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The Race for Virginia’s Future: Who Will Lead Us in the House of Delegates?

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The Virginia political arena, still not fully recovered from the after-effects of the Blue Wave that swept over the Commonwealth on November 6th, was thrown another curveball a few days ago with the sudden announcement that Delegate David Toscano (D-Charlottesville) would be stepping down as the Minority Leader of the Virginia House of Delegates.

For those who don’t know, Delegate Toscano was elected to the position in 2011, when then-Minority Leader Ward L. Armstrong was, in a “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” move that’s become synonymous with the “Virginia Way,” drawn completely out of his district. Democrats in the Senate, and Republicans in the House of Delegates, drew new legislative maps that carved out districts that seemed meticulously designed for incumbent protection (evidenced best in 2015, when only one incumbent lost in the entire state)*.

David’s been involved with Virginia politics in some form or another for over thirty years, doing everything from running an insurgent independent campaign for Congress in 1982 to being on the Charlottesville City Council. Though so far he’s indicated he intends to run for re-election for his Delegate seat, if that changes, it’ll truly mark the end of an era in Virginia politics.

But, given the seismic shift the Virginia political scene has undertaken, maybe it’s the right time for that era to end, and to forge a new way for Virginia with new leadership at the helm for Democrats in the Virginia legislature.

If you’re reading this, you probably already know about the five candidates in question: Rip Sullivan, Charniele Herring, Eileen Filler-Corn, Sam Rasoul, and Marcus Simon. Lowell had a good run-up on who they were; there’s not much for me to add here.

Rip Sullivan, who has apparently stepped in just yesterday afternoon, was a largely unsung part of what we all accomplished in 2017. Delegate Toscano often served as the face of the caucus as we pushed hard to win the House, AG, LG, and Gubernatorial races last year, but Rip pushed hard behind the scenes, sorta the “nuts and bolts” mechanics of recruiting and running that, without which, any effort is doomed to failure. And he paid attention, too. I had a handful of people call me after I lost my House of Delegates election in ’17; Delegate Toscano did, as did Sam Rasoul and Marcus Simon. But Rip Sullivan did as well; he and I had exchanged emails a few times, but he wasn’t as involved in our race personally as Delegates Toscano, Rasoul, and Simon were. It’s awful hard to split attention over 87 other districts… which is why I was blown away to hear an incredibly detailed voicemail from Rip on how I “kicked (butt)”; not just a generic “good job”, but several in-depth mentions of what we did that was unique and praiseworthy, indicating he was paying close attention nonetheless.

While I must admit that I don’t know Delegate Eileen Filler-Corn very well personally, she has a robust resume, with extensive intra-governmental experience, having served in high-level positions in the Warner and Kaine administrations. She was potentially the top contender for LG in 2017, before deciding against running for that position. Of the five candidates, she strikes me as being the most Pelosi-like, in skillset, approach, and demeanor- and is also a robust fundraiser. The one legislative factoid about her I like the most is her push for all-day kindergarten, which she was advocating for all the way back in 2011 (one of many issues she was talking about long before it was “cool”), which is something that’s essential for all working Virginia families.

Delegate Charniele Herring? I could talk a lot about her incredible rise from the challenges she’s faced in her life, but I’ll always remember her for standing tall and delivering a scorching clapback at Delegate Matt Fariss (I believe, I’ll be danged if I can find the Youtube video of it now) in 2017 after he went off on a screed about Democrats loving to kill babies. Oh, man. Sadly, House Republicans seem to be immune to shame or rhetorical incinerations, else Mr. Fariss would have resigned immediately and moved into a secluded shack in the hollers of Nelson County. But it’s sure left a lasting impression on me of Delegate Herring. I think those sorts-of political melee skills, unflinching steel in the face of relentless Republican fire, are sorely lacking in our party.

Marcus Simon reminds me a lot of Tim Kaine; effectual and easy to get along with, just with fewer dad jokes and less harmonica. He helped mentor a group of freshman Delegate candidates in 2017, which is how I got to know him. He keeps advancing a bill to restrict the use of campaign money for personal expenses– wild and crazy idea, I know. “Call or text me anytime” is the sort-of thing that a brand new candidate dies to hear, and he meant it. Marcus was always available when we needed him last year. And I’m not joking even a little; when you’re in that nascent stage of “not knowing what you don’t know”, that sort-of experience from someone who’s been there, done that, means more than I can tell you.

Sam Rasoul I’ve known since I volunteered for his Congressional campaign when I still lived in Roanoke. He’s really the only reason I’m currently in Virginia politics. He took time out of his busy as heck schedule to take a call from a dumb*** ER Nurse shocked and reeling from the Trump win in November ’16, and listen to him vent. And just to be consistent, he invited my wife and I to his office in Roanoke in November ’17 to just follow-up with us about our race; once again, just to listen to us vent. My wife unexpectedly broke into tears when he asked her how she’d handled the past year being the spouse of a candidate, which startled the hell out of me. For those of you who might not remember, my wife was the charge nurse in our Charlottesville ER during the August 12th terrorist attack and held our entire ER together, me included, with zero (that’s z-e-r-o) flinching. I was completely unprepared for her to break down like that, but Sam didn’t flinch a bit, and rolled straight into counselor mode (apparently one of his lesser-known skills). My wife and I left his office an hour later, teary-eyed and hugging.

Anyway, the way I see it, the soon-to-be-Majority-Leader has to have a few essential skills, which are:

– Get Democrats elected to the Virginia House of Delegates
– Fundraising (Yes, let’s not suggest this isn’t important, but it’s gotta be taken as a whole)
– The ability to be effective on the floor of the House of Delegates
– The ability to keep the caucus organized/cohesive
– Political strategy/tactical ability

That last one- hoo, buddy. Look, I’m sick and tired of the Republicans in the House running circles around us. Look at what they did just recently; first off, they set Carter Turner’s election in HOD-8 to the General Election; fine. It was over a hundred days later, but whatever. We would have done way better in a special election, but I understand. Grit my teeth and understand, even though I know that, roles reversed, they’d NEVER have done it. But then the special election in the 24th District is barely a month after the general election, on purpose, whatever gaslighting Kirk Cox wants to wordsmith out about it.

Sure, it’s not like the Republicans weren’t going to screw us over just for the political farkwittery of it- it’s the Virginia Way, after all, right, and they’re great at doing it- but we didn’t even complain about it. I mean, the GOP works the refs so hard the Duke basketball team is ashamed of how the Republicans act. AUGH!

So that’s important to me. Winning elections and getting Democrats elected? That’s very important to me. For instance, if a first-read of OneVirginia2021’s bill doesn’t pass the GA this year, it’s not on the ballot in time for 2021- end of story. If it doesn’t, well, this is it, ladies and gentlemen- we HAVE to take the House and Senate this year. I’m glad Governor Northam can veto stuff all day long, but we won’t truly have nonpartisan redistricting, and we NEED it. The only way we’ll be able to deliver is winning a majority in both chambers in 2019. I’m not going to be on a ballot in 2019, but you can damn well be sure I will be criss-crossing the Commonwealth to make sure that happens. That’s why I say soon-to-be-Majority-Leader when I talk about this position. That’s what it needs to be thought in the context of.

And that’s also why I think this whole process needs to be more public than it has been in the past. Cloak-and-dagger, smoked filled rooms; whatever. Let’s get one thing straight. The activists, volunteers, and supporters of the 88 candidates who ran for the House of Delegates, three who ran for LG, one for AG, and two for Governor last year are what delivered the House of Delegates for the Democratic party. There was no grand plan or strategy or ad buy or whatnot that won us what we did- it was YOU. If you called, wrote a postcard, texted, knocked doors, donated, retweeted, liked, shared, etc, in 2017 to elect Democrats in Virginia, YOU are what powered our success. And you deserve at least a seat at the table, even if it’s just to listen to the discussion. (That being said, the end process- the vote- I have no problem with that being opaque. And it ought to be; ballots for candidates are secret for a reason.)

Talking about fundraising is going to bring up the perpetual boogeyman of Virginia politics, a vexation that’s been around since Henry Howell implored us to “keep the big boys honest”- Dominion. Dominion, Dominion, Dominion. “We can’t unilaterally disarm to the Republicans!” goes the cry, generally from people who haven’t seen the mudslides in Franklin county, or live in the predominantly African American community in Buckingham that was chosen as a site for a compressor station, or will have to evacuate their homes to go who-knows-where when the next hurricane puts Tidewater underwater because of climate change.

So I might just be a redneck from ROVA (the “rest of Virginia”), but I’m done with that excuse. Actually, I’m done with excuses entirely. If you can’t figure out a way forward without leaning on donations from folks like Dominion, I want a different leader. What I want is a bold and aggressive agenda that doesn’t ignore us out here in ROVA or pretend we don’t exist.

I want a Virginia that works for everyone, instead of one-size-fits-all Virginians.

I want someone who’ll articulate a vision, a platform that’ll motivate Virginians, that’ll get people off the couch and onto the doors.

I want someone who’ll proactively recruit and train candidates in all 100 districts in the Commonwealth. Who knows that fundraising is important, but where to spend that money is even more important.

And I want leadership in the legislature that recognizes that they don’t need to sacrifice those ideals for the sake of fundraising because they know they’ll be able to do it all.

The floor organization is the least important part to me, and any argument about personal experience winning elections is moot, as far as I’m concerned; all four candidates haven’t had much to worry about competitive elections in a loooooong time (though Delegates Filler-Corn and Herring had very tough first elections).

Listen, folks, I don’t want any of you to get cocky. The Virginia Republican Party has taken a series of severe beatings, but they’re not out of the fight– not by a long shot. One of these days they’ll get tired enough of losing to figure out a way forward, and if you think that plan will involve a return to semi-normalcy, pfft! That’s an idea about as well-founded in reality as me thinking the Hoos would finally beat Tech this year- or, at the very least, we wouldn’t lose in such an incredibly UVA way. If you want to take the UVA versus Virginia Tech analogy one step farther- and trust me, I don’t– the Hoos came back from a 14-0 deficit to take a 28-24 lead via some aggressive playcalling and inspired action. They then promptly took their foot off the gas… and subsequently, lost a game that was theirs to take. That would have been the most meaningful game they’d won since 2005, at least.

That analogy starting to sink in? Our House of Delegates pickups in 2017 are nowhere near being gimmies for re-election, not a one of ’em, and neither is the prospect of us winning back the legislature. That’s what new leadership needs to recognize. Because if we lose the next round, folks, everything from healthcare to climate change to non-partisan redistricting is at stake… and potentially a lot more, if we can’t pull things off in 2020.

All of these legislators have the potential to be that leader- and I ain’t sayin’ that in a fit of wishy-washyism. They absolutely do. But only one of them can have the job, and as much as the progressive community has sat up and taken notice of what’s going on here, at the end of the day, it’s the 49 legislators in Richmond who have the final say.

Pushed to choose right now, though, I’d say my personal favorite right now, is Delegate Sam Rasoul. I’ll admit a full bias on that; he’s a fellow ROVA resident, and I wasn’t joking when I told you that Sam’s the only reason I’m involved in Virginia politics right now. And something was made clear to me two years ago, when I was talking to him in depth for the first time: if any of you reading this had been in my shoes, and called him out of the blue for advice? He’d have given you the exact same amount of time and consideration he gave me. I think he’s got the right character and trailblazing ability to set us on the right path for the future.

But I recognize that sort-of character example doesn’t, by itself, make for a great majority leader. Nor does the steel of Delegate Herring, or the easy-going effectualness of Delegate Simon, or the “nuts and bolts” of Delegate Sullivan, or the extensive governmental inner-working experience of Delegate Filler-Corn- so we all ought to be willing to listen to all five candidates**. Have them make their pitch to the people, letting those of us who live in relentlessly gerrymandered districts, far from Richmond, be a part of the process… then leaving it up to the elected Delegates to make the right call.

Just remember, these are tough times where the fate of our Republic is still in question. It’s only the future of the Commonwealth, and our ability to protect all her people, riding on the outcome.

No pressure.

* To Dave’s credit, he voted against the proposal, even though it cut him a sweetheart deal for a district. And, in a delicious piece of schadenfreude, I’m told Dave also held firm when offered an even sweeter deal after Republican Rob Bell, architect of the Republican redistricting maps alongside Ed Gillespie’s “Red Map” initiative, made a map drawing error. Delegate Bell wanted to draw his friend, Albemarle Republican Board of Supervisor Ken Boyd, into Bell’s 58th District, so that if Rob became Attorney General, he could “gift” his seat to his buddy. I understand Mr. Bell was livid. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

** But I will immediately and whole-heartedly support anyone who pledges to make Virginia Tech football illegal forever.