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Assuming Donald McEachin Goes to Congress, Who Might Replace Him for Senate Dem Caucus Chair?

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On June 14, Democratic voters in Virginia’s 4th CD will decide on their nominee for U.S. Congress in the newly-redrawn, Democratic-friendly district. The choices are State Sen. Donald McEachin and Chesapeake City Councilwoman Ella Ward. Personally, I’m supporting my friend Donald McEachin, and fully expect that he’ll win (my guess is he’ll get somewhere around 65% of the vote) on June 14. Assuming he does, and assuming he goes on to win the general election in November (another highly likely scenario), that will be great news in almost every way.

Except for one significant downside: Virginia Senate Democrats will lose one of the best things they have going for them, Donald McEachin as their Caucus Chair. Currently, the abysmal, embarrassing, incompetent, ethically-challenged, corporate/Dominion Power lackey Dick Saslaw is Minority Leader, and the hope of many of us is that he’ll retire as soon as possible. If not, though, then the choice for Caucus Chair matters even more…as a counterweight to Saslaw, if nothing else.

The election for Senate Democratic Caucus Chair won’t take place until November, possibly around Thanksgiving (at which point hopefully we’ll be able to “give thanks” for avoiding the nightmare of President Trump, among other things), but the maneuvering (and rumors) have already begun. Here are the candidates I’m hearing are in the mix, what each one’s pluses and minuses might be, and who I’d be inclined to support.

  1. Chap Petersen: Currently Caucus Vice-Chair, Petersen would bring both positive and negative qualities to this job. On the positive side, he certainly knows how to raise money and run a tough campaign (e.g., against Jeannemarie Davis in 2007) . One source told me that if the #1 goal is to take back the Senate in 2019, I should “at least consider Chap.” He’s also a strong speaker, with 20+ years a highly successful trial attorney attesting to that fact. And whatever you think about his ideas, he’s got them, both good ones and bad ones. Not that I’d say Chap’s a policy wonk, but he’s certainly interested in solid policy. So, overall, sounds good, right? Except that Chap is also seen by many of his colleagues as a maverick, not necessarily a solid Democrat in some ways, and tending to waste a lot of energy on relatively unimportant “causes,” like the Washington NFL team’s stupid name, ranting about “political correctness” (sounds downright Trump-ian on that subject) and highlighting supposed assaults on religious freedom (sounds like Cooch or Ted Cruz on that subject). On the plus side, I’ve heard that Chap would be inclined to tell Dick Saslaw where to shove it, if need be. Plus, Chap does bring a certain populist bent to the Caucus. So…overall, Chap can be maddening, but he’s a serious candidate for this job, although probably not one I’d be inclined to support, for the aforementioned reasons.
  2. George Barker: A very smart guy and generally a solid progressive (although we’ve had our differences at times over reproductive rights and other issues), I’ve heard Barker described as “very wonky, but not necessarily someone Senate Dems would rally around.” I like Barker personally, but I was definitely not thrilled with his treatment of Atif Qarni in 2015, and more to the point, question the political calculations that went into that treatment. I’ve also heard doubts expressed about his fundraising abilities. Would Barker stand up to Saslaw? I don’t know, but I haven’t really seen it in recent years. Would he be able to focus on winning back the State Senate in 2019, or would he have to focus on winning reelection in his own district (in 2015, he won by a relatively narrow margin, 54%-46%)? One well-connected Virginia Dem told me that if my goal was to win back the Senate in 2019, Barker was not the person we’d want in this job. Will Barker run for Caucus Chair? I’ve heard that either he or Marsden, not both, will run. Finally, as a Democratic woman commented to me, “do we really want another old white guy from northern Virginia in leadership?”
  3. Dave Marsden: Again, my understanding is that either Barker or Marsden, not both, will run. According to Project Vote Smart, former Republican and Gilmore appointee Marsden has turned out to be a strong progressive, so that’s a plus. My understanding is that Marsden has also been a strong team player, particularly on the candidate recruitment end (although I strongly disagreed with him on the Colgan seat and also the Watkins seat in 2015), which presumably he’d continue to do whether he becomes Caucus Chair or not. Other than that, Marsden has shown the ability to raise money and to win tough elections. The possible downsides? Again, would he stand up to Dick Saslaw? I’m not sure I’ve seen that. Finally, I’ll leave you with the same quote regarding Barker, that we might not really benefit from having “another old white guy from northern Virginia in leadership.”
  4. Barbara Favola: Basically, Favola is a 100%, across-the-board, super-strong progressive from Arlington. That’s all great, other than the last part — “from Arlington.” Now, I love Arlington and all, having lived here for many years, but I’m told that other parts of the state don’t necessarily share that love, for a variety of reasons. In the case of Favola, I’ve heard that her fellow caucus members sometimes roll their eyes at what they perceive as a “lecturing,” “we in Arlington know best” tone. As for standing up to Saslaw, it’s hard to see, given that Saslaw “cleared the field” for her in 2011 and basically ensured her election. Last but not least, how important is geographic diversity in Caucus leadership, given that Saslaw represents neighboring Falls Church? So…probably not someone I’d support for this job, but I suppose it’s possible, depending on who the candidates end up being.
  5. Mamie Locke: Currently Caucus Treasurer, Locke is super smart, with a PhD in Political Science, studies at the American University in Cairo, and Dean of Hampton University’s School of Liberal Arts. Locke also “has a number of publications on race and gender” to her credit, and “is the co-editor of two books, African American Politics: The Struggle for Liberation and Urban Politics: A Planning Perspective.” As for Locke’s voting record, she’s 100% pro-choice, 100% pro-LGBT-equality, 100% from the Virginia Education Association, 84% lifetime from the League of Conservation Voters, 100% pro-labor, etc. The only serious knock I’ve heard against Locke is that she doesn’t raise a lot of money and hasn’t had to run any tough campaigns for a long time in…practically forever. Of course, she hasn’t really needed to raise much money or run tough campaigns, given that her district is overwhelmingly Democratic, so not sure we should hold that against her! Plus, it’s likely that if she becomes Caucus Chair, she’ll be able to fundraise simply based on holding that position. So, I’m not particularly concerned about the fundraising side. As for winning tough elections, Locke’s very smart, and she certainly can’t do worse than Saslaw et al have done in recent years! Can she stand up to Saslaw? Now THAT I’m not sure of, but then again, I’m not sure any of the candidates listed here can really do that effectively. Finally, as I’ve said many times, I’m not a big fan of “identity politics,” but I certainly DO believe that “all else being equal,” Democratic leadership should look like the voters who elect them. And in Virginia, women make up more than half of those voters, while African Americans make up a huge share as well. So…just something else to consider, given that Locke is the only African American candidate for Caucus Chair, and one of only two women. Personally, given the choices I’m seeing, I’m leaning towards supporting Locke.

Finally, note that I haven’t left Jennifer Wexton off this list by accident or because she wouldn’t have made a super-strong candidate (she would have!). But it sounds like she’s not planning to run for this position, so for now, she’s not on the list. We’ll see if that changes in coming months…