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Obama praises Perriello, Hurt fires back as race draws to a close nears

South Boston News
President Barack Obama joins Fifth District Congressman Tom Perriello in Charlottesville for a rally Friday night that drew 10,000 people. (Tom McLaughlin photo) / November 01, 2010
President Obama flew in to Charlottesville Friday night to rally support for endangered Democratic incumbent Tom Perriello as both major party candidates in the Fifth District congressional election made their closing arguments prior to Tuesday’s vote.

Obama’s visit, the only one by the president for an individual Congressman this election cycle, came with polls showing a tight race between Perriello and Republican challenger Robert Hurt, a Chatham state senator. Also on the ballot is an independent candidate, Jeff Clark, running as a Tea Party candidate.

Obama urged a boisterous crowd huddled under the Pavilion in downtown Charlottesville to work hard in the campaign’s final hours to get out the vote for Perriello. The president hailed the first-term Democrat as an independent voice in Congress and a leader with the courage to make “tough decisions” on behalf of his district.

“He didn’t go to Washington to do what was easy, what was popular, he went to Washington to do what was right,” said Obama, who bounded on stage with rolled-up shirtsleeves on a brisk Charlottesville night.

“We always say we want integrity from our public officials, Well, I’ll tell you what — this is a test case right here in Charlottesville, because this man has integrity,” Obama said.

Earlier in the day, Hurt called the President’s visit on Perriello’s behalf “clearly payback for being a loyal foot soldier for the Obama-Pelosi agenda. The president recognizes his favorite congressman is in trouble.”

By holding the rally with the President, Hurt told reporters on a conference call Friday morning, Perriello “is throwing this Hail Mary pass to hope to energize his base. I would predict it will certainly have a positive effect on our base and we’ll see that enthusiasm on Nov. 2,” Hurt said.

There was no shortage of enthusiasm among the estimated 10,000 persons who turned out for Friday’s visit by the president — 8,000 inside the Pavilion, and another 2,000 who were outside the gate.

The event granted Perriello his biggest spotlight of the campaign, with the effect amplified by extensive TV and print media coverage. The rally drew reporters from statewide dailies, Roanoke - and Richmond-area TV stations and national newspapers including The Washington Post

A roster of warm-up speakers — including Halifax County veteran Frank Carr — extolled Perriello’s accomplishments during his first term, and with his turn at the podium Perriello promised “to look forward and not back.

“We started something two years ago that was very bold,” said Perriello, citing efforts by the Obama Administration to build a new energy economy, revitalize America’s infrastructure and improve educational opportunities. At the same time, he noted, Democrats had to right an economy that was rapidly sinking after eight years of Republican rule in Washington.

Reminding the audience that the U.S. was shedding 740,000 jobs per month when he and Obama were first elected in 2008, Perriello noted the private sector has shown job growth for the past nine consecutive months.

Acknowledging that the economy still isn’t healthy, Perriello said Democrats would continue to work to strengthen the still-fragile recovery.

“Because of what you did in 2008, you sent people to Washington who said ‘Not on our watch,’ there will not be another economic depression on our watch,” said Perriello to his loudest cheer of the night.

Taking the stage after Perriello’s introduction, Obama joked that he “was in the neighborhood and thought I’d stop by” to join the rally. Turning serious, Obama called Perriello “one of the best congressmen Virginia has ever had.

“I am here for one reason,” said Obama. “I’m not here because Tom votes with me on every issue. Sometimes he disagrees with me. There are times where I know that his first allegiance is not to party labels, it’s not to the Democratic Party, it’s to the people of his district and the people of Virginia.

“The reason I am here is because in this day and age, let’s face it, political courage is hard to come by,” said Obama. “The easiest thing to do, especially when you’re a first-term congressman, the easiest thing to do is make your decisions based on the polls. You put your fingers up to the wind, you check which way the political wind is blowing before you cast every vote. That’s how a lot of folks think they should do their jobs in Washington.”

Obama said Perriello’s backing of initiatives such as the stimulus bill “put thousands of people, people right here in Virginia, to work building new railroads and runways and highways.” He contrasted Perriello’s support for investing in energy, education, health care, transportation and technology with Republican priorities “that resulted in the worst economy since the Great Depression.”

The GOP agenda, charged Obama, is “cutting taxes mostly for millionaires and billionaires. You cut the rules for special interests and big corporations. You cut middle-class families loose to fend for themselves. It’s the same agenda that turned a record surplus into a record deficit, the same agenda that allowed Wall Street to run wild, the same agenda that nearly destroyed our economy.

“We tried it for eight years. It didn’t work. And so I bring all this up not because I want to re-argue the past. I just don’t want to relive the past,” said Obama, drawing a huge cheer.

Obama said he needed Perriello’s help to bring down record deficits that were inherited from the Bush Administration, which departed office with a projected $1.4 trillion budget shortfall.

Obama pledged to close the deficit the “responsible way — not by cutting education. We won’t do it by putting the burden on our children or our seniors or our veterans or our middle-class families.” The president called for “shared sacrifice” and said a starting point would be to end tax breaks granted by the Bush Administration for income earners above $250,000 annually.

“We won’t do it [close the deficit] by borrowing another $700 billion to give tax cuts to folks who don’t need them and weren’t even asking for them,” said Obama.

Perriello struck a populist note in his speech, railing against Wall Street greed and shadowy campaign front groups that have aired millions in campaign attack ads against Democratic candidates nationally. Perriello has criticized Hurt for his refusal to support campaign finance disclosure laws that would force outside political groups to reveal the sources of their funding.

“We will not rest until ‘we the people,’ not ‘we the corporations’ remains the theme of our politics,” said Perriello.

Throughout his 22 months in Congress, Perriello said he has worked to elevate the concerns of Southside and Central Virginia as Washington takes actions that affect all Americans. As a candidate for president two years ago, Obama campaigned in Martinsville and pledged never to forget the region, and Perriello said he has followed up to ensure the White House holds to that pledge.

“I have made sure he never forgets Martinsville and Danville and Charlottesville and Farmville,” said Perriello.

Taking the stage before the two main speakers, the mayor and vice-mayor of Charlottesville lavished praise on Perriello, while three other speakers — a small business owner, University of Virginia student, and veterans’ representative Frank Carr of Halifax — talked about his support for health care reform, education and veterans’ benefits.

Urging veterans “to stand up” for a congressman “who has stood up for us,” Carr hailed Perriello’s support for the new GI Bill and sponsorship of legislation that will lower veterans’ caregivers costs and ease transportation to VA medical centers. Carr also noted Perriello’s sponsorship of legislation to boost job training opportunities for veterans.

“Tom has made access to higher education and vocational training one of his highest priorities,” Carr said, promising to “talk to every veteran to let them know that we have a man who is on our side, who is a fighter for veterans’ interests and benefits.”

Janet Miller, president and CEO of Search Mojo, a small Internet-based firm in Charlottesville, highlighted the benefits of the Democrats’ health care reform law, which she said would help her company meet the challenge of health insurance costs that spiraled rapidly upwards during the past decade.

A few years ago, said Miller, her firm was forced to pay premiums that were 58 percent more than the year before. This year, her company gets a 35 percent tax credit on its health insurance costs, with the tax credit due to rise to 50 percent by 2014 under the new law.

“That saved my business this year nearly $25,000,” she said.

While the money will help her reinvest in her business and hire new employees, Miller said the health care law is also important to her as a mother of a four-year-old daughter, Emma, who has been diagnosed with a congenital heart condition, Miller said health care reform “ended the ability of health insurance companies to discriminate against Emma and all children” on the basis of pre-existing conditions.

Miller contrasted Perriello’s backing of the new law with Hurt’s vow to repeal health care reform, which she said would “take away my daughter Emma’s right to be treated fairly by insurance companies.

“He wants to take me back to the days of struggling” to insure her family, said Miller, who vowed to do all she can to help Perriello beat back Hurt’s challenge.

“This small business owner and this mom is going to be doing her best this Tuesday [to make] Tom Perriello the next Congressman from the Fifth District,” she said.

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