by Kellen Squire
Last year during my run for the Virginia House of Delegates, I regularly shared heartwarming stories about the people and situations we encountered out on the campaign trail. Actually, that was most of our campaign- engaging with people who’d never been engaged in politics before, going to places no politicians had ever dared tread before, and organizing at a level never before seen in our part of Virginia at any level. It was an amazing experience.
And it worked! Even though we came up short on Election Day, our opponent burned a little short of half a million dollars on our race, about what he sent to other races alone in 2013 and 2015 when he ran unopposed. We boosted Democratic turnout to levels never before seen in our district. Running against arguably the toughest incumbent in one of the reddest districts in the Commonwealth, I’ve got no regrets about the hard work we put in.
But not all the stories we had were positive and uplifting. I’ve alluded to a few; death threats, especially in the wake of the Nazis invading our community here in Charlottesville. Political shenanigans that almost every political campaign has to deal with (“Watch it, you have a political price on your head if you run again”). Family stress. Animosity. Partisan hatred. The usual.
One incident really stands out to me, though – particularly as a Christian. Watching as the evangelical community goes down a truly immoral and unGodly road to serve the purposes of someone who cares not a single whit about them, or the values they purport to uphold, beyond how politically convenient it is to him… it’s beyond my easy explanation to articulate how much it bothers me. And since today is Easter, I think it’s only fitting we talk about it.
Greene County, Virginia is relentlessly “red” – voting something like 62% for Donald Trump in 2016. But the volunteer base our campaign built there was energetic, dedicated, and just flat-out amazing. I can’t say enough good things about them, particularly considering that the Koch Brothers dumped tens of thousands of dollars into the local Commonwealth Attorney race to organize a field game against our campaign, and that of the independent running for the CA spot. Our volunteers never demurred; not even for a second.
There was one volunteer in particular, who I’ll call “Ell,” a retiree on a fixed income, who regularly volunteered with campaigns (but in particular in the wake of the 2016 election). She is fiery and uncompromising, quick witted and unafraid to call anyone out. She’ll cut you to the bone one second and hug you the next. I love her to death.
She went out knocking doors with us most of the fall – every single time we were in Greene County, I believe, in fact. She’d go out to unwalkable territory in some of the deepest red parts of the county, from the hollers and hills of Dyke, to the trailer park she lived in herself, without any hesitation, and she’d knock out an entire walk packet in an afternoon.
So it was mere days before the election, on a warm early-November day. I was working through a packet of palm cards in one of the few suburban parts of my district when my campaign manager called me.
“We might have a problem.” This really isn’t the best way to start a call on the eve of an election, and, indeed, he was right. Ell had been out canvassing, and someone called the police on her.
Thoughts ran through my mind. Ell is a spitfire, uncompromising in her feelings for Donald Trump. But never in a million years did I think she’d do something worthy of police intervention. Maybe the local folks were harassing our canvassers? The local sheriff had the reputation for being a poor man’s Sheriff Joe, but other than him blowing off several meetings with me, I didn’t think that fit their MO, as he (and in particular his deputies) would never engage in that sort-of shenaniganery.
What it turned out had happened was this: Ell had encountered a particularly enthusiastic Trump supporter while doing her walk packet. One of the reasons I loved Ell so much was that she could lay into a fiery indictment of the Trump administration and Donald himself with uncompromising fervor, but put it aside on the doors for us and talk about Medicaid expansion, gerrymandering reform, and our “people before party” message we were taking door-to-door.
I never got the full details; I think this was because the lady Ell encountered had said some particularly unkind things about my family and me (our picture was featured prominently on our walk literature), along with the standard “Democrats are evil” sort-of spiel. Ell let her temper get the best of her. Words were exchanged. Doors were slammed. And Ell stormed back to her car, cursing under her breath…
… to discover she’d locked her keys and cell phone in her car.
Ell broke down crying, right in the middle of that lady’s long gravel driveway. I think she felt like she’d let us down. She knew we needed every single vote we could muster to have a fighting chance to win, and even though the voter she’d been talking to hadn’t been polite, she was supposed to be the better person. Just turn the other cheek, and move on.
So Ell steeled herself and went back to knock on this lady’s door once again. The door opened and Ell poured her heart out in apology for her actions. Ell explained that she felt particularly moved by our campaign and got worked up; that she didn’t want it to reflect on me as a candidate; and that karma had already struck a blow in recompense. And Ell asked the lady if she could use her phone to call AAA to unlock her car.
And got the door slammed in her face.
Ell wasn’t sure what to do; she retreated back to her car, and stood by it dumbfounded. It was too far to walk to get anywhere else… but what other option did she have? She was considering if she would even make it to a nearby house when the local police arrived, lights and sirens a-blazing.
When my campaign manager finished explaining all of that to me, I took it with a grain of salt. I knew Ell could be boisterous, and there are always two sides to a story. I knew nothing Ell did was acting out of malice, but other than that, the whole story was hearsay, effectively. No way to find out what really went on.
We were commiserating over that fact when my cell phone chirped its incoming email tone. I glanced at it quickly and did a double-take on the subject line and sender- the office of David Toscano, the Minority Leader of the Virginia House of Delegates and Delegate from Charlottesville, was forwarding an email about “Hostile Political Solicitors.”
I told my CM to hold on, and opened the email Delegate Toscano had forwarded to me. Sure enough… it was from the voter Ell had encountered. Bizarrely, it was addressed to Delegate Toscano as if he were the one on the ticket in my district. Initially, I thought she’d just made a mistake about who was running, since David was much better known than I was- though we later discovered the author had sneered about me a few times on social media. Amazingly, though, the author agreed almost word-for-word with the description of events above… and then went one step further. In fact, let me just copy/paste the relevant passage here:
Apparently (Ell) had locked her keys in her car and could not drive off my property. She then changed her demeanor and apologized for her rude behavior and very sweetly asked if I would call AAA for her as her phone was locked in her car. Being a Christian woman I am always eager to help those in need but this woman was so belligerent, rude and invasive that I just ended up calling the local police (emphasis mine).
That last sentence is what really hit me the hardest. Knowing who I was, and going out of her way to take a shot at me not being noteworthy enough to even acknowledge, which, by itself, is merely eye-roll invoking. But she combined that with admitting outright that Ell’s version of events was one hundred percent correct- she even bragged about it! In the same breath as saying she’s a “Christian woman” and “always eager to help those in need.”
This is the problem with the unholy blending of religion and politics practiced by the Republican party. Millions of Christians have let themselves be convinced their sole religious duty – all they need to do to make themselves right with the Lord – is to vote Republican. No service. No ministry. Sometimes even no love. If they follow the teachings handed down by Jesus Christ, it’s as a “cafeteria Christian,” where they get to pick and choose where, when, and how to apply them.
When I hear people say that Trump is ordained by God, I can’t help but agree. He IS – because even God sends evil Kings. I always thought that was the takeaway from the creation story told with Adam and Eve – we were given paradise, and we wanted free will instead. So God said, “You want free will? You got it- all of it.”
But therein lies my point- God isn’t using Donald Trump to accomplish His work. Indeed, If God is using Donald Trump for anything, I think it’s to showcase Matthew 15:8-9:
“These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship is a farce, for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.”
And as a Christian, that’s hard to bear. It’s driven me to my knees in desperate prayer, watching the contortions evangelicals put themselves through to justify their support of Donald Trump.
I was invited to prayer breakfasts with President Obama twice during his presidency, and I came away from both with the same impression: either Barack Obama is the best actor in the history of the entire world, or he is a humble, committed man of faith who didn’t talk big, but instead, let his actions speak for him. And after eight years of constant vitriol towards President Obama, to be given a list of reasons why Donald Trump is totally God’s chosen candidate lands somewhere between apoplectic fury and soul-crushing depression.
So, what’s the lesson here? It’s Easter, after all, and every sermon needs a lesson.
I’m not sure.
Those three words have taken the longest in this missive to write. The little cursor on the screen blinked at me for literally hours, as if to say- “Yes? So what’s the answer? How do we make it better? Save our Republic? Our faith?”
But I don’t know. I don’t know what the answer is. To me, it feels like when I’m working a code in the ER, and we’re a few rounds in on epinephrine and amiodarone, we’ve shocked the patient several times, we’ve had thready pulses come back only to lose them again, and you refuse to give up but you don’t know quite where to go from here.
But what I hang my hat on is that last realization- that I refuse to give up, whether as a Christian, a citizen or a once-and-possibly-future politician. The people, issues, and values we’re fighting for are just too important to give up on, and the consequences of failure are dire indeed.
I guess if there were an appropriate parable on this Easter Sunday, I think it’s that. It’s taking a page out of President Obama’s book and letting your actions speak for you; of countering their vitriol and hypocrisy with courage and passion, understanding and empathy – and unapologetically standing up for the downtrodden without fail.
It’s doing it in every zip code in this entire country; in every holler and hill, from the mountains to the plains, from sea to shining sea.
It’s knowing we’re stronger together, working to put people before party.
It’s knowing that an array of forces of incredible power will fight us every step of the way- but that we will persevere against all odds.
And make no mistake – we WILL persevere.
Thank you, and God Bless you and yours this Easter Sunday.