Home 2019 Elections The new reality of primaries in Virginia

The new reality of primaries in Virginia


On April 16th, 2018, almost fifteen hundred Albemarle County citizens packed the halls at Monticello High School in Charlottesville, Virginia. They were participating in the most energetic nominating process in the history of Virginia’s 5th Congressional district, doing their part to be the precursor of the Blue Wave that swept over the Commonwealth and across the country last November. Cars not only jammed the high school’s entire parking lot, but jammed the entire driveway and grass medians stretching hundreds of yards back from the auditorium that ended up packed to capacity.

It was an amazing show of force from people motivated to stand up and do their part to fight for our country and our Commonwealth.

So why would anyone consider it a failure?

Simple answer: because it was a caucus, not a primary.

Caucuses might’ve been fine when I was cutting my political teeth helping my dad campaign for and prepare a candidate for the Iowa presidential caucuses way back in the dark ages of the 1990s. They were certainly a step up from the “party boss” era of picking candidates. But these days even Iowans recognize that caucuses are undemocratic and unrepresentative of public sentiment, and there’s a groundswell to change permanently to an “open primary” system, where any registered vote can show up and participate in the nomination process.

The 5th Congressional district was the only district in Virginia last year where Democrats chose to stick with a caucus/convention, instead of a primary, in picking their candidate. The result was messy, not fun, and a turnoff to the folks we want to include in the Democratic party- the melting pot of working-class folks from all walks of life, a significant number of whom can’t spend two or three hours on an early weekday evening to participate in a caucus.

Case in point was me: I was in the midst of a twelve-hour shift in the emergency department, with no way to absentee vote. Even had I managed to get a full, uninterrupted breakaahahahHAHAHAhahaha, sorry; sorry. The concept of a “full, interrupted break” is one ER Nurses can’t contemplate without breaking into hysterical laughter. Anywho, suffice it to say that there was no way I could logistically have made it there under any set of circumstances- and I don’t care what job you have, no shift worker gets a four-hour lunch break.

The winner of the caucus, Leslie Cockburn, would’ve almost certainly have won a primary. Her field team was, perhaps, one of the best in the entire history of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Combine that with the fact that a straw poll recently taken in VA-05 was overwhelmingly in favor of a primary, and that candidates like Abigail Spanberger became immensely better candidates because they went through a competitive primary, and it becomes crystal clear:

We should’ve done the right thing from the get-go last year and had a primary. and the 5th Congressional District should join every other district in Virginia and always have a primary, from here on out. No excuses.

Primaries in General

On the subject of primaries, we’ve got 140 seats up for election this year, and by God, it looks like we just might nominate candidates for almost all of them. It’s a great problem to have. Of course, it also presents us with another potential problem- a record number of primaries.

Now I just got done bellyaching about why primaries were a good thing- so, what? Now I’m gonna backtrack and whine about ’em?

Nope! Not me. No politician anywhere deserves a seat; they need to earn it. And if you think you have a better vision for how things ought to be, or that you can stand up and make a pitch for a better vision for the Commonwealth, by God, go for it. As long as you stay positive and everyone keeps the process above board, I think it’s great.

Now. That’s easier said here than what transpires in reality. Here, in the land of the written word some seven months out from primary day in 2019, it’s all unicorns and rainbows. In the real world, Mr. Murphy’s laws are the only thing that count. Me, I’ve never been one to hold grudges or take things too personally. But I understand not everyone is a perpetually undercaffeinated ER Nurse who’s routinely cursed and screamed at, has to dodge punches, wrestle meth addicts, and treat Nazis who attacked your community- all while keeping a professional demeanor. Moreover, when that stuff happens to me in the ER, it’s a sort-of impersonal attack. Doesn’t excuse it, but it’s not really me. I’m just some random faceless nurse to them.

In real life, it’s working Virginians. Men and women with families, people who are equally great in different ways, people who are my friends, all stepping up to run because they feel that call to serve the Commonwealth and her people, and make Virginia a better place for everyone. And that makes it a lot more personal, and a lot harder, than I can get across here.

For instance:

Cathy Copeland is running against 2017 candidate Brent Finnegan in HOD-26 (Harrisonburg, Rockingham County). Cathy is an amazing person; she was one of the unsung power players behind the successes I had with my campaign running for House of Delegates in 2017. I remember once showing up to her house in Harrisonburg, down about a speech I had to write for the Labor Day Dinner there. I just couldn’t get it right and we were in the final stretch for campaign season. She sat me down in her driveway and proceeded to (politely) knock some sense into me and give me a pep talk that was exactly what I needed. AND she helped me with pointers on crafting the speech, which I still get comments on (a statewide elected official’s Chief of Staff recently squinted at me and said “You were the one who did that barnburner in Harrisonburg, right?”). Cathy is simply amazing.

Brent Finnegan… I don’t know where to start. We’ve been in electoral foxholes with each other more times than I can count. The amazing job he did organizing in Harrisonburg in 2017, the issues-forward campaign he ran, how he stepped up in VA-06 for Tim Kaine and Jennifer Lewis this year? He GETS it, he really gets it on running as a progressive in rural Virginia, and I’ve seen few people as doggedly determined as he, having been through the fire he was in for 2017 and coming back for more in 2019. In fact, his race in 2017 set a lot of benchmarks for what Democrats need to do, and goals we have to hit, statewide in 2019. His field team was so innovative and successful, they produced a couple statewide records, including the largest increase in turnout and chnge in party performance of any precinct in the entire state. Ask Brent, and he’ll insist they left “points on the field” in 2017, too, and can do things even better in 2019. I believe it.

Sally Hudson is primarying David Toscano in HOD-57 (Charlottesville). I know a lot of folks have strong feelings about David, a lot of them acrimonious. But that’s really beyond anything I can say; for me, he invited me to his office in February of 2017 to sit down with me in detail while my campaign was in it’s nascent form. He helped setup a fundraiser for me on the Downtown Mall in Charlottesville. He gave me advice via email more than once; we traded good natured barbs (we had a tongue-in-cheek email argument about which one of us could claim the mantle of running for Thomas Jefferson’s old House of Delegates seat). Excoriate him for strategy decisions if you like- and I might even join in!- but understand he’s a good man who loves the Commonwealth, and has always fought for it the best way he knew how.

Sally Hudson? She was at the very first kitchen cabinet meeting I held for my House of Delegates run. The strategy we eventually conceived, that took us through to election day and cost the Virginia Republican Party almost half a million dollars? She owns an equal part of the credit on developing that. Corn fed and farm bred, a pastor’s daughter, and literally- LITERALLY– the smartest person I’ve ever met. She was one of our best and most prolific field volunteers. She went to places nobody else would go but me, into hollers and hills and backroads, because she believed in our campaign’s vision… and because she believed that, as a resident of Charlottesville, that it was her moral obligation to go and build those bridges. She refused to see city limits as a wall, and believed in the power that the Charlottesville community could harness for the entire Commonwealth of Virginia. And making Charlottesville better meant making the state legislature better- so she selflessly stood up everywhere she could to make it happen.

Marques Jones and Veena Lothe are in a primary for the 12th Senate District (Hanover and Henrico Counties). Marques is a one-time chair of the Henrico County Democratic Committee. He was an up and comer with limitless talent and an amazing job in the financial services industry, an impeccable future ahead of him… and then he got a life-changing medical diagnosis, discovering he had multiple sclerosis.

Now I’m going to have to testify here, on something I don’t talk about much. Because I see folks in the ER who suffer from MS. I see the very real consequences that it can have as a disease, and what it can do to people. And, more personally, my daughter’s mother suffers from MS, so it’s a very real part of our home life, too. So I know first hand the impact it can have on people and families. Which is why this speech from Marques almost brought me to tears. I dare you to listen to that and not feel the same way. And healthcare stories are the touchstone of American politics, because everyone’s got one. Every. Single Person.

Veena, I’ve known since way back when I was just a random opinionated loudmouth (as opposed to now, when I’m a specifically opinionated loudmouth). She’s a lawyer, and has done extensive work on immigration issues (frequently pro bono). She was out fighting for union and workers’ rights during one of the most regressive times in our country on those issues; she fought Casey vs Planned Parenthood in the 90’s, and even took to the streets of DC to march in support of it. She’s a Sunday school teacher and has been active in her community.

But how’d she come to know a redneck from Barboursville, and fight alongside me to help push a 95-county strategy for elections in Virginia? Because her family is from Bluefield, West Virginia. Her parents immigrated from India so her dad could finish his medical degree. As is a common story in rural America, they chose to move to an underserved community in order to do what they could to help their adoptive country and fulfill the requirements of the H1B visa that brought them here.

But a lot of those folks will leave for greener pastures once they’ve “put their time in” practicing in these underserved locales. But Veena’s family? They stayed in Bluefield. They’d fallen in love with their community, with the people who were struggling everyday to make things work, and refused to leave. In fact, they still live there to this day. And those are the lessons Veena learned growing up; not to give up on anyone, regardless of who they are or where they come from, and steeled her with a fire to fight unapologetically for everyone. Which is how I ran across her, while she was out making it clear every Virginian in every corner of the Commonwealth mattered to her. It’s why she does so much of her immigration work pro bono- she wants to give other future Americans the chance her family had to live up to their potential.

Joshua Cole is running for the House of Delegates in the 28th District. The man is my brother from another mother, for more reasons than I can list here. What happened to him in 2017 is a sincere tragedy- not just losing by such a small margin, but because of potential malfeasance (and obvious incompetence) in the voter registration system. Top that off with the wringer he was put through post-election, in the face of a potential recount and court proceedings… the fact Josh persevered without his spirit breaking is a credit to how stalwartly he wanted to fight for his community. His race is also one I where I could point to a sincere problem with party strategy in 2017- we blew hundreds of thousands of dollars on safe incumbents when a mere thousand bucks for a handful of paid canvassers the last weekend of the race would’ve sent him to Richmond. And Shelly Simonds. And Donte Tanner. And Larry Barnett. And Shelia Bynum-Coleman. Yes, hindsight is always 20/20, but come onnnnnn.

The scuttlebutt in the 28th is Josh is looking potentially at at least one primary challenge. My instinct is to say, why? He ran a helluva race and got put through more than anyone other than Shelly Simonds. If we know it takes candidates time to get established, why would they- barring some sort of defect or incompetence from the previous candidate, of which Josh had none of- run against him? He can win in 2019.

I actually grumbled this to him recently, reaching out to him after I became aware of his potential opponents. And in a testament to Josh’s character, he’s the one who set me straight. “Kellen,” he told me very seriously, “we have a job to do. I sincerely believe in fighting for the people. If someone wants to challenge me because they have that same fire? So be it. I’ll ensure it’s a clean race and that we’ll push together for the success of (the 28th District).”

I mean, damn.

That response is really what prompted me to write this whole thing. I could go on and on; there’s a number of other notable races in the Commonwealth with primaries. Tristan Shields and Laura Galante; Shelia Bynum-Coleman and Tavorise Marks; Yasmine Taeb and Dick Saslaw. But I think the bottom line here is that there are always people who are friends of, or respect, both candidates in a primary. It’s almost never clear cut, and anyone who wants to present it as that is wrong. I have no problem respecting people who feel strongly about their candidate of choice, even if I disagree with them. And, honestly, I think almost all of us just want to see everyone out there, polite as can be, having a great time and expanding the dialogue on where our party is.

But the truth of the matter is primaries can be expensive and divisive. They can destroy friendships. They can cost us general elections. So people shouldn’t be running just for the sake of running, or because someone told them they’d be a good legislator, or because they were made promises if they did, or because it’s their “turn”, or they figure, ehh- why not?

It needs to have a touchstone about service. About having a unique, clearly articulated, view about how and why to lead. About skill sets. About a distinction that you’re going to provide that will be to the benefit of not only just the people in your district, but to all 8.5 million people in the Commonwealth of Virginia. And a commitment that this isn’t about you and you alone, demonstrated by pledging to follow in Tom Perriello’s footsteps and campaign like hell for your one-time adversary- and then following through with it.

If all those things are true, and if both candidates commit to an above-board process that moves us all forward, then primaries are good things for everyone. They keep our candidates’ skills honed. They keep them in touch with the communities they aim to represent. And they’re a good thing.

I say that as someone who’s bound to have a competitive primary in the next race I run in. I expect to hold myself to the same standard. And you should all demand it of any candidate who says they want to represent you, be from School Board to Governor. Hold their feet to the fire.


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Dad, husband, Christian, outdoorsman, perpetually undercaffeinated ER Nurse. Common sense populist/progressive; heroes are Smarsh, Wellstone, Perriello, and Howell. A progressive in VA is anyone who believes in life after birth! Keep the Big Boys Honest! People Before Party!