Home 2017 Races A Three-Minute Overview of the Democratic Candidates in VA-05

A Three-Minute Overview of the Democratic Candidates in VA-05

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We’ve got less than a week before Democratic caucuses occur in Virginia’s 5th Congressional District. Starting as early as next Saturday, April 14th, Democrats will get together and choose which candidate they want to support in the convention being held May 5th in Farmville, Virginia. That’s when we’ll be choosing our nominee to take on Congressman Tom Garrett (R), who’s officially had more in-person meetings with white supremacist Jason Kessler (one) than in-person town halls (zero) during the single term he’s going to end up serving in Congress.

That’s not been the case with our four candidates, who have done a stand-up job holding forums all over the 5th District of Virginia. Heck, the folks in Charlotte County have been almost getting as much attention as Charlottesville. Which is magnificent; it’s exactly how it’s supposed to be.

So I wanted to give a three-minute introduction to all four of our candidates- Ben Cullop, Roger Dean Huffstetler, Leslie Cockburn, and Andrew Sneathern- for the people who want to participate in one of this weekend’s caucuses, to help them decide which candidate is right for them.

BEN CULLOP
I once joked to Ben that if you Google the phrase “generic white guy,” his picture is the first result. He laughed uproariously, shrugged, and said I probably wasn’t too far off. But his generic look belies his demeanor and attitude, which is invariably energetic and forward-thinking. I first met him just a few days before the infamous events of August 12th here in Charlottesville. Of the four candidates running for the Democratic nomination in the 5th District, Ben’s the only one who lived in my district- so, heh, he’s the only one that voted for me. He stood at the polls all day on Election Day for us, as well.

A former admissions councilor for the University of Virginia, the son of two teachers, and a lifelong resident of the 5th District, Ben and his wife, Ashley, live in Earlysville with their two children. Their daughter is a NICU grad, a happy and bubbly toddler now — something that I, as a veteran of Pediatric Acute Care, can’t help but get misty eyed about every time I see her. Their son is recently adopted from Texas; Ben often jokes he’s taking Texas Republicans and turning them into Virginia Democrats, albeit in a very inefficient manner.

Ben is damn smart on the issues. At a forum I was at the other day, someone asked him about foreign policy challenges on the horizon, and he immediately launched into an incredibly well-thought-out and detailed dissertation on the topic. It’s clear he’s done his homework. He’s well attuned to the needs of employers in the 5th, and the world of difference small business owners and workers face across a District the size of New Jersey. And I believe he’s also the most aggressive of the four candidates on banning contributions to his campaign from corporations of any kind, as well as their associated PACs.

Ben’s downsides? Sort-of a double edged sword. Being a “boring, generic white guy” means there’s not much in his oppo file; I imagine this is probably what it amounts to. Which means that there’s not much for the GOP to hit him on; their standard ditties are liable to slide right off Ben. But the political climate today is for anything but a “generic white guy.” While I might be a white guy, too, I totally get it; people want a different perspective. It doesn’t do justice to the quality of candidate Ben is, though. And it doesn’t matter if it’s on his progressive stances, his command of the “wonk” in policies, or his down-to-Earth style, Ben is anything but generic.

Ben’s a great candidate, and would be a Tier-1 choice in any district in the country. The 5th would be damn lucky to have him.

ROGER DEAN HUFFSTETLER
I first met Roger in February or March of 2017. This was before he’d officially announced he was running for Congress, though the local rumor mill indicated that was the case. We talked for maybe a couple hours over coffee on Charlottesville’s downtown mall. He was engaged with our campaign for the House of Delegates; he was one of the first people to fully endorse our campaign, going out of his way not only to donate to us, but to knock doors with us several times, including on Election Day, knocking doors to flush our target precincts and get people to the polls. He never asked for any recognition for doing so; and when I told him I’d make sure as many people knew about it as possible, he waved it off. “It’s just the right thing to do,” he told me.

A Marine veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan- and an enlisted Marine at that (not that there’s anything wrong with graduates of knife, fork, and spoon school)- graduate from Harvard Business School, and Silicon Valley entrepreneur, Roger and his wife, Emily, who’s an OB/GYN at the same hospital I work at, live in Charlottesville with their brand-new baby girl.

When I first met Roger, he was definitely raw (though I didn’t really have much place to complain, since I was, too). One of the hardest things for a politician to do, though, is listen. It’s something that is rare, unfortunately, but something Roger does unequivocally. When given advice or suggestions, he takes them to heart, and doesn’t let ego get in the way of changing himself for the better. He is always responsive, and he’s been a hell of a fundraiser, with a pretty impressive list of endorsements, none of whom make these for the hell of it; Seth Moulton, Jason Kander, Amy McGrath, Randy “Ironstache” Bryce, Gabby Giffords, VoteVets, etc.

Roger’s gotten some flak from the fact he hasn’t lived in the 5th District as long as his fellow candidates. Combined with the endorsement list above, he’s been accused of having parachuted in to run for Congress. When people tell me that, I always point to what “parachuting” REALLY looks like. In the next district over (VA-06), the RNC flew in a lady to run for Congress who was too crazy to win in rural Texas, ruthlessly kneecapping their chosen candidate, Delegate Ben Cline, who’s been waiting patiently for decades now like a good little boy for “his turn” to run for Congress, doing everything the VA GOP told him to.

Roger also has been prone to slipping into his Silicon Valley, “make the sale” cadence and vernacular. I told him that straight up, and then sat down with him once for about an hour to coach him on that, and he’s gotten much better. But the bottom line is this: I know for a fact that Roger wants to fight tirelessly to take down Tom Garrett, and give the people of the 5th District a candidate to be proud of for the first time in almost a decade.

Roger is a great candidate, and would be an A+ choice in any district in the country.

LESLIE COCKBURN
Leslie introduced herself to me last July, when we were both giving speeches at the Crab Fest in Nelson County. I had given a speech about Jeffersonian ideals – how far we were from them, to be exact – along with a fiery call to action to all present, saying with their hard work, we would win back the House in the fall (oh so close). She came up to me afterwards and introduced herself. She made a sly joke about my campaign manager (I’d managed to steal him away from her), and we just shot the breeze for ten or fifteen minutes. Leslie not only donated to our campaign, she got her daughter, Olivia Wilde, to hold a “Flip the House Party” for us. She sought me out in the wake of our tough loss to congratulate us on our campaign – one of the best in the Commonwealth, she said, “a real Virginia voice”- and told me to keep her in the loop for what I was planning next.

A journalist for thirty-five years, Leslie’s been a producer for “60 Minutes,” worked as a correspondent for PBS’ “Frontline,” had a face-to-face with Muammar Gaddafi, covered wars across the globe, won Emmys and journalism awards, plus authored several books (and even that summary doesn’t come anywhere close to doing justice to her credentials). She lives on a farm in Rappahannock County with her husband, Andrew.

Leslie’s demeanor at public events will often belie things about Leslie that she doesn’t display publicly; nothing she apparently won’t admit fully, to be fair, but impressive nonetheless. I’m told she can shoot moonshine without wincing and can break out blue language with such talent it makes you unsure if you should blush or take notes so you can repeat it later. I suppose that shouldn’t be surprising, with the war zones she’s been in and the risks to her own life she’s endured with the investigative reporting she’s done- none of those things are for the meek of heart. And Leslie certainly isn’t that.

The things I’ve heard about Leslie as being problems aren’t anything I haven’t heard about candidates before: she’s rich; she owns scarves that cost more that my whole wardrobe; she’s friends with George Soros or whatever; she uses $50 words. Etc etc. I absolutely get the argument these people are trying to make in a rural district like ours, but I think that conventional wisdom has been largely busted with this new political climate. Her experience is damn impressive, and she represents an ACTUAL version of what Donald Trump claimed to: someone rich enough they could spend the rest of their life at a resort somewhere, but instead, is putting her life on hold and stepping up to fight to make things better for the least among us. But I mean, an upper-class Yale graduate could never win in the Virginia 5th District… right?

Leslie is a great candidate, and would be a Platinum-level choice in any district in the country.

ANDREW SNEATHERN
Andrew and I met at the 2017 Democratic Rural Retreat in Roanoke, Virginia. He’s been a friend of Khizr Khan for a number of years, and I had recently been endorsed by Mr. Khan, who is a constituent of the District I was running for. Andrew gave an award speech on Mr. Khan’s behalf, one that brought the room to tears. Afterwards, he and I commiserated over the fact that Mr. Khan is, perhaps, the most humble person either of us have ever met in our entire lives.

A lawyer from Charlottesville, where he lives with his wife and two kids, Andrew went from farming on his family’s land to attending law school. He has been both a defense attorney and prosecutor, a civil rights attorney in the General Counsel’s Office of the Department of Agriculture, and was the special prosecutor for domestic violence and sexual assault in Spotsylvania County. He was also on the board of anti-gerrymandering organization OneVirginia2021, fighting both the Republican AND Democratic parties to fix the redistricting process.

Andrew is probably the candidate who is the most like me in campaign style; he wears his heart on his sleeve, unapologetically. He shares true empathy with the people he meets out in the district. I’ve seen him get misty eyed and cry more than once. Not the crocodile tears politicians are notorious for, but of someone who understands the pain you’re going through and feels it vicariously with you – and who’ll go through Hell itself without hesitation if he needs to to fight for you.

That’s given some folks pause on Andrew for a perceived lack of discipline, with that unapologetic heart-on-sleeve wearing. I get where they’re coming from, being a nurse; compassion fatigue is a real thing, and can be insidious. The brightest fires burn out the quickest and all that. But I don’t buy that with Andrew. Nor do I buy the flak he’s gotten for being a defense attorney, which is pretty much a carbon copy of how Hillary Clinton got slandered in 2016 by the Trump Campaign. Of any candidate, he’s raised the least amount of money. Don’t get me wrong, money is important. But no bajillion-dollar buy from the NRA or the Koch Brothers is going to save Tom Garrett this fall, or take the shadow of Donald Trump off the political climate in this country, and Andrew is well suited to harness the power of the grassroots donors and supporters that will power campaigns across the country this fall. And with allies like Khizr Khan and Linda Perriello in his corner, I have no doubt Andrew will be able to build the infrastructure and fundraising might it’ll take to win the general in VA-05.

Andrew is a great candidate, and would be a premier choice in any district in the country.

So, who am I supporting?

All of them.

Listen, this is no joke- any one of these candidates would, in years past, be a staggering find for any Congressional race in the country. Their qualifications are amazing, their work ethic is unparalleled, and all four of them, unlike our current Congressman, actually legitimately give a damn about every single citizen in the 5th District.

While I may not be caucusing personally for any of them, I’ve told all four, in no uncertain terms, I will be happy to “Perriello” for them- Tom set a helluva standard last year after the primary, and as our own former Congressman, I think it’s only right we follow his example.

It’s just too important not to. Our country, and its democratic institutions, are being weakened in ways we’ve never seen before. And the worst part? They’re largely imperceptible… for now. The damage going on behind the scenes, from the State Department to the corruption and kleptocracy of the executive branch, will take years, if not decades (ever?) to recover from. Our enemies abroad are laughing their butts off, from Syria, to Russia, to China. Heck, the Chinese plan everything they do on a timescale of centuries. They’re more than content to let Trump keep doing what he’s doing. They know he’s self-serving and doesn’t care what damage he does to the country, long-term… and the weaker we are? The better.

That’s why I refuse to sit this one out. I don’t care who wins, but I know one thing: Tom Garrett needs to go. And I’m going to do my part to make sure it gets done.

I encourage everyone reading this who’s a resident of the Virginia 5th Congressional District to take the blurbs here, look over each candidate, and come out starting next Saturday to caucus with your county or city’s party (check with your local party for details, some are having their caucuses as late as the 21st of April). But hurry- some county deadlines to file to be a delegate are as early as tomorrow at 5pm!

Join us, and we can bring progress to central Virginia- together!