After my race ended for the Virginia House of Delegates last year, I spent awhile mired in a cynical place.
Not because we lost- I was certainly disappointed about that, but I had long recognized the odds we were facing, and was serious when I said I’d rather lose than become what I hated. Our team did something no other campaign had done before in our part of Virginia, and we played an outsized role in ensuring that four hundred thousand Virginians now have access to health insurance– so I have no regrets about that whatsoever.
No, the cynicism came from looking back at the sacrifices that I’d had to make to enable my run for the legislature happen at all. As I catalogued them, it really made me wonder… can I do this all over again? Is there a glass ceiling keeping blue collar, working class folks with families from being able to run for office?
This was one of the first conversations I had with my friend Jennifer Lewis when she decided to run for Congress early this year in Virginia’s 6th Congressional District. You might recognize the 6th because the outgoing incumbent, Congressman Bob Goodlatte, who’s spent more time “proudly” authoring Muslim Travel Bans than he’s spent hosting town halls in his district (five years and counting on that one, Bob!)
But Bob’s on the way out- he decided to flee while the getting’s good, which means that the 6th District is an open seat for the first time in decades. A down-to-Earth, honest, hard-working progressive has a real shot to win in this climate, and it was time the 6th District had someone in Washington, DC, willing to work as hard as they do.
That’s what Jennifer told me when she asked me to come on as her campaign manager, to help launch her campaign in its nascent stage until we could find her someone full-time. She’s a sister in arms to me; she’s on the front lines of the mental health crisis with me here in Virginia. There’s just no way I could say no.
But before things took off, I sat her down and explained to her exactly what running for Congress would entail, as a blue-collar working person, and I gave her a blunt recap of what I experienced running for office the year before.
I told her about the 21-hour days. Generally, I’d get to bed at about 3AM, and sleep until the baby woke up at about 6, maaaaybbbeee 6:30 if he was sleeping in. And that was just for a state legislature seat.
The sacrificed time with my family. My youngest took his first steps when I was at a committee meeting giving a stump speech, and I traded that politicking for a moment I’ll never get back.
The debt we incurred, fiscally and emotionally. I took off almost the entire last month of our campaign, but we still had bills to pay- the money I hocked onto our credit card to pay our bills didn’t get fully paid off until March. And that was just for House of Delegates; God help me had I wanted to run for higher office, because our family simply wouldn’t have been able to afford it. Quitting my job as an ER Nurse? Only if we didn’t want to pay any of our bills.
It frayed family ties, strained my marriage; we had kids to wrangle and death threats to deal with. At one point last summer, I remember just laying down on the floor in our dining room and staring at the ceiling for half an hour, the depression a literal crushing weight on my chest, wondering just what the hell I’d gotten myself into.
It’s not for the faint of heart. And I explained this to Jennifer in biting detail; the perils. The pitfalls. And that the hopes and dreams and future of not just the almost 700,000 Virginians living in the 6th District of Virginia would be counting on her… but that she would play an outsized role in the very future of our country, at a time when the Republic is on a precipice we haven’t found ourselves on since, perhaps, the Civil War.
But Jen didn’t demur. Not even for an instant. She nodded soberly at everything I told her; she took it to heart. And came out even more determined to fight for every single man, woman, and child in the 6th Congressional District.
And that’s exactly what she’s been doing. In every corner of the 6th District, Jen has gone forward and won hearts and minds. Earning support. Showing them what a champion of the people looks like. Going out to where people lived, and not just waiting for her turn to talk, but listening to them- REALLY listening to them. Taking their concerns to heart. Proving that she actually gave a damn about fighting for them, unapologetically.
And she never let roadblocks slow her down. When her campaign staff had an emergency, it was Jen who made sure heaven and earth got moved to address it. If she didn’t know something, she never pretended or made excuses- she went and found the answers she needed to let folks know where she stood, and how she was gonna tackle problems to improve THEIR lives, whether it was about anything from the F-35 to the Family Leave Act. From Social Security stability to Syria. From X issue to Y issue.
But I need to tell all of you about the most poignant example of this I saw. It was a few months ago, when Jen went to her employer to let them know she needed to take a Leave of Absence to focus her time and energy on running for Congress. See, Jen is a mental health case worker; she does things like work with folks who are discharged from state mental health institutions, making sure they have the support and resources they need, so they don’t relapse and end up back in my ER… or worse.
Her employer understood completely, given the scope of what she had undertaken, but as Jen was finalizing her paperwork with human resources for her leave, she made one critical error. She asked how soon they’d be able to find someone to cover her patients, fully intending to stick around until that could happen.
The answer? They wouldn’t be able to hire anyone else.
You see, the money just wasn’t there; the legislature’s refusal to pass Medicaid expansion, or to comprehensively fight to reform the mental health system, had been stymied for years. Even with the courageous work of people like State Senator Creigh Deeds, an uncompromising and unparalleled advocate for mental health reform in Virginia, couldn’t convince them to give up their partisan chicanery and do what was right for the Commonwealth. No; Jen was told that if she had to take a leave, her patients would go without anyone following up with them– that, or their burdens would be foisted onto the backs of people who were already moving mountains with the work load they had.
Even worse? Jen’s opponent, Ben Cline, was one of the leading and most vociferous voices in the Commonwealth of Virginia to keep that funding from coming in. Ben has been waiting patiently to run for Congress since 2004, when Bob Goodlatte “promised” the seat was Ben’s. And term after term, when Bob would put off retiring for yet another cycle, the perks of being a career politician just too good to give up, Ben slunk back and kept plugging away like a good little boy, biding his time patiently until “his seat” came open. And just the other night in Lynchburg, Goodlatte had the audacity to brag aloud that he’d been “grooming (Ben Cline) for years” to run for that seat, as if he owned it, and not the people of the 6th Congressional District.
And the price Ben Cline had to pay to keep in the good graces of the Republican Party of Virginia? What it cost to keep in Bob Goodlatte’s good graces? Oh- not much. It just meant Ben Cline had to stand in the the metaphorical schoolhouse door to keep Medicaid Expansion from happening in Virginia, making 400,000 Virginians pay, just so Bob Goodlatte could “stick it to the libs”.
It meant keeping those folks from accessing primary care services, including almost 50,000 people in the 6th District alone. From going without the ability to see a primary care provider. To get a physical done, or medications checked and refilled.
It meant he had to keep ERs overcrowded and wait times high. Keep emergency services workers busy to the point of burning out. And making sure that funds for mental health case workers were less of a priority than the thirty pieces of silver the Virginia GOP offered him.
Ben’s “good ‘ole boy” pedigree and the meticulous, decades-long grooming of his candidacy by Bob Goodlatte might’ve flown in other years… but not this year.
Not this time.
This time, we have a true champion of the people. Someone who isn’t a career politician, looking for the next rung up on the political ladder.
Someone who is interested in being a part of the solution, and not the problem.
Someone who’ll listen to the people she’s serving, and not special interest groups and K-street lobbyists.
Someone who’ll work just as tirelessly as her constituents do, day in and day out.
Someone who’ll put people before party and fight unapologetically for every single man, woman, and child, from Front Royal to Roanoke. Fishersville to Fincastle. Lynchburg to Luray.
Jennifer Lewis will take our fight to Washington, DC- but she needs your help to do it. She needs your time- Jen is building a volunteer army the size of which has never been seen in the Shenandoah Valley before. She needs your money– she won her primary with the lowest cost-per-vote of ANYONE in the Commonwealth of Virginia, and it wasn’t even close. Every single dollar goes a long way. She needs you to help her get the word out about her people-powered campaign- call, tweet, text, share, let everyone know about the progressive champion running in the 6th Congressional District.