A former congressman told Yalies on Monday that politicians need to avoid the pitfalls of political maneuvering and instead stick to their convictions.
Tom Perriello ’96 LAW ’01, former Democratic congressman of Virginia’s 5th district whose other jobs have included policy advisor in Sierra Leone, spoke to about 20 students at an Ezra Stiles Master’s Tea about topics ranging from humanitarian efforts in Africa and the Middle East to the challenges of serving in Congress. Perriello, who described himself as a follower of “conviction politics,” said lawmakers too often accommodate the agendas of political parties or special interests.
“I believe in public service, not politics,” said Perriello, who lost his bid for reelection last fall. “The best politics come when you say what you really believe.”
Perriello addressed many questions from the audience about his experience in the House and the atmosphere of contemporary politics. He said he accepts that people have views different from his as long as his adversaries have honest motives and the disagreement leads to open discussion. Politicians should always listen to their constituents and then state their decisions clearly and explain their reasoning, he said. Perriello added that lawmakers must not be afraid to call out colleagues who they believe are speaking disingenuously.
“Someone has to remind people of why they got into politics in the first place,” he said.
Perriello’s time in foreign service taught him the value of deliberation and openmindedness, lessons that helped him in making policy decisions as a lawmaker. Before running for Congress, he spent time working in Sierra Leone and Liberia, countries that have suffered from civil war and other problems such as sex slavery and child soldiery, and he was influential in the peaceful removal of the Liberian dictator Charles Taylor. He has also worked in Kosovo, Darfur, Afghanistan and most recently North Africa to promote democracy and mitigate the effects of genocide, among other projects.
Though he has spent his professional career in public service, he said he did not leave the Law School with a plan to pursue his current lifestyle. But when he saw the opportunity in 2008 to run for a House seat that the Democratic party had “abandoned” since the district was historically dominated by Republicans, he said he relished the chance to follow his own beliefs in his campaign rather than hue toward party lines. In what was the closest election in the country, Perriello won by a margin of a mere 727 votes.
Five attendees interviewed praised Perriello for being a genuine public servant.
“He’s not a politician, but a statesman,” Jonathan Silverstone ’15 said.
Brian Bills ’12, who helped organize this event and took some time off from college to work as Perriello’s driver and body man during his 2008 campaign, said he was “blown away” by Perriello’s 2008 victory, which he attributed to Perriello’s authenticity.
Lizzie Hylton ’15, who worked on Perriello’s 2010 campaign, said Perriello’s confidence in his convictions motivated many young people to get involved in his bid for office.
Perriello lost his 2010 bid for reelection to Republican Robert Hurt by three percentage points.