Magazine article The New Yorker

Obama's Lost Year

Magazine article The New Yorker

Obama's Lost Year

Article excerpt

Virginia's Fifth Congressional District has the shape of a triangle, larger than New Jersey, that spreads from its apex, at Charlottesville, in the center of the state, down to the North Carolina border. In the district's southwest corner, at the farthest possible remove from Washington, D.C., is Martinsville. A blue-collar town, it was for decades a center of manufacturing; but in the nineteen-nineties, after the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, Martinsville's textile mills began shutting down. Over the past decade, its furniture factories buckled under foreign competition and the housing collapse. At the same time, farms that had grown tobacco for centuries went fallow, as farmers took federal buyouts, and local tobacco-processing plants closed. Martinsville and the surrounding Henry County, with a population of around seventy-five thousand, have lost twelve thousand jobs, and the town now has an unemployment rate of twenty per cent--the highest in Virginia, and one of the highest in America. The brick Tultex mill near downtown, now office and warehouse space, stands virtually empty; the American of Martinsville furniture factory is a dying behemoth along the railroad tracks; and you can spend half an hour at noon on Church Street, in the center of town, and scarcely see a soul.

In August, 2008, Barack Obama came to Martinsville and spoke about the need to bring good jobs back. "I will fight for you every single day," he told a crowd. "I will wake up in that White House thinking about the people of Martinsville and the people of Henry County, and how I can make your life better." That November, Obama lost the Fifth District to John McCain by only three percentage points--considerably better than his Democratic predecessors had done--and won Virginia, which hadn't voted Democratic in a Presidential election since 1964. The victory was seen as an indicator that 2008 marked an electoral realignment.

In the middle of January this year, during a week when three furniture factories around Martinsville announced layoffs amounting to two hundred jobs, Tom Perriello, the freshman Democrat who represents the Fifth District, visited the town. That week, the idea of a Democratic realignment was vanishing: Scott Brown, a Republican, was about to pull off an upset in the Massachusetts Senate race. The Obama Administration's agenda, above all health-care reform, was stalled in Congress. Perriello, who had defeated a longtime Republican incumbent in 2008 by fewer than a thousand votes, was at the top of the list of endangered Democrats in the fall election. Last summer, he had held twenty-one town-hall meetings around the district--more than any other congressman--and listened, for five or six hours at a time, to constituents' complaints about the Administration's health-care plan. Tea Party activists had gathered in the parking lot outside his office in Charlottesville and staged protests against the cap-and-trade bill--energy legislation that Perriello had supported. Insurance companies and Republican groups had begun airing attack ads about him two weeks after he started his job. Eight Republican candidates were now gunning for his seat.

So it was with more than a little urgency that Perriello wanted to publicize the distribution of ten million dollars in grants from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, otherwise known as the stimulus package. When he took office, he had sent one of his aides, Ridge Schuyler, on a tour of the district to identify promising projects that could use help. Around the hills and farms and small towns of Southside, the depressed region that includes Martinsville, Schuyler found dozens of nascent projects in renewable energy, all initiated by local farmers and entrepreneurs. Perriello believed that an economic revival in his district would come five or ten jobs at a time--the big factories were gone forever--and that many of the jobs would be green. He needed to prove that this idea was not a fantasy, and to overcome his constituents' skepticism. …

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