Today is a great day for Virginia and for our country. It’s also the first day since my son was born 16 months ago (the day after the Brexit vote) that I am more hopeful than anxious for the world in which he will grow up.
I leave it to the people who know a lot more about politics than I do to analyze all the many and complex factors that contributed to last night’s Democratic “tidal wave” in Virginia. I’m not a professional politico, I’m not even a “political junkie” — I’m just a citizen who is concerned for our country and privileged enough to have the time and skills to hopefully be part of the solution (if we need a label, I guess I’m a 5+ Activist). But through Tech for Campaigns, I had the honor of working with and getting to learn about a number of Democratic candidates for the Virginia House of Delegates in this election. And this tweet by @slaby inspired me to share some of their amazing stories.
When I first told Mark Suster about my interest in the Virginia state elections this cycle, I led by talking to him about the policy implications of taking back control of a gerrymandered state legislature like Virginia’s and how it would enable Democrats to enact policies that would benefit the majority of Virginians and be empirical evidence for the benefit of those policies in the rest of the country. In classic Mark fashion, he cut right to the chase and started explaining to me that policy was all well and good but people vote for candidates not policies. And in classic Jonathan fashion, I listened but didn’t fully believe. After the last several months, I’m a believer: It’s the candidates, stupid!
I’ve talked to a number of professional Democrats about state politics. Every one of them admits the Democratic Party hasn’t made state politics a focus for more than a decade. This year was different, to say the least. I spoke with several candidates who told similar stories: they were catalyzed to get involved after Trump’s election, researched their Delegate, didn’t like what they learned, and committed to supporting his/her opponent — but an opponent never came, and so they decided to run themselves. Others were encouraged and trained by fantastic organizations like Run for Something, The Arena, and Emerge Virginia. In most of my conversations with political operatives on the importance of state politics, they would invariably mention “building the bench” of future national candidates. One thing I didn’t hear from any of the candidates I worked with in Virginia this cycle was ambition for higher office. That’s not to say none of them aspire to it, but rather their primary goal was to serve their communities and stand up for their values. And it worked!
The passion, authenticity, and commitment of these candidates was palpable to everyone they encountered. As someone helping get their respective messages to constituents online, I got to learn their stories and hear them speak on the issues important to their communities. And frankly, it made our job relatively easy — no need to massage it or punch it up, just get their already compelling message to as many voters as possible.
So with all that said, it’s my great pleasure to share some of their inspiring stories with you (bold denotes winner; * denotes incumbent):
2017: D 62.59% (12,544) — R 37.26% (7,469)
2015: D 49.35% (5,714) — R 50.43% (5,839)
2013: D 50.56% (8,189) — R 49.18% (7,966)
Jennifer is truly a force of nature and an inspiration. When people talk about living a life of service, she is what they mean. Jennifer is foster mother, a public defender, and was one of the first women (let alone women of color) to graduate from the Virginia Military Academy. We worked very hard to make sure everyone in her district knew that part of her story. What very few knew until recently is that Jenn is also a new mom to twins who were born premature during her primary campaign (oh yeah, she wasn’t even the favored nominee) and spent the entire general election campaign in the NICU. The thought of her going to visit her sons in the hospital every night after a long day of campaigning brings me to tears every time (including while typing this).
2017:D 51.90% (15,151) — R* 14,014 (48.01%)
2015: D 37.82% (6,355) — R* 61.98% (10,415)
2013: D 42.80% (9,723) — R* 57.01% (12,950)
Wendy’s story also makes me cry. She’s a working mom who responded to Trump’s election by founding an Indivisible chapter in her Republican county. She attended a town hall for her Delegate and asked him pointed questions about his positions, especially on gerrymandering. When she went home and found that his voting record didn’t match with his answers at the town hall, she decided to support his opponent…and you know the rest. Wendy also endured great personal tragedy early in her campaign when her brother — who had struggled with addiction and mental illness, and had been denied Medicaid multiple times — passed away. Instead of doing what most of us would have done and take time to grieve, Wendy rededicated herself in her brother’s honor to her campaign to unseat a man who had repeatedly voted to deny Medicaid expansion to her brother and 400,000 Virginians.
2017: D 54.33% (12,478) — R* 45.52% (10,454)
2015: D 41.55% (6,587) — R* 58.31% (9,245)
2013: D 47.42% (8,650) — R* 52.31% (9,541)
I didn’t work directly with the Hurst campaign, but I got to know his story indirectly through the work Tech for Campaigns did with them. The murder of his fiancée was national news and political inaction on gun violence catalyzed Chris to run. His district has nearly 30,000 college students, yet no Democratic candidate has successfully appealed to them in the past. Chris was able to break through and get 144% (!!!) of the vote total as the Democrat in the last similar election (2013).
2017: D 53.94% (11,888) — R* 45.66% (10,064)
2015: D 43.86% (5,592) — R* 56.05% (7,147)
2013: D 48.47% (8,448) — R* 51.33% (8,946)
As the nation’s first openly transgender state legislator who unseated the sponsor of Virginia’s transphobic bathroom bill, Danica’s story is already national news — and deservedly so. Tech for Campaigns didn’t work with her campaign, but I was told of the many hateful things her opponent did throughout the campaign, including constantly misgendering her. She routed an incumbent who had been in office since 1991 (!!!), and she also wins my vote for the classiest response to hate in this election:
2017: D 49.78% (14,323) — R* 50.21% (14,447)
2015: D 41.40% (7,472) — R* 58.46% (10,551)
2013: D N/A — R* Unopposed
Larry Barnett is just an amazingly nice guy who truly cares about his community. The first phone call I was on with him left me feeling like I’d known him for years. He has spent over 30 years working in his county’s department of Mental Health Support Services and volunteers his time to train local first responders in coping with crises. Medicaid expansion and mental health/addiction were cornerstones of his inspiring campaign against a 3-term Republican incumbent (uncontested twice), who had voted against Medicaid expansion and sponsored a bill to conceal the toxic chemicals used in fracking from FOIA requests. Despite being such a longshot that even the Governor’s race didn’t spend any time in his district, Larry nearly doubled the vote total of the last Democrat to run in the district and came within 124 votes of victory.
2017: D 53.55% (14,907) — R* 44.62% (12,420)
2015: D 46.54% (8,287) — R* 53.38% (9,506)
2013: D 49.40% (11,280) — R* 50.40% (11,508)
Elizabeth Guzman is a naturalized citizen originally from Peru, who became one of the first two Latina Virginia Delegates (along with Hala Ayala). She came to the US as a single mom with her daughter, and initially struggled to keep a roof over their heads. But through her intelligence and harder work than I can even imagine, Elizabeth earned not only her college degree but then 2 Masters degrees and created the comfortable middle-class American life she had dreamed of for her family. Not content to merely enjoy her success, Elizabeth dedicated her career to helping others as a social worker and active volunteer in her community. She defeated a Republican incumbent who had held office since 2002 (!!!) and sent campaign mail accusing Elizabeth of supporting illegal aliens being able to buy guns.
2017: D 58.48% (17,850) — R* 41.41% (12,639)
2015: D 46.86% (8,596) — R* 53.06% (9,734)
2013: D N/A — R* Unopposed
This is another campaign that I didn’t work with directly but know of through the work Tech for Campaigns did for them. David came from rural poverty and was raised in a state-run group home and foster care. He became the first member of his family to attend college and rose to the rank of Commander in the Navy before retiring and becoming a successful entrepreneur. Even with all the odds David beat, he credits his success to the help he received along the way and is committed to giving back and creating opportunities to follow him. He crushed a 4-term Republican incumbent (uncontested once) and more than doubled the vote total of the last Democrat to run in the district.
2017: D 50.74% (11,832) — R 49.05% (11,438)
2017 (Special Election): D 47.05% (2,939) — R 52.76% (3,301)
2015: D N/A — R* Unopposed
2013: D N/A — R Unopposed
Cheryl has been a local high-school science teacher for 24 years, currently teaching AP Environmental Science. Virginia Beach is ground-zero for climate change, yet her opponent — who received over $200k from the Republican party — voted to make Virginia more appealing for fracking. He was also an ally of for-profit schools and an opponent of women’s reproductive rights, who proudly campaigned on his vote to commemorate the Day of Tears when Virginians are encouraged to fly their flags at half-mast on the anniversary of Roe v Wade.
Immense credit goes to the countless volunteers (especially the amazing Tech for Campaigns teams that worked on these campaigns), outside organizations, tireless campaign staff, and of course the voters of Virginia who truly answered the call yesterday (even in the rain!). But my amateur opinion is it all starts with the candidate and their ability to relate and inspire.
I wish our country wasn’t where it is right now, and I know the immense and in some cases irreparable harm this administration is causing many of our friends and neighbors. But if this is what it takes to motivate honorable and altruistic people to run for office again — up and down the ballot, then that’s at least a silver-lining. And it’s the clearest path I know back to the place this country should be.
I leave you with this victory speech by Jennifer Carroll Foy:
Originally published at jstrauss.