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The Freshman Who Is Still on the Fence

21 Town Meetings Later, Rep. Perriello Looks for Solution

KEYSVILLE, Va. — Two weeks into his 21-town-hall tour of Virginia’s 5th district during the August recess, Rep. Tom Perriello (D) told attendees at an event in Fluvanna County that he was “a no’ [vote] on health care, [but] I’d really like to get to yes.’—

Fifteen days and a dozen town halls later, the freshman Congressman, who is a top target for Republicans in 2010, still hadn’t gotten to “yes.— But he also continued to give hope to those in his district who favor the health care reform proposals that Congress will consider this fall.

When supporters with Organizing for America descended on his Charlottesville office last Tuesday to deliver letters and petitions from 5th district residents asking Perriello to back health insurance reform, the Congressman said he was eager to do just that.

“I know that some of you are frustrated that I am not a yes’ yet on health care reform,— Perriello said, according to a story in his local newspaper, the Daily Progress. “I’ve remained a no’ on the bill, but I’m very eager and hopeful to get to a yes.’—

National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Andy Seré said Perriello, who won his seat in Congress by fewer than 800 votes last year, worked hard during the August recess to please all sides when it comes to the health care debate.

But Seré — who argues that Perriello’s voting record is not representative of a conservative district that went for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) by 3 points in the 2008 presidential election — said the Congressman’s comments to the OFA crowd were “a wink and a nod— on the upcoming health care vote.

“His whole strategy with these town halls has been to give the appearance to his constituents that he’s listening to them, all the while laying the groundwork that he needs to vote for government-run health care sometime down the road,— Seré added.

Still, some of Perriello’s liberal supporters — the ones who rallied to his cause early in his long-shot bid against an entrenched six-term Congressman last year — get concerned when Perriello talks about his opposition to a single-payer system or how he worked to keep the health care bill from coming to the House floor before the August recess.

“If we don’t get a public option, I’m going to be furious,— said Jan Cornell, who recently lost her job with the Communications Workers of America and attended the Fluvanna town hall to ask Perriello to try to help the health care legislation move through Congress faster. “I didn’t want to be up in his face and be all partisan. I wanted to give the guy a chance. [But] if he bails on this, he’s not going to get support for his re-election— from progressive Democrats in the 5th district, she said.

Perriello said during an interview before his town hall stop in Charlotte County that for most voters in 2010, the state of the economy will trump anything that Congress does or does not do to address health care this fall.

“It’s going to be I think an economic election next year,— Perriello said. “For a certain contingent of people around the country and in my district it will be an ideological election about the role of government, but I think for most people in the middle it will be about where’s the economy and are we getting the budget under control.—

As for his stance on health care, Perriello said his position is neither new nor borne from political necessity.

“I ran as someone who supported health care reform. This was never a secret. … I really think the system is broken. I think the incentives are off and the costs are through the roof,— Perriello said. “If we can find a bill that can fix those two problems then I’ll be on board with it.—

Perriello said he doesn’t agree with those people who believe there’s no role for the government to play in fixing health care, but he also doesn’t agree with those who believe government is the answer to the entire problem.

“What I hope people are seeing is this is a guy who is going to really burn the midnight oil to figure out what’s right for the country and what’s right for the region and he’s going to cast that vote and let the chips fall where they may,— Perriello said.

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