Sophomore John F. Kennedy Profiles Contest Finalist

Betsy Kim ‘17 placed as a finalist in the 2015 John F. Kennedy Profiles in Courage Essay Contest. Kim wrote about former Virginia Representative Tom Perriello’s courageous and controversial decision to support the 2010 Affordable Care Act, despite Perriello’s being at odds with most of Virginia’s constituents and later losing his reelection as a result. The contest encourages high school students to take a stand on political courage by writing an essay on a US elected official who has chosen to do what is right, rather than what is advantageous. Her essay is shown below.

(To find out more about the JFK contest for the year of 2015-2016, please visit

Tom Perriello: A Politician of Conviction

On a brisk evening in October of 2010 in Charlottesville, Virginia, President Barack Obama addressed an enthusiastic crowd of 10,000 with his usual charm. Standing on a platform raised slightly above the tops of blue posters bobbing in the crowd, he lauded the political courage of Congressman Tom Perriello, shouting, “We always say we want integrity from our elected officials. This is a test case right here, in Charlottesville, because [Perriello] has integrity, and in four days, you have the chance to say, ‘yes we can!’” (Obama, “Obama/Perriello Rally- 10/29/2010”). President Obama’s appeal to Charlottesville aptly portrayed the delicate political situation in Virginia’s Fifth District, with Perriello as a focal point. Even after taking massive risks to endorse major Democratic bills despite representing a heavily Republican district, Perriello continued to rely on “conviction politics”; that is, the belief that if citizens knew he always worked solely for their well-being, they would support him despite possible differences in belief. The President’s visit followed Perriello’s recent vote for healthcare reform, a choice that roused extreme opposition. Despite steadfast support from Fifth District’s Democrats and his own faith in conviction politics, Perriello acknowledged the possibility of losing the reelection and expressed pride in his term, declaring, “Judgment Day is more important than election day. It’s more important to do what’s right than what’s easy” (Hayes). For Perriello, what was right was the decision to vote for the 2010 Affordable Care Act (ACA), a courageous choice given his political representation. Perriello’s willingness to sacrifice his career for conviction politics revealed not only his immense political courage but also his vision for a new type of politics

and his capacity to risk his office for both. In the words of Kennedy, Perriello’s “loyalty to [his] nation triumph[ed] over all personal and political considerations,” and the nation Perriello served definitely benefited from his courageous actions (Kennedy 18).

In the 2008 Congressional elections, Perriello faced serious challenges in winning over his district and beating his opponent, but was elected as Virginia’s Fifth District Representative. The Fifth District was a stunning five points more conservative than the average district, and his opponent was conservative Virgil Goode, who “never won [an election] by less than 19 points” (Clymer). Perriello, however, proudly presented himself as a “progressive alternative” to Goode and “pledged himself to conviction politics” (Hayes). A surge of support among black voters and young voters secured Perriello’s surprising “727-vote victory,” the narrowest of congressional victories that year (Clymer). Once elected, Perriello fully embraced conviction politics and dismayed conservatives and liberals alike by taking “the path of most resistance” (Hayes); his votes against the liberal bank bailout and Obama budget angered Democrats, while his support for the Recovery Act and Waxman-Markey Bill provoked outrage among Republicans (Banerjee). Consequently, despite Perriello’s firm roots in conviction politics rather than a party platform, a vote for another liberal bill would lose him any remaining Republican support. In essence, voting for the ACA would be a “grand act of political suicide” for Perriello (Banerjee).

America’s current healthcare system, however, was in desperate need of reform. Its price tag was bankrupting the middle class while simultaneously forcing small businesses to choose between “insuring their workers or laying people off” (Perriello, “The Facts”). Even after paying an exorbitant fee for insurance, consumers were denied coverage by insurance companies with few regulations to prevent the industry from exploiting customers. The ACA, which would reduce the federal deficit by $1.2 trillion, strengthen consumer rights, and save the average American $4,200 in Medicare, would largely mitigate these issues (“Health Care That Works”). In the Fifth District, the legislation would offer coverage to 48,000 uninsured residents and curtail prices for 409,000 residents (McNeill, “Perriello Allies”). Although Perriello initially remained neutral towards the ACA, he soon recognized its benefits for Americans, stating, “Every Virginian should have access to the same health care choices I receive as a member of Congress, which is why I cast my vote in favor of historic health care reform legislation” (Perriello, “The Facts”). Although he believed the bill required changes, Perriello approved the “$300 billion cut from earlier versions of the House bill” and the “increases in compensation to rural hospitals,” which would greatly assist the Fifth District (Banerjee). Believing that voting for the bill would be “in the best interest of [his] constituents and [his] country,” Perriello voted for the ACA on March 21, 2010 (Perriello, “The Facts”).

Perriello received furious backlash for his decision. While Democrats touted the bill as an opportunity to improve health coverage for families and small businesses across America, Republicans called the reform law a “fundamentally unconstitutional… ‘job killing’ measure” (McNeill, “Perriello Allies”). Four Republicans running against Perriello in upcoming elections pledged to “repeal any federal health care takeover passed in 2010” (McNeill, “Perriello Allies”). Perriello, however, was confident that his vote for the ACA would aid America, and the bill indeed proved to have extensive benefits. Although it raised taxes, the ACA annulled lifetime dollar limits for coverage for 105 million Americans, granted 360,000 small businesses tax credits to insure two million workers, and required insurers to spend at least 80% of premium dollars on healthcare to prevent future manipulation of customers (“Health Care That Works”). Perriello received ardent support from Fifth District hospitals, which stated that this legislation was critical to their patients’ health (Perriello, “The Facts”). Liberals around the nation lauded Perriello’s commitment “to do[ing] what’s right for his constituents” (McNeill, “Perriello Defends”).

Perriello’s vote dealt him a fatal blow at the 2010 Congressional elections, in which he lost narrowly to Republican Robert Hurt. Despite his short term, however, Perriello’s record abounded with improvements he created in Virginia. Along with his vote for the ACA, Perriello helped bring in “federal stimulus money to avert widespread layoffs” of Fifth District teachers and police, and secured $10 million in federal grants to establish four biomass energy projects in Virginia (Banerjee). Although his loss led many to label conviction politics as a path too risky for politics, Perriello met this criticism with admirable foresight and forbearance, declaring, “Conventionally, people look at only the binary: you win or lose an election. But…. You can leave politics with your head held high if you’ve done the best you could” (Banerjee).