Home 2019 Elections Community Activists Speak Out Against Party Gatekeeping in SD12

Community Activists Speak Out Against Party Gatekeeping in SD12

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by Anne-Marie Leake

On June 6, 2019, the Richmond Times-Dispatch published an article about how the top levels of Democratic power in Virginia intervened in the State Senate District 12 primary to push aside candidates of color.  The following is the complete statement given to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, which was excerpted in the article:

Statement Regarding Virginia’s 12th Senate District

By Melissa McKenney, Community Activist
(Verified by Tara Douglas and Laura Pho where their names appear.)

“In 2017, Virginia experienced the first post-Trump “blue wave” with 15 new Democrats securing seats in the House of Delegates despite a significant lack of support from the party establishment. Everyday people, galvanized by a newly energized grassroots force, stepped up to run. They won hearts and seats and brought more diversity to the General Assembly.

Two years ago, I was part of the grassroots team that supported Debra Rodman’s campaign for Virginia’s 73rd House of Delegates seat.  She won a narrow victory over a 17-year incumbent, who outspent her by close to $300k. My family and I attended her swearing in ceremony and I subsequently voluntarily served on her advisory cabinet lending strategic and administrative support.

Like Rodman, I was approached in 2018 by Mark Bergman, Director of Governor Northam’s The Way Ahead PAC.  I was asked to run for the 12th Senate District seat with a promise of financial backing, despite there already being two qualified candidates of color in the race.  With just days remaining until the June 11th primary, I feel compelled to set the record straight about the PAC’s interference in the Senate race, in a swing district in central Virginia that went for Northam, Kaine, and Spanberger since incumbent Siobhan Dunnavant’s win in 2015.

Rodman and her campaign team have admitted to several people privately that Bergman and Gov. Northam sought her out for the Senate race, had lined up $1 million for her potential campaign, and invested in polling on her behalf to help convince her to jump in the race. However, publicly, she and her campaign staff have provided a conflicting account in what appears to be an effort to avoid difficult conversations about racial biases and a pattern of gatekeeping by the Democratic party insiders. These details seem to continue to be on the minds of voters and campaign staffers alike. By taking Rodman’s statements in good faith, I’m concerned people are making decisions based on bad and intentionally misleading information.

So what really happened?  A timeline:

November 29, 2018
Telephone call between Mark Bergman and Melissa McKenney

Bergman said they are looking for a candidate “like Abigail Spanberger,” a woman from Henrico with a young family and someone who’s connected to the grassroots, but is not in politics.  Bergman told me that the candidate would “not have to worry about $1 million in fundraising.” I declined the offer and asked about his thoughts regarding the declared candidates: Veena Lothe (Indian American, Ivy-League educated civil rights attorney and community leader) or Marques Jones (African-American, small business owner and former Chair of the Henrico County Democratic Committee). He said he was “not impressed” with them and would keep looking.  (We later learned that Bergman had not spoken with either Jones or Lothe as part of his assessment of their “electability.”)

Late January 2019
The Way Ahead PAC commissions a phone poll

Laura Pho received a call on her residential line.  The automated poll asked about Siobhan Dunnavant, the incumbent Republican Senator, Debra Rodman, and Veena Lothe.  Marques Jones was not mentioned.

February 9, 2019
Messages between Rodman and McKenney

Rodman and I exchanged messages about her considering the Senate race. Referring to a conversation she had with Bergman, she said, “they offered me the money and the position[.]”

February 12, 2019
Meeting at Laura Pho’s residence

In attendance were Rodman; her campaign team, Molly Banta and Colleen Grady and her Chief of Staff, Samantha Lewis; all four advisory cabinet members, including Tara Douglas and myself; and four additional supporters, including Pho.  (Tara Douglas is a community organizer, longtime Henrico resident, and volunteered extensively on Rodman’s Delegate campaign including recruiting key volunteers.)

Rodman told the group that Gov. Northam and Bergman had approached her in the fall of 2018 seeking a Democratic candidate for SD12 with the offer of $1 million in backing. She said she initially declined, then later told Bergman she might be interested, but that they needed to “woo” and “sell” her on running. In response, The Way Ahead PAC requested that DPVA conduct a poll on Rodman’s behalf to assess her viability against Dunnavant (in late January). Rodman and her team shared the results of the poll at the meeting and Rodman’s campaign manager, Banta, discussed how it showed that Rodman could beat Dunnavant. The poll also showed Lothe within points of the incumbent. When asked about the methodology used for the poll, Banta said they’d get the information to the group later. Banta said that the poll had not been shared with either Jones or Lothe.

At the meeting, I shared with Rodman for the first time that I had also been approached by Bergman with the same offer. I explained to her that I had also learned since then that at least 5 white people, including Rodman and myself, had been approached about running, and there were concerns among grassroots Democratic supporters about the party creating an inequitable situation where two candidates of color were being pushed aside to encourage a white candidate to perpetuate racial biases about electability. Additionally, not all five of the prospective candidates approached by Bergman embodied the traits he had mentioned as the profile the PAC was seeking; however, the common denominator was whiteness.

Of the remaining three advisory participants, one did not respond with feedback during the meeting and two others who did express support were not actively engaged in the campaign or organizing prior to the meeting.  Of the eight invited in a volunteer advisory capacity, five of us felt strongly and communicated as such to Rodman that she should not run for two key reasons. First, we implored her not to give up her Delegate seat. She and the grassroots had worked hard to win the seat and had an incumbent advantage.  We were particularly alarmed that neither Rodman nor her team had identified any potential candidates for the Delegate seat with the candidate filing deadline just six weeks away. Second, we voiced our concern about how the party establishment was pushing aside two qualified candidates of color. These candidates had established campaigns with enthusiastic grassroots support.  We highlighted the negative optics created with her alignment to the Governor’s PAC in light of the blackface scandal that had erupted on February 1, 2019.

Two advisors brought up concerns of disenfranchising voters of color, specifically the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) and African American voters.  One advisor asserted that the AAPI community made up at least 10% of SD12. Rodman and Lewis disagreed with the figures and dismissed the importance of that concern stating that the AAPI community consisted closer to 8% of the population and that white people made up more than 70% of the population.  Advisors pointed out that people of color, in general reliably Democratic voters, made up 30% of the community and approximately and addition of 21% of voters could carry the Democratic vote. What was also incredibly disturbing was that Rodman added that she did not want to be the one to additionally have to “carry” Lothe up ticket while running for reelection as a Delegate.

February 17, 2019
Meeting between Rodman, McKenney, and Tara Douglas

Douglas and I met with Rodman at her home per her request. At this meeting, Douglas and I intended to get a better understanding of Rodman’s motivations, to expand on the importance of defending the Delegate position, and the importance of lifting up candidates of color in our community.  Rodman explained that she had spent her career lifting up people of color and that this was “her time.” I asked her, given that professional background and her role as an elected, “if you are not the white woman who will step aside, then who will be?” She had no reply.

Rodman discussed fundraising again, this time elaborating that the party expected the race to require more than $1 million, that $1 million would be “taken care of,” and that she would be expected to raise $500k on her own.  She asked if we thought Lothe could raise that amount. We emphatically said we believed she could noting her extensive network and especially if the party would be backing the eventual nominee. We reiterated unwavering support for Lothe for the primary as had 2 other cabinet members previously.  We also emphasized that if she did step into the SD12 race without someone running for the 73rd, we would not support her campaign in the capacity we had previously.

March 26, 2019
Phone poll

Pho received another automated phone poll on her residential line that asked about the perceived ability of  Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg (D, HD72) to upset Dunnavant. No other candidates or electeds were mentioned. VanValkenburg had already announced his intention to run for reelection for his delegate seat.  And, in any case, the March 28 filing deadline was two days away.

April 23, 2019
Phone poll

Pho received another Rodman push poll on her residential line. The first questions asked about the favorability of Gov. Northam, Lt. Governor Fairfax, and Congresswoman Spanberger. Then statements about Rodman and Lothe were provided and candidate preference was asked.

May 22, 2019
Phone poll

Pho received another poll that asked about Rodman and Lothe and who the voter would vote for in the June 11 primary.

In 2019, all 140 state legislative seats are up for grabs. If actions taken in the SD12 race are any indication, the party establishment is seeking to reign in and re-consolidate power after the “blue wave” and feels entitled to be able to choose primary winners, and thus, our representatives.  My understanding is that the newly engaged Democratic grassroots wants otherwise. Constituents want to drive how the government, policy, and our communities are shaped. The party and big donors shouldn’t be picking the candidate without regard to the wants and needs of the community. We also care more about the biased impacts of the ”Virginia Way” on all members of the community.  If an elected official is complicit with – and knowingly benefits from – racially biased actions of party leadership, how can we be certain this bias won’t impact how they legislate?

I challenge voters to recognize all the times women and people of color are pushed aside by the white, male-dominated political machine based on grounds of “electability.”  Women and people of color continually have to be more qualified than their white male counterparts. Women of color have to be even more qualified. We only achieve better representation in our elected government when we demand it using our collective voices and power.  Representation matters.”


Joint Statement of Support for Veena Lothe

We support Veena Lothe, not because she was the first candidate in the State Senate District 12 race, but because she is the best candidate for State Senate District 12.  Her depth and breadth of knowledge and ability to navigate difficult situations and complex matters are evidenced in her over 20 years as a civil rights and immigration lawyer, as well as in the work she has done organizing in the community. She is the progressive thought leader best qualified to write, introduce, and advocate for legislation and policy solutions that work for everyone.   She has demonstrated the tenacity and willingness to dig deep and understand issues important to constituents as well as to all residents of Virginia. Her well-defined policy positions show the work she has already begun to move Virginia forward.

Melissa McKenney
Laura Pho
Tara Douglas