Social Activists Hunt for Congressional Seats ... in G.O.P. Districts

Article excerpt

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 toning down his support for 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 resume - 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.org (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, Avaaz.org 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. …