What a night.
In my native Virginia, voters across the Commonwealth sent Republicans packing. Not only was there a second consecutive sweep at the top of the ballot — the first occurrence of this since the 1980s — but the state House of Delegates appears to have been fought to a 50-50 tie, though this might shift into Democratic control of the House as provisional ballots get counted and recounts occur. Even with the present composition, however, it would be the first time Republicans did not have control of Virginia’s lower chamber since the 1999 elections.
It was a landslide unlike anything we have seen in recent memory in the Commonwealth, and, contextually, anywhere else for that matter. There have been other Southern legislatures that have flipped heavily — all to the GOP — but those elections were less of a realignment than a predictable sorting: legacy Democrats who had long voted Republican at the federal level simply made their ballots a straight ticket in a political atmosphere where every election is nationalized. What happened in Virginia was much different, as Democrats won in places — like Virginia Beach and Prince William County — that are not typically seen as swing districts or even remotely friendly to their candidates.
This election goes beyond numbers and headlines about who won. It gets down to the kind of campaigns that the winning candidates ran, as well as the issues that they chose to focus on.
The world has gotten to know Danica Roem as the first out transgender candidate to be elected to a state legislature in American history. That is a fantastic accomplishment. They might also know that she defeated Del. Bob Marshall, who might be one of the most repugnant and reactionary legislators in the post-Civil Rights Era history of the Commonwealth and the architect of Virginia’s iteration of North Carolina’s abominable anti-trans anti-worker HB2. My thoughts on his demise can be found below.
But here’s something else that folks should know about Delegate-elect Roem: she ran a campaign almost exclusively on the need for more transportation options and raising teacher pay. If you have ever lived in Prince William County, Manassas, or Manassas Park — hell, if you have ever lived anywhere north of Stafford — you know that suburban sprawl is completely out of control and that the difficulty of getting around anywhere makes life that much more difficult for working-class residents.
Her platform not only called for more investments in transportation so that State Route 28 — a main thoroughfare in Manassas that runs between Fauquier County and Washington Dulles International Airport in Loudoun County — but for a rail engineering study that would make a region that is constantly amongst the worst in traffic times a hub for the next generation of transportation technologies.
Roem’s soon-to-be-colleague in the House of Delegates, Lee Carter, has also made history as the first open democratic socialist to be elected in Virginia. He did this, notably, without the help of the Democratic Party of Virginia, who dropped their support of his campaign after Carter refused to submit to the party’s metrics protocol. Because, as we all know, metrics are the entirety of a campaign, which is why we have President Hillary Clinton in the White House right now.
In the article explaining the situation, Carter hit out at the likely reason why the House Democratic Caucus withdrew its support:
Carter opposes its plan for a natural gas pipeline and opposed its plan for a high-voltage transmission line that was to go through residential neighborhoods in Prince William County; the plan has stalled under local resistance. Environmentalists oppose the pipeline plan, with some questioning whether Atlantic Coast is necessary for Virginia’s power needs.
“I’m to the left of them on economic policy,” Carter said of his party. “I am unabashedly pro-union, pro-worker. I’m openly fighting against the large corporate interests. That’s something that you don’t see a lot of politicians in either party do very much of, and that’s something that Virginia frankly has not seen very much of since the days of Henry Howell.”
Howell was the progressive populist state senator and lieutenant governor in the 1960s and 1970s who made three runs for governor and challenged corporate power — including Dominion — using the slogan, “Keep the big boys honest.”
Dominion Energy gave $100,000 to three Democratic committees in 2016, including the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which is the party’s state legislative arm. Apparently, offending a power company that spent years poisoning the Elizabeth River is of higher priority to some Democrats than winning elections.
Joining Roem and Carter in Richmond will be Justin Fairfax, who is to be the first Black statewide elected official in Virginia since Gov. L. Douglas Wilder left office in January 1994. His opposition to pipelines criss-crossing the Commonwealth caused the Laborers International Union of North America (LiUNA) to leave him off some of their literature, essentially erasing him from the statewide ticket that he had been duly elected to join.
When I talked to a friend about that, he noted that the pipelines were unpopular everywhere, even in western Virginia, where one might expect such projects to be popular due to the diminishing returns of coal. Funny enough…
As it turns out, listening to what actual people who live in these conditions every day have to say about the issues that will affect their communities the most will garner you support and votes! Who’da thunk?
The lesson that some will take from this is to “run everywhere”. It is a lesson to be taken from all this for sure, but it is the wrong lesson if that is all you take away from last night.
Beneath all the national discussion about this election being a referendum on Donald Trump — it would be silly to claim that the anger stoked by our fascist-in-chief did not play some role in what happened here — this election featured a great crop of candidates who learned that connecting with the working class on a progressive vision for their themselves, their families, and their communities will win the day every damn time. While the top of their ticket did the most to pander to the most base instincts of Virginians, the candidates for the House of Delegates did the opposite.
It is not enough to simply run candidates for local office and spend months talking about how the other guys are worse. Such an approach gives off the notion that such candidates are owed the votes of the working class, which, though a popular sentiment amongst liberals, is as arrogant and off-putting as they come. No, campaigns must be used to imagine a future where labor is not a four letter word. Where transportation expansion is not seen as a burden. Where the education of our children is seen as valuable, regardless of where their parents land on the income bracket. And where “the people” and “communities” are not simply abstract concepts to be abandoned once the votes are counted, but living things to whom those in office hold themselves accountable to.
That is why the election results turned out the way that they did. And that is why the elections in my beloved Commonwealth last night pointed the way — in one small aspect of our struggle — towards a more progressive South last night.