In August 2009, the debate over the proposed Affordable Care Act made its way into town hall meetings across the country. Democrats hoped to use the forums to explain the complexities of health care reform and dispel any myths. They came with long-winded answers and PowerPoint slides.
Tea party conservatives had another plan: They saw these earnest settings as opportunities for rage. The gatherings quickly devolved into shouting matches and even physical altercations. Democrats were accused of torching the Constitution and handing people with disabilities a death sentence.
“It was a lot of vitriolic racism,” recalled former Rep. Tom Perriello (D-Va.), who was then a freshman Democrat from a conservative-leaning district.
“I was getting spit on. My staff was getting kicked,” he said. “We were getting calls using the N word every day. People were very comfortable in very professional settings saying, 'You know there is nothing for white people in this bill. Why are you supporting it?'”
People were very comfortable in very professional settings saying, 'You know there is nothing for white people in this bill. Why are you supporting it?' Tom Perriello on the health care town hall meetings
Perriello had barely won his election in 2008. Still, he'd committed himself to supporting progressive priorities in Congress and steadfastly defending them back home. As the Affordable Care Act debate continued, however, reaction in some quarters was morphing from hostile to dangerous. In March 2010, shortly after the bill passed, the gas line was cut at his brother's house. A tea party activist had put the address online, thinking it was the congressman's home.
"Surreal is the only word that can describe it," Perriello said of the incident. "He had four young kids at the time below the age of 10."
Though the attack on Perriello's family was the most serious, other Democrats were experiencing similar threats. In this week’s episode of our Candidate Confessional podcast, Perriello recalls a Democratic caucus meeting around that time in which congressional leadership and law enforcement discussed the threats. African-American lawmakers admonished some of their colleagues for thinking the violent incidents were merely isolated events. “You guys aren’t hearing us,” they said, according to Perriello. The lawlessness – and its validation from conservatives in power – reminded them of the civil rights era.
"I think there was a sort of lightbulb moment for some that this was not just the idea that, 'Oh, there might be a crazy guy who did this.' That this was something we'd seen before," Perriello said.
Eventually, Republicans began to speak out against the incidents too, though not always with incredible vigor and not always with unanimity. When the Virginia congressional delegation denounced the threats against Perriello, for example, then-House Minority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) was notably absent.
"I'll leave his confessions to another [podcast]," said Perriello.
A spokesman for Cantor didn't return a request for comment.
Perriello lasted only one term in the House. But it could not have been a more eventful two years with votes on stimulus funding, financial regulation and environmental reforms. No piece of legislation generated as much heat as the Affordable Care Act.
The former congressman, who now serves as special envoy for the Great Lakes Region of Africa, said he learned early on that most people speaking out at the town hall meetings had already made up their minds about whether to support the health care law. The loudest voices against it were usually white men.
“Anyone who might actually be an undecided person who simply wanted to learn more about the bill didn't show up,” he said.
Perriello ended up holding town hall meetings in every county in his district – an area bigger than New Jersey.
“I've done a lot of work on conflict resolution and transitional justice overseas,” he said. “I never quite thought I'd be applying those skills back home. And it was, really, it was sad.”
This podcast was edited by Christine Conetta. Listen to it above or download it on iTunes. And while you’re there, please subscribe to, rate and review our show. Make sure to tune in to next week’s episode, when our guest will be former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson on his 2012 presidential campaign.