASHINGTON ― When Tom Perriello, a former Democratic congressman from Charlottesville, announced his surprise bid for Virginia governor this week, progressives were of two minds, at once hailing the arrival of a candidate with strong populist credentials while worrying about his record on reproductive freedom.
Perriello was an unusual member of Congress in that his politics were significantly to the left of those in his rural district, but rather than tack to the center, he laid out where he stood and defended his position, often in populist terms.
“Part of the problem is that we often take this What’s The Matter With Kansas? approach that assumes that people are reactionary and stupid and that we just need to convince them that they’re going to make more money under our plan,” Perriello told The Huffington Post in 2010. “But the fact is people are good, decent, smart people, and we should treat them that way. ... People don’t have to agree with you on every issue, but they do have to believe that you are genuinely doing what you believe is right.”
He lost his re-election bid anyway in the tea party wave of 2010, but his race was much closer than those of Democrats who’d gone full-blown Blue Dog.
On abortion rights, though, he broke with the pro-choice movement and backed a 2009 amendment to the Affordable Care Act, known as Stupak-Pitts, which set back reproductive freedom by putting obstacles in the way of private insurance coverage of abortion ― meaning that with unified control of government, abortion rights were actually going backward under Democrats.
Perriello at the time said that he backed the amendment in order to fulfill a pledge he’d made to constituents not to support any health care reform bill that allowed for public funding of abortions, which the White House had long said would be the case. He saw Stupak-Pitts as the only way to meet that pledge.
Perriello, in an interview with The Huffington Post, said that he has not actually evolved on the issue of abortion rights and has always been pro-choice, but rather his evolution has come in his position on the use of federal funds for abortion services. “I’ve always believed in a woman’s constitutional right to choose and have marched for it when I was in college and in law school, but evolution came on the issue of the Hyde Amendment and access more broadly, with better understanding of the structural inequalities that it entailed,” Perriello said.
In other words, for years the national compromise had been that abortion would be legal but taxpayer money would not go toward it. But that meant that the compromise making up the social contract was built on the backs of poor women. As Perriello came to understand the structural inequality required by the Hyde Amendment, he abandoned his support of it.
The evolution didn’t come on the eve of his new bid for office. After leaving the House, he ran the political arm of the Center for American Progress, where he often advocated for reproductive rights. In 2013 he co-hosted an event in Washington, D.C., held by NARAL Pro-Choice America dubbed “Men for Choice.” Last year, in an interview for HuffPost’s Candidate Confessional podcast, he called Stupak the “worst vote of his career.”
On Friday, he posted a lengthy statement on Facebook, saying that he regretted his vote. “I can’t change the vote I took six years ago, but I have committed myself in the years since and can commit here and now to be a staunch and committed defender of reproductive autonomy. As Governor, I will work to roll back harmful restrictions on the right to choose and on abortion providers here in Virginia, oppose a 20-week abortion ban, make contraception more readily available, and ensure abortion care is safe, compassionate and accessible for women when they need it,” he wrote.
Perriello will be taking on Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam in the June 13 primary. Northam has been endorsed by most of the leading figures in the Virginia political establishment, including the governor and both sitting senators. Northam is a liberal-to-moderate Democrat whom Republicans considered conservative enough to try to woo him to switch sides. He has a strong record on abortion rights and is likely to pick up the endorsements of local reproductive freedom groups.
The fight over Perriello’s abortion rights record comes in the wake of the bitter Democratic presidential primary contest between Sen. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, in which Sanders backers were often accused of ignoring racism and sexism and focusing on the plight of the working classes, and Clinton supporters were accused of masking a corporate-friendly ideology behind a veil of identity politics. In the end, or course, neither went to the White House.
The sharp reaction to Perriello’s candidacy suggests those intra-party wounds have not healed, even in the case of a candidate who is now fully on board with the agenda of the reproductive rights movement.
The party itself has moved sharply on the issue even in the years since Perriello lost his House seat. When repealing the Hyde Amendment made it into the Democratic Party platform in 2016, it was a first, and Clinton herself had to be pressured hard to come out publicly against the Helms Amendment, which is the foreign aid version of Hyde.
The tragedy of the Stupak-Pitts amendment, which President Barack Obama helped negotiate, is that it probably wasn’t even needed to get the votes for passage of Obamacare.
Both Reps. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who were at the center of vote counting, told HuffPost at the time they probably could have whipped enough votes to offset the loss of Stupak. “I think we could have,” Clyburn said. “But I would much rather have 219 than try to eke out 216.” Hoyer agreed. “I think we could’ve done it,” he said. “We would’ve had to get more marginal members, the Blue Dog and other caucuses — I guess the Blue Dogs primarily.”
Bart Stupak himself saw it, too. “Speakers never bring a bill to the floor unless they have the votes. And they always have a few in reserve,” Stupak explained to the Catholic News Agency in a post-vote interview. “I had a number of members who thanked us after, because they could vote no.” In other words, with the bill on the line, given the up-or-down choice of voting for Obamacare without the additional abortion restrictions, they’d have voted yes. Instead, Stupak enabled them to get enough votes that some vulnerable members could vote no to try to save their re-elections. Democrats were wiped out in 2010 anyway, so all the calculating and compromising was for naught.
And none of it probably mattered to Perriello’s re-election. In the end, Perriello’s House vote in favor of cap-and-trade climate legislation hurt him more than anything else in his coal-heavy district of rural Virginia. That bill, meanwhile, died in the Senate.