by Kellen Squire
For a lot of us, there’s been a relentless push for 2019 as soon as the polls closed in November. I took my wife and kids on a short vacation and then dove right back in to the hard work of making sure we carry the day in November of 2019. But it’s unsettling to see so many folks on our side spiking the political football, talking about some pretty startling things. Talking about counties, localities, in Virginia that “matter” and those that don’t. Talking about “willfully ignorant” and “low information” voters. About the “realities of the situation” Virginia is in. Spiking the political football by pointing to the current ineptness of the Virginia GOP and extrapolating our future success off of it. Shrugging and saying, eh– NOVA will always carry the day, so we can take it easy. Kick our feet up. Relax.
I ain’t having any of it.
The Virginia GOP will get tired of losing. They have no lack of smart folks; they’ve just gone out of their way to shoot themselves in the foot. Had Nick Freitas run a real race for Senate instead of a vanity race for a future Congressional or statewide race, Abigail Spanberger and Elaine Luria wouldn’t be in Congress right now. Debra Rodman, Wendy Gooditis, Kelly Fowler, Dawn Adams, Schuyler Van Valkenburg, Cheryl Turpin- you know, a huge chunk of the heroes of 2017?- won by a margin of 5% of less. And they did it by campaigning their heart and soul out, while running against odious incumbents who were all manifestly unqualified to serve. Dawn Adams should’ve won by 2,000 votes, not 200. Debra Rodman’s margin should’ve been 13% instead of less than 3%.
But it wasn’t. All of those elections were won on the margins, thanks to a tireless organizing effort the likes of which had never been seen before; thanks to candidates who challenged incumbents who’d never been challenged before, who gave cover to the folks who did go to Richmond; thanks to a grassroots avalanche of citizens, everyday people who stood up and said with one voice, indivisible, enough is enough.
And had we dropped a single vote in the House of Delegates, then the Republicans would’ve held the BS line they’d held for almost a decade previously, and Medicaid Expansion wouldn’t have passed. End of story.
We’re far from out of the woods. In fact, I’d argue we’re in an even more unstable time for both our Republic and Commonwealth than at any point in generations. The modern Republican party is unmoored by any principle, conservative or otherwise. If Donald Trump decided it’d be good for him politically (and would really own the libs!) to advocate to nationalize the means of production to protect the proletariat from the bourgeoise, he’d do it in an instant- and FOX News would be insisting those have been Republican ideas the whole time. They only care about winning; power for power’s sake, damn the costs to our democracy or country.
We have a once in a lifetime opportunity to make inroads in Virginia we’ve never been able to make before. To stand up and show not just every single person in the Commonwealth of Virginia, but the entire country, that Virginia knows how to get it done- and we’ll show them the way. An opportunity that, if we pass up, well… we’ll deserve everything we get.
But that means a strategy that looks beyond simply crossing our fingers that NOVA will save our butt every year, and moving to a 95-county, 38-city strategy. It means going all in, right now, as soon as possible. Because there are no off years in Virginia, it means we have to, for the second, third, fourth year in a row, go all out to make it happen. Hope that activist, volunteer, candidate, and campaign staff burnout doesn’t materialize while we, once again, organize like never before and blow the doors off of what everyone says is possible. It means we have to go where no other politicians have dared to tread.
And that’s where I often get pushback. “Strategic utilization of resources demands we put our focus elsewhere,” they’ll say, or my personal favorite: “If (candidate) puts field staff in (Fluvanna/Louisa/Roanoke/Prince Edward/Essex) to canvass, our vote totals will actually go down, so us not investing there actually helps you out!”
That last example is an actual line is in an email I received. Yes- the sender was arguing that canvassing for their candidate would make all vote totals go down. Don’t get me wrong; I know they weren’t badmouthing their candidate, and I know they were smart enough to know math doesn’t work that way. They were just lying to me (in writing) so they wouldn’t have to just come out and say those locales didn’t matter. Progress there was impossible, I’m sure they thought; so why not do a fifth pass in Dale City or Forest Lakes instead? Though the extra step to gaslight us like it was all for our benefit was a real cute addition.
So let me tell you this, unequivocally: if you think progress is impossible in the places that we’ve had trouble making inroads… you’re wrong. Because progress isn’t something you order on Amazon. It’s not a crash diet with visible results in just one week. It’s not something you can just tweet or retweet appreciably about. It’s hard work. It takes time.
And it can get done- if we commit to it.
We didn’t win in the 1st, 5th, 6th, or 9th Congressional Districts in November; I know. Trust me, I know. I was on the ground there. I watched the hard work put in by good candidates and fantastic staff and an army of the most dedicated volunteers ever to organize and assemble in the Commonwealth of Virginia. From the Shenandoah Valley to Southside, and the Northern Neck to Appalachian coal country, they gave their heart and soul; they left everything on the field. They have nothing to be ashamed, and everything to be proud, of.
And still, we came up short.
I know it’s easy to get discouraged, but now isn’t the time for discouragement. It doesn’t make a 95-county strategy less important- it makes it more important. Look at the counties listed above- y’know, the ones so hopeless that canvassing them would make vote totals go down? Well, you’ll never guess what happened when Tim Kaine, Vangie Williams, Leslie Cockburn, Jen Lewis, and Abigail Spanberger organized and set their field teams loose on those counties?
Fluvanna, Prince Edward, Essex? All blue. Louisa and Roanoke County made huge strides forward, and the work done in Louisa is probably what got Congresswoman Spanberger over the finish line. That and Senator Kaine’s strident belief that we should go all in, everywhere, is what sent she and Elaine Luria to Congress in Virginia’s contribution to the Blue Wave.
Not too shabby a return after investing in those “willfully ignorant” people who I hear about so much, eh?
Speaking of which, let’s talk about the realities of “willfully ignorant”, because there are some folks who believe the sort of education you can get in Fairfax and Alexandria is the same as Montrose, Halifax, Big Stone Gap or Fork Union.
It’s not. Not by a long shot. Nearly one out of five Virginia adults are considered functionally illiterate, and hundreds of thousands lack basic prose literacy skills. This is a big deal, because when people have internet access (a big “if” in too much of Virginia, a divide that is, of course, straight down economic lines), there’s also a huge skills divide. Because in order to use the Internet effectively, you’ve got to have a minimum amount of technical AND information competency. And even then, well- let he who has not been suckered in by a fake news article cast the first meme.
And this is far from a new problem, as my friend Dawn chronicled a bajillion years ago, back when she and I were working to get then-Senator Obama through a hellacious primary:
Many people with low-level literacy can work a web browser but don’t have the vocabulary to perform effective web searches… Not everyone has time to learn about the political process, the candidates, or the issues. The fewer resources (e.g., time, money) someone has, the less likely that person is to have the ability to understand the political process or the people involved… Most of the people reading fake news are not willfully ignorant or willfully misinformed people (though, yes, I encounter plenty of folks who are definitely willfully misinformed).
So I want to tell you first-hand what sort of people these folks are.
They’re hardworking Virginians who’re doing the best they can with the hand they were dealt (and the education they had access to). These are people who are proud to put a union bumper sticker on their car. They hear the word solidarity, and they think brotherhood. They have more in common with Lee Carter and Reverend William Barber than Donald Trump or Corey Stewart. Their top “kitchen table” issues are healthcare, infrastructure, and affordable housing. Their ancestors stood up against unimaginable hatred and bled for progress. They know what it’s like to risk your life for your cause only to see outsiders and the government come and take everything dear to them. Their ancestors coined the term “wildcat strike” and showed the nation just this year exactly how powerful that is. They’re at the center of two of the biggest examples of racial injustice of our time.
These people may not have much, but they’re proud people who have lived hard for what they have. They’re tough, rugged people, from all walks of life. People who you’d want on your side in a fight, and they love anyone who’ll treat them as equals.
If you understand their history, you’d never blame them for where or how they live.
If they’re “ignorant” now, it’s only because we’ve left them behind. If we believe that the entire Commonwealth matters- if we believe in a 95-county, 38-city strategy- then it’s time for us to stop leaving these people behind. People from all walks of life. Millions of people of color. Women. Veterans. Immigrants. People with disabilities.
Progress will not be made overnight in these areas. But thanks to the hard work put in by candidates, staff, and an army of grassroots volunteers more robust than any in the country, more progress has already been made than they are given credit for, and even more progress will be made if we all stand up to help it along, to help create a Virginia that works for everyone, instead of demanding one-size-fits-all Virginians.
In the end, that’s what this election is about. Do we participate in a politics of cynicism, or do we participate in a politics of hope?
Hope in the face of difficulty, hope in the face of uncertainty, the audacity of hope: In the end, that is God’s greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this nation, a belief in things not seen, a belief that there are better days ahead.
I believe that we have a righteous wind at our backs, and that as we stand on the crossroads of history, we can make the right choices and meet the challenges that face us.
Those words are no less true than when they were spoken; and probably moreso today than then. We are at a crossroads of history. We need good people to stand up, because there are better days ahead- but only if we work for it. Only if we commit our blood, sweat, tears, and toil to make it so.
So stand with us. Fight with us. Face the horrifying specter of racism, white supremacy, and homophobia we know all too well are not things of the past. Face illiteracy, poverty, and inequality, issues that are just as important in Danville and Petersburg as it they are in Arlington and Falls Church and Loundon. And I promise you, that if you do- if you stand with us to fight for a Virginia that works for everyone- when you make calls to Abingdon, or knock doors in Waynesboro, or write postcards to Poquoson, or anywhere else people want to tell you that no hope for progress exists, you can be sure one thing is true:
You’re planting seeds.
And you never know where one will sprout.