It was the sort of exchange many citizens are having now with their representatives, a response to a question about a post on Facebook, that led Cori Johnson to run for a House seat in the 97th district.
Johnson knew her representative, House Del. Chris Peace, was a Republican, but she wanted more detail about his positions on the issues, so she looked him up online. She found his Facebook page, where she was surprised to see he had posted a link sharing resources for refugees. “Oh, he’s sympathetic,” she thought. “He has compassion.” Feeling hopeful, she wrote to ask him about his stance on Trump’s executive order which temporarily bans immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S. Peace responded by asking Johnson if she had “read the Order and case law on point?” He added, “There’s a difference between the law, what is lawful, and what is policy.”
Johnson asked for a link where she might find that information. She also asked if Peace, a lawyer, might offer her his own interpretation of the law.
Peace replied, “I am not an immigration attorney,” and sent Johnson a link—the wrong link, to a different executive order regarding enforcement of immigration laws within the U.S. Nevertheless, Johnson read the order and wrote back to Peace, asking his position on section 8 b., which directs police to perform the function of immigration officers. “How do you feel about the federal government creating policy for our local law enforcement?” His response was the kind of non-answer constituents have become used to hearing from politicians, a bunch of “legalese” as Johnson says. Right then, she lost all hope in Chris Peace. She looked back at his previous post—the one that shared resources for refugees—and realized that post was also, likely, a wrong link; he’d labeled the link as “data.”
“I can only guess he didn’t read it,” she says.
Little did Peace know that the constituent who reached out to him on Facebook would decide to challenge him in this year’s election. “I don’t appreciate being spoken down to,” Johnson says. Until Johnson stepped up, Peace was running uncontested. “No one else was going to,” Johnson says. She felt called upon to take a “role in fixing things we’re all so dissatisfied with now.”
Her decision to run as an Independent was not an easy one. She says that at first, when Democratic organizations learned a woman candidate was looking to unseat the Republican incumbent, they offered their support—until they realized she was running as an Independent. “Then they said, let’s think about it.” But Johnson is not deterred by the lack of party support. Her choice was partly strategic. The 97th district is almost 70% Republican. In most cases, large voter turnout helps Democrats, but that’s not so for the 97th. Getting the vote out is not a strategy that will work for Johnson. Rather, Johnson feels her best approach is to “stir Republicans to vote in their best interest.”
Her other reason for running as an Independent is more idealistic. “We need unity. The Republicans I’ve been talking to are good, compassionate, reasonable people. We actually agree on more than we disagree.” Johnson finds that if she introduces herself as an Independent, “there are no preconceived notions.” This opens the door to dialogue.
The most important problem Johnson hopes to tackle is campaign finance reform, and “the way we view politics in general.” The current system is “not something I want to pass on to my children.” Johnson points out that there are many legislative issues that need to be addressed, “but none of that is going to happen if all we’re doing is playing to party.”
A former fire-fighter and paramedic, Johnson is sure-spoken and direct. Her confidence in her qualification to step into this difficult job is evident. She’s used to stepping into difficult jobs. She has experience working with Incident Command Systems, a method of emergency response developed after 9/11 to simplify complex response systems. Within ICS, teams in multiple agencies report to one person rather than reporting back to five or six bosses. The person in charge during any crisis is always the one with the most experience, “not necessarily the highest-ranking officer, or the person with the largest paycheck.” For example, as a paramedic, Johnson would be called upon to take charge in the case of a medical crisis. She says she has the experience to jump into a leadership role and to adapt.
Now she works in public safety administration where she identifies problems within the community, obtains the appropriate resources to correct those problems, then works with the community to resolve them.
It’s obvious that Johnson understands the responsibility that comes with holding a public office and the importance of listening, rather than placating or condescending to constituents. She will be hosting a town-hall style discussion on Saturday, March 25th at the Mechanicsville Branch Library (7461 Sherwood Crossing Pl, Mechanicsville) from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. where she encourages constituents on both sides of the isle to come and express their concerns. (See her campaign website for more details about this event.)
Running as an independent may mean that Johnson must do without the support of a party organization to raise funds, but Democrats looking to get a progressive into office would be wise to send their individual donations her way.