About Our Guest
Tom Perriello was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2008 representing the 5th District. Prior to that, he was a national security consultant and founded a number of faith-based organizations.
Born and raised in the 5th district, Tom is the youngest of four children of Vito and Linda Perriello. Tom was an Eagle Scout in the Stonewall Jackson Area Council, and he attended Albemarle County public schools and St. Anne’s-Belfield. From an early age, he was taught that a strong faith is a lived faith. His parents raised him to believe that to whom much is given, much is expected, and those lessons have shaped his lifelong commitment to service.
After receiving his law degree from Yale University, Tom accepted an assignment working to end atrocities in the West African countries of Liberia and Sierra Leone, which had suffered long civil wars fueled by blood diamonds. Tom’s work with child soldiers, amputees, and local pro-democracy groups in Sierra Leone played a significant role in the peace and reconciliation process that ended twelve years of violence in that country. Tom then became Special Advisor and spokesperson for the International Prosecutor during the showdown that forced Liberian dictator Charles Taylor from power without firing a shot. After this success, Tom served as a national security analyst for the Century Foundation. He has worked inside Darfur and twice in Afghanistan.
Since 2004, Tom has helped to launch a political and social movement in this country that is credited with shifting the national debate about America’s moral priorities. He helped found FaithfulAmerica.org and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, which bring together faith communities to fight for children’s health care, supporting a higher minimum wage, environmental stewardship, and responsible solutions in Iraq. Inspired by the prophetic vision of Dr. King, Wilberforce, and Micah, Tom believes that America must reverse the erosion of our commitment to the common good and restore our understanding that our nation rises or falls together.
In the 2008 election, Tom set out to prove that a grassroots, people-powered campaign could trump the politics of fear and special interests. He ran against then-Rep. Virgil Goode, a six-term incumbent who had beaten his previous opponents by no fewer than 20 points. In August, Tom was still down 34 points in the polls; few, if any, political experts thought he had a shot. But he built the largest grassroots network the district had ever seen, ran an innovative campaign based on service and people power, and devised a comprehensive economic revival strategy. After being certified the winner after a recount, Tom pledged to work a “double shift” for the people of the 5th District and hasn’t slowed down since.
Jan Paynter: Hello again. I’m Jan Paynter and this is Politics Matters. Our guest today is Tom Perriello, member of the House of Representatives from the Virginia 5th District. Congressman Perriello achieved a remarkable surprise victory in 2008, as most all of us know, over six term incumbent Virgil Goode. Tom is from the Charlottesville area, took a BA and JD degrees from Yale University, has worked among other things as special advisor internationally in the service of soldiers, pro democracy groups and the wounded in Sierra Leone, worked with the furtherance of justice in Darfur, Kosovo and Afghanistan.
Tom Perriello has a strong interest in faith-based advocacy groups for the common good. He’s also worked extensively in the Middle East and West Africa crafting solutions to advance the peace process in these regions. In partnership he founded Res Publica which works in pursuit of international justice and was a national security analyst for the Century Foundation. Welcome, Tom.
Tom Perriello: Thank you for having me.
Jan Paynter: As we all are aware, there are many components which go to make up a robust and thriving democracy. Local, state and federal governments are hives of activity encountering countless complex issues competing for attention. One could argue, however, that there are two in particular which will determine the sustainability of a nation. A country which aims at a high level of education for all its citizens while providing reasonable standards for health and physical well being is a nation which is bound to continue to succeed. Chip away at either of these elements and what is the result? Most of us would have to acknowledge that now we’re seeing it. And what about the men and women who have labored to keep our country safe, both at home and abroad? What do our veterans find on returning home? These are issues which we invite you to explore with us today. Welcome again, Congressman Perriello.
Tom Perriello: Thank you.
Jan Paynter: Before we begin, let’s discuss returning veterans issues, healthcare…before we discuss returning veterans issues, healthcare and education, tell us if you would a little about how you came to public service, why are you interested in politics, what are some of your goals—major goals while in Congress, what do you feel we can realistically achieve with legislation?
Tom Perriello: Well, for me, a call to service came first not through the idea of politics but through community service and nonprofit work. Both of my parents really instilled in me a strong sense of giving back to those, a strong sense of the opportunities that I had that frankly they had not had and somehow managed to find—to thread that very tough needle for parents of giving the kids—their kids the things they need while making them appreciate it and earn it where possible but also from my church here a strong sense of service, that faith was not something that you could cover just by praying Sunday morning but something you try to live seven days a week and serve those who are less fortunate, promote a basic sense of interdependence for the common good, that we are going to rise or fall together on some level. But my generation was very skeptical of government’s way to do that. In a way we took from our grandparent’s generation, the greatest generation, this strong sense of service to country. But from our parent’s generation, sort of the boomers, in my case just slightly pre-boomer, really a skepticism that government programs, big government programs could do that. So a lot of us started out through nonprofit work and saying, ‘All right, I want to serve. If the political system is just too broken, let’s do it through nonprofits, entrepreneurship, start a charter school or a nonprofit or go to a conflict zone and try to be an innovator breaking up some of the hurdles that have existed to a peace process’. And it’s very exciting work and I feel incredibly blessed to have been part of some of the change moments I’ve been a part of, most notably helping force the dictator Charles Taylor from power in Liberia. But what I found was—to use the name of your show—that politics matters. I would find myself coming back from a place like Afghanistan to try to convince political figures that there was a different strategy needed. When I was there in 2005 and 2007, it was clear that we were completely off base on how we were fighting. Our men and women in uniform were doing everything they were asked to do at great sacrifice and with great skill but we had no political strategy, we had no diplomatic strategy and we had managed to align ourselves with some of the most corrupt elements in the country and that was a toxic environment in which to put our troops. But when I would come back to Washington I would realize, at the end of the day it will be these elected officials that make the decision and too often we can only think in terms of more troops or withdrawal. That’s not actually the right choice set. And the same thing with so many things like our education reform efforts. Is it more teachers or is it more tests? The fact is we need a whole set of innovations beyond that so for a lot of us I think there was almost a graduation in our sense of service from community service to public service and for me that began two years ago with my decision to run for Congress. And so far I think that that was a correct reading on my own sense of calling but also a generational transition now. But it’s frustrating because in the nonprofit sector I was usually my own boss, I could go in, innovate and drive that solution forward and many times succeeded, sometimes failed but it was on my own terms. This is new process for me legislating in which you have to get 217 other people to agree with you in the House as well as, even more difficult, getting 50 or 60 senators to agree with you to move something forward. So it’s one of these things where in a way it’s stepping back on the enjoyment level because you have all these headaches and all the nastiness of the process but the stakes are so much higher. I mean, we’re talking about ways to finally protect our country through energy independence, we’re talking about a 21st century security strategy, bringing competition into the healthcare market. These are big battles worth fighting.
Jan Paynter: Let’s focus now on veteran’s issues, which I know and as you’ve indicated and we talked before the show, is a strong interest of yours and that you’re a member of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, subcommittee on Health and Economic Opportunity for Vets. Tom, what are the approximate number of men and women serving in the 5th District both in—Army Reserve, National Guard.
Tom Perriello: We actually have a very high tradition of service in the 5th. I think 17% of families in the 5th District have some military connection, active military connection at the moment which is well out of proportion for the population. We have a strong tradition of service. Most notably, obviously the Bedford Boys, the famous Bedford Boys who were part of the D-Day Invasion, small town that had the highest per capita losses of the entire country at the D-Day Invasion. We certainly have the tradition of the JAG school here, NJC and other facilities and really just throughout the district. When I was at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan as a member of Congress, my only trip as a member of Congress, I came across a handful of members just there alone from the 5th District so there’s a long tradition there both dating back to previous generations and current service.
Jan Paynter: What are some of the major challenges that you would say to date our men and women are facing?
Tom Perriello: Well, I think there are the challenges while they’re still in the service and the challenge coming home. I think one of the challenges in the service is that we have had I think in recent years asked our military to ask a lot of things that the military has not traditionally been asked to do that’s been done by state or USAID or our intelligence community and I think we’ve dumped almost everything onto our Armed Services. We haven’t given them a strategy for victory always, in some cases five or six years after we should have. In Iraq clearly we were off base until at least ’06 when there was a pretty dramatic change of strategy. In Afghanistan we’ll see what happens there with a change of strategy. So first and foremost we have an obligation if we’re going to send men and women in uniform into battle to make sure we’ve given them a strategy for victory and the support they need. And I think that has not been the case in some pretty outrageous ways. Then there are the challenges coming home.
Jan Paynter: Exactly.
Tom Perriello: The challenges coming home we see in particular right now with the economic downturn, very high foreclosure rates, a lot of folks coming home to face foreclosure; very high suicide rates; PTSD and traumatic brain injury rates; high divorce rates for families; these are all challenges. One thing is our battlefront medicine has made such dramatic advances that tens of thousands of the troops that would have died in earlier conflicts are alive and facing both physical and mental challenges back home. That’s a wonderful challenge to have in the sense that we’re saving those lives but it’s nonetheless a challenge. So I notice among the younger members of Congress who have friends our age who have been over in Iraq and Afghanistan, we are very cognizant of both—of the mental health issues going on. One other issue in addition to foreclosure is the unemployment rate. We actually have double digit unemployment for our returning veterans.
Jan Paynter: Yeah, that’s the issue. So many people that I talk to come home and the jobs just aren’t there.
Tom Perriello: They aren’t there and Senator Webb had an enormous victory last year in updating, modernizing the GI Bill to really allow a meaningful opportunity to go to college for those who’ve served in the way that we helped create the middle class with the GI Bill after World War II. One of the things that I have found in talking to veterans in my district and around the country is that that’s great but some of them don’t actually want to go to four year college. They want to look at a six month to 24 month vocational and skills training program. They want a job, they want to be out working and I’ve been supporting legislation that got bipartisan support in the committee to expand GI Bill benefits to cover vocational and skills training programs. I think it could have a big impact on this unemployment rate for vets.
Jan Paynter: Okay. Homelessness, this is another issue that I know you feel passionately about. What kinds of initiatives are in place to help with this, particularly in the Charlottesville area?
Tom Perriello: Well, we just had a big hearing last week where Gen. Shinseki, now Secretary Shinseki, who runs the VA system, is making a major multi-year commitment over the next I believe five years to eliminating the veteran homelessness and we understand it’s a complex problem, it’s an easy thing—it’s a good ten word answer to say, ‘Let’s eliminate homelessness among our veterans’. To get into the issues of where you’re talking about endemic homelessness, where you’re talking about issues of addiction and/or unemployment, of mental health issues, where you’re talking about temporary homelessness of folks coming in and out of the system. This is something that’s going to I think require a lot of advice from the grassroots up. One of the things I did when I joined the committee was form my own veterans advisory board of about 40 veterans from the district, from each of the branches of service covering all the way back to the World Wars and I take my marching orders from them.
Jan Paynter: How about the families of veterans? What kinds of programs and assistance are available for them?
Tom Perriello: Well, one interesting thing is how much our fighting force has changed since Vietnam. During Vietnam the median age of soldiers was something like 20 and about 90% did not have kids and spouses, it was almost all male, almost all young, almost all without families. What we’re looking at now is a fighting force that’s very different. It’s a more professionalized force rather than a draft oriented force so the median age is much higher, most people are going over with a spouse and with kids and that’s a very different system to be dealing with even before they’re in the veteran system.
Jan Paynter: How can we ensure that there are pay increases that are more in line with the private sector for military people? This is a big issue, as you know.
Tom Perriello: The pay issue is huge. The benefits issues, we need the signing bonuses, particularly one thing I think the last administration tried to do was privatize a lot of our military system and I had often—when I would be in Afghanistan, you would see a soldier here and you would see a defense contractor here where the defense contractor’s making four or five times what the soldier is making and not doing as good of a job quite frankly. It is amazing to watch our troops in action in the field. They are disciplined, they are honorable, they represent our country well. In some cases defense contractors do do that, in other cases they don’t, but it’s a perverse incentive structure for people to stay in the military when they can make more by going into the private contractors. So we need to make sure that we are providing that. I think guaranteeing the health and education opportunities for them and their families is a great thing to do and continuing just to honor our soldiers in the field and when they come home. One thing that’s been distressing is it used to be employers would kind of go out of their way to hire a vet or someone in the Guard or Reserve because it was seen as the right thing to do plus they assumed they’d be very disciplined with a skill set. We’ve called up the Reserve and Guard so many times now and there’s some I think stereotypes out there of returning vets that have actually made it in some cases harder. I’ve talked to veterans who say, ‘I don’t put it on my resume ‘cause I think it’ll hurt rather than help’. That is a shame. We need private sector to understand just how amazing these folks are, they need to step up but we also need to do our part by not yanking these guys out of that every couple months.
Jan Paynter: Let me ask you, and I have friends in Arizona who are in the Air Guard and they do go around to schools, to community centers and talk about the reasons why we’re in both Iraq and Afghanistan, some of the experiences there, understanding there are certain things they can’t talk about. Is that something that could happen more throughout the country so that people can understand—the public can understand more about what we’re doing and then also is there any kind of sponsor system possibility, a mentoring if you will, program whereby vets that came back could be assigned somebody to follow how they’re doing with healthcare, with their family, with their job situation, mortgages, insurance, etc. Is that a possibility on a volunteer basis to have people get involved in that maybe in terms of paying for it, obviously always the question, maybe having some philanthropic work done, some private organizations sponsoring something like that. Would that help?
Tom Perriello: It would help and some of those programs already exist in the VA system and one of the things is, the Veterans Administration and the VA system has really just made enormous strides. There are big problems out there but if you compare it to where it was 10 or 20 years ago, it is actually offering some of the best healthcare in the country. The VA Hospitals rank up in the absolute top tier which you would not have seen a generation ago. I think with issues like PTSD and TBI, they’re not trying to brush it under the rug and deny its existence as they did in the Vietnam era. They’re trying to face it head on. We’re trying to get out more into the community with the c-box or community based outreach centers, some of the rural telemedicine. In fact some of what we’re looking at in healthcare reform, the VA system is way ahead of the private sector on things like electronic medical records and some of the telemedicine because we’ve made some investment. So there’s a lot to be proud of. There are still huge problems, the backlog always is near the top of that list and a huge percentage frankly of the VA backlog is Agent Orange exposure cases and I think it’s time to shift the burden of proof to the government and not to the veteran there and say, ‘If you were exposed, if you were in the field at these times, there’s going to be a rebuttable presumption you were exposed, let’s move forward’. These folks—these guys are dying off and they’re still fighting 20 year battles to prove Agent Orange exposure. So there are huge chunks we can move forward. Gen. Shinseki actually took a stab at that a couple weeks ago. Things come up like some of the GI Bill, new GI Bill benefits that didn’t get out the door and as smooth away as we wanted but still moving forward. The point is not is there a problem, it’s how quickly can we fix it and move forward. So I think there are things in the VA system where we can continue to expand. The individual mentorship you’re talking about I think is particularly relevant with PTSD and TBI because often the symptoms don’t show up. Some people will get it right away, sometimes it shows up in six months, 12 months, 24 months down the road so this needs to be a regular check in. Also with issues like a lot of the divorce rate and other things, sometimes people have a little too much—it’s inconsistent with the sense of honor or courage to seek out help but if it’s put in front of you to ask the questions a little easier so making sure that that’s—and vets—what we know over and over again is veterans talking to other veterans is the most effective, either professionalized service support or vet to vet and trying to create more of those peer networks is important too.
Jan Paynter: That’s what I wondering about, established business people who’ve been vets basically mentoring would be helpful. Let’s turn to education generally because the veterans issue is a big one but I want to move on and hear what you have to say about where we focus now in terms of education, Pre-K, 6 through 8? What in your view are some of the most pressing issues facing us, challenges going forward?
Tom Perriello: Well, the need for comprehensive reform and innovation in education is necessary. We sometimes bash our public schools. The fact is we have amazing public schools here in Charlottesville and Albemarle. I was just down in Martinsville this weekend and it’s one of the poorest towns in the entire state, highest unemployment in the entire state but they are finding a way to get kids educated and over perform. It’s amazing what Scott Kizner and others have done there and the teachers but we also still have triple the average teenage pregnancy rate in those schools so you’re seeing cycles of endemic poverty and under employment repeating themselves at the same that our schools are hitting on their education targets. So what does that mean for us? Well, first and foremost I try to listen to folks on the ground first so I did this in the campaign, we’ve been doing this for six months already in office, meeting with all the superintendents, meeting with the principals, meeting with the teachers, meeting with the parents, hearing from them. There are a few things. We’re here in the building of CATEC. CATEC I think is an absolute trailblazer in the area of career and technical education. For a generation we’ve said, ‘Every kid has to go to college, that is the mark of success or failure’. Well, college is extremely important and we should certainly encourage it but college isn’t the track for everybody and classroom learning isn’t going to work for every child. A career in technical education about training people for the workforce may well lead to a four year degree, it may not, but it may be about developing a skill set, whether that’s the technical skills you need of say some of the really impressive work we just saw in masonry and culinary and nursing but also just the life skills of what it means to go into an interview, what it means to conduct yourself in the workplace and to encourage excellence. So we need to look at career and technical education in the community college system so that we’re investing in every kid and helping them prepare to be a productive part of the workforce. Second, we also need to encourage excellence in innovation as well as just raising the floor. We focused a lot on how to ensure basic standards but in doing so we’ve discouraged excellence. And not just excellence at the AP level but excellence in innovation again like what we’re seeing here at CATEC, whatever it is you feel called to do, whether it’s software planning or music…I don’t know, what they do with all the machines in the music booth.
Jan Paynter: Electronic music.
Tom Perriello: All these areas where you can excel. One of the things that we’re better at still than any other country is entrepreneurship and innovation. So sometimes we’re so focused on catching up to other countries in these core areas like science which we certainly need to do in engineering. We also need to remember that our comparative advantage is usually on innovation and entrepreneurship and we need to make sure that that’s part of the program. But I would go back to early childhood development if you want to talk about that.
Jan Paynter: No, there’s a lot to talk about and I’m sorry to be rolling along here. I wanted to get a quick update on President Obama’s healthcare bill before Congress. He talks about the 46 million uninsured in this country, particularly in his speech to the MA recently. Where are we given the 9% rise in health costs per year as noted in your reports?
Tom Perriello: Well, it’s changing so rapidly but the time this airs who knows where we’ll be but I can tell you the overall trend line is definitely towards a major comprehensive reform that will encourage the kind of competition that’s been lacking in the market. The sense right now is that we will probably have the votes in the House. I’ve been in the no column but wanting to get to yes and I’ve been very encouraged by the reforms.
Jan Paynter: Well, that was going to be my question. What will it take for you to say yes? I know one of the important issues for you is deficit neutrality.
Tom Perriello: I want to see deficit neutrality and a bending of the cost curve. Even if you start to reduce those premiums or the rate of increase by about one percent, you’re talking about trillions of dollars in savings. I think that’s very, very important for us to do. Second, I want a plan that’s oriented around competition. I think that’s always the most effective way to ensure quality and do cost containment. And we just haven’t had a very competitive market so that means getting rid of the anti-trust waivers. To me that means throwing everything in the kitchen sink at it. I want portability across state lines and competition across state lines, public options, nonprofit efforts, healthcare ministries, interstate compacts in portability. Let’s bring that competition to the market in a way that we can have the kind of innovation that we’re so good at in this country. I also want to see that we’re encouraging wellness and prevention including more encouragement of primary care which we really choke out under the incentive structure in this country. I want to make sure seniors are taken care of including not only closing the donut hole of prescription drugs but also being allowed to negotiate cheaper drug prices under Medicare and that we extend the Medicare Trust Fund. The current proposals do extend the Medicare Trust Fund to ensure that we are not falling off a cliff with our seniors. So these are all important areas for us to look at. We also—I want to make sure that rural hospitals which have often been under compensated under the current system get a fair shake moving forward. That’s very important to me. It’s such a comprehensive area that it is a long checklist and I think that those are all things where we’re moving forward and we’ll see where the final bill ends up on that but I think we are—I’ve been encouraged when we came back from August, I didn’t know how people would feel about things. The answer was, people were deadly serious about taking the best ideas they heard and moving those forward. I think there’s some tort reform proposals that we might at least get pilot projects on which I think could be very valuable. Probably less in terms of cost savings, I think there’s less there than people think but the savings to doctors both financially and emotionally are very large and we need to be encouraging people to move there.
Jan Paynter: Yeah. Dr. Jenkins at UVA actually on your website had a very compelling article arguing for healthcare and a little pessimistic. He talked about the single payer option, the difficulty of lobby—health insurance lobbies allowing for that in this country. Do you feel that that is at all feasible in the future?
Tom Perriello: A single payer system?
Jan Paynter: Yeah.
Tom Perriello: I’m skeptical of that both as being a good idea and as being politically viable. Again I think that really—this is an area where competition with the right incentives can drive the solution. I think what we’re looking at is a system that tries to build on the fact that the employer based system has worked for a lot of people and it doesn’t work for everybody so what we want to do is try to build on and reward employer based systems where we can but also note that a lot of people now are self employed, are consultants, are doing a lot of part time jobs, are in a small business of 10 or 15 employees that doesn’t have the negotiating power. That’s a bigger and bigger chunk of our market, of our populace, and so what we want to do is also have a system, this federal exchange where private companies will compete for that business and that those people are not at a disadvantage to the Wal-Marts of the world that have a huge number of employees or the federal government to negotiate a good deal. We want to make sure we can get a good deal for those folks who are in smaller and medium size businesses or self employed.
Jan Paynter: Tom, you have an excellent website where people can go and get a great deal of information in terms of what congress people are alive to their issues. Where else can people go to get information and assistance with federal governmental services?
Tom Perriello: Well, you can always call our office here in Charlottesville or in DC to be able to get help about what programs may be available for you and questions answered. Sometimes we can’t answer them but we can point you to someone who can. We’re blessed here in this area to have UVA Hospital and Martha Jeff and others that—where people can go and get questions answered. We have the free clinic here that is just an amazing, amazing program as well as community health centers and others so there are a lot of ways people can try to access good information about healthcare.
Jan Paynter: Well, I appreciate you taking the time to be with us today. I know your schedule’s extremely busy and I wanted to thank everyone listening for participating in our conversation. Involvement and a commitment to service matters. In thinking about the many issues which face our country today, let’s honor the committed services of the men and women in uniform and make sure that they are in turn fairly served. Accessibility to quality healthcare and educational opportunity can be the American dream fulfilled if we make our voices heard. We’d like to hear from you. You can email us with questions and concerns at email@example.com. We air on 8:00 pm Saturday and also Tuesday. Thank you and until next time, I’m Jan Paynter and this is Politics Matters.