I drove down to Fredericksburg this morning for an interview with Democratic Party of Virginia Chair Susan Swecker. I also had a chance to check in with Democratic House of Delegates candidate Josh Cole and State Senate candidate Qasim Rashid at their joint HQ (with State Senate candidate Amy Laufer and House of Delegates candidate Neri Canahui-Ortiz as well), which was cool. But the main purpose of the trip to Fredericksburg was to speak with Susan Swecker about several topics. See below for highlights from our conversation…bolding added by me for emphasis.
First, I asked Swecker about Del. Nick Freitas’ over-the-top, hyperbolic, and of course utterly *false* comments on Trumpster radio (“The John Fredericks Show”) the other day, claiming that the Democratic Party wants to (in Fredericks’ paraphrase of Freitas’ remarks) “kill babies, kill jobs and take your guns.” According to Swecker:
“Our voters, and the people of Virginia, I trust to know what we stand for and what we don’t stand for...We are the party that has brought you Medicaid expansion…restoration of voter rights, that respects individuals and is there for working families…So when you have nothing else to say, you go full-on Donald Trump and you just make stuff up. I say keep on saying that, because that’s not a message and voters will see through that; our people are smart in Virginia…and they see through something like that.”
I followed up and asked Swecker how today’s Democratic Party compared to “your grandfather’s Democratic Party,” given Republicans’ claim that it’s “not your grandfather’s Democratic Party anymore.” Swecker responded:
“It’s absolutely changed…When I came down to work in the General Assembly as a legislative aide in the late ’70s…everything was Democratic…but they weren’t Democratic like we have now…It was mostly men, white…You had…Republicans who were socially progressive and fiscally conservative…They were a different party; there were still Byrd Democrats lingering…To watch that change and to think we, Virginia, with all of our history – the good and the bad – that we were the first state in the union to elect an African-American governor in Doug Wilder. One of my proudest days as a Democrat was at that inauguration…Definitely changing…Twenty years ago, we lost the majority…I didn’t know…that we’d ever take back the House of Delegates under my tenure...Virginia has changed…[to] a better, more inclusive place…Those House members [elected in 2017], the day they took their oath of office, and you look at the tapestry of diversity, that’s more like what the Commonwealth looks like than when I started out.”
And what about the Republican Party at this point?
“There were Republicans [back in the 1970s] that supported a woman’s right to choose, ERA…that wouldn’t go to their corner and just want to fight and spout ridiculous statements that make no sense because they have nothing else to offer. Now maybe if Nick Freitas had paid more attention to his own campaign instead of making ridiculous statements…he wouldn’t have the problem he’s got right now...We’ve made our state under these Democratic governors open and welcoming for business…We need to get the House and Senate to raise the minimum wage…People are so tired of this chatter and anger and hollering; they want real solutions, which is what *we* offer. We’re going to help lift everybody up. I don’t see it [from Republicans]….What’s *your* plan? Their plan is negative – to stop things. We have a plan to continue to move Virginia forward.”
DPVA Communications Director Jake Rubenstein noted, at this point, that “Virginians are with [Democrats] on the issues.” Swecker added that the issues Democrats are campaigning on are “mainstream issues.” Swecker added:
“…the absolute urgency of gun legislation, doing something about that, is talked about all over the Commonwealth these days – ACTION, not having a 90-second General Assembly session and saying ‘we’re done’. We have nobody that is beholden to one interest group the way they are beholden to the NRA.”
We talked about money in politics, including the $500,000 donation from a far-right megadonor to Del. Nick Freitas, money from corporate interests, etc. Swecker had a few thoughts on this topic, including:
“I think because we have an election every year and because we have become a bluer state, more progressive, people are interested in what’s going on. And I think on the local level, when you look on how you can really impact people’s lives, is why outside groups get interested. But…does there probably need to be some reform? Yes. But we’re not going to unilaterally disarm until there is…We have outraised the Republicans…[combination of large and small donors]…We’re grateful for the help from these groups that have popped up since the 2016 election...I’m really proud of the effort that we are putting together with the Take the Majority, working in tandem with the House and Senate leadership and the caucuses [and the DLCC and “The Way Ahead” PAC]. Gov. McAuliffe is a big piece of that. Mark Warner has been fabulous…He was a party chair too…He has been incredibly supportive…
We’ve made some changes and we continue to make some changes at the party to build a better party…Our responsibility is to promote our agenda, elect candidates…I wanted…to build an infrastructure that would last…[that would be] sustainable…nothing should be built around anyone one candidate, any one elected official…We established the first voter protection director hired in the country – in the country – for any state party…With the help of Stacy Abrams and her organization, Fair Fight, we are partnered with her and she’s going to help us fund our whole voter protection program for the next year…That’s very very exciting for us…We’re always thinking forward.
In the context of thinking about money, and how we go about money, we have – after much reflection, after reaching out to many stakeholders, party leaders, steering committee..we have decided that going forward we’re not going to take any Dominion [or Appalachian Power] money. This is an organizational decision….We know some of our candidates still take Dominion money, and we’re ok with that…We’re a different entity and we have a different constituency. We are constantly looking for ways to broaden our camp…”
DPVA Executive Director Chris Bolling jumped in this point and added:
“This is a big part of being a big-tent party. We’ll agree on some stuff, we’ll disagree on some other stuff…We as a party…have never felt a need to demonize folks who take money from those people…which is quite frankly what you see from that Nick Freitas quote…That’s never how we’ve operated, that’s the reason we’ve been successful in Virginia and the reason we’ll continue to be…We’re in the business of electing Democrats, promoting a Democratic Virginia, making Virginians’ lives better.”
DPVA Communications Director Jake Rubenstein noted:
“The Democratic Party of Virginia as an organization has not received any contributions from Dominion or Appalachian Power in over two years. This is an organizational decision that we believe will help us elect majorities in the House and the Senate and reelect our leaders…So that is the basis of our decision…”
Swecker jumped in:
“…we all are united behind working for justice, working for social change, improving people’s lives, whether it’s more health care, expansion of voting rights…increasing the minimum wage…But we just wanted to take this off the table; it’s a very contentious issue with a lot of folks all across the Commonwealth, and we thought it was time for us to just step up and say this is where we are…”
Rubenstein added, “The purpose of it is we’ve always been very transparent…about what we’re doing…We’ve been asked a lot about it.”
I asked if there’s anything particular about Dominion or Appalachian Power, and the response from Chris Bolling was that this issue is “one of the loudest drum beats” they’re hearing from people, that “we would be bad servants if we didn’t listen to the people we serve.”
Swecker: “We made a decision based on what we thought was right for the party, and everyone else can judge for themselves.”
Bolling: “This is much more a decision about us than it is about Dominion…We don’t think about it as Dominion is some sort of evil entity. This is a decision that we think is in the best interest of the Democratic Party of Virginia.”
At this point, I argued that Dominion contradicts Democratic values in a number of ways, from environmental protection to ethics, but clearly the DPVA folks didn’t want to “go there,” so we moved on to other topics.
Swecker said she likes the fact that the party rebranded the coordinated campaign into calling it “Take the Majority 2019” – “it just sends a new signal that we’re doing things a new way.” “I’m really proud that the party is not just a pass-through for money, it’s a partner at the table. We brought $250k…that’s something that hasn’t been done before…Our team works very closely with all the others, and I’m very proud of that…”
I asked Swecker where she thought we were at in the Virginia 2019 elections right now. Swecker said she doesn’t want to fall into the trap of “measuring the drapes in the White House,” but that the momentum “seems to keep building and building.” Bolling added that he’s…
“…cautiously optimistic…this year should be a good year for us, and you’ve kinda got to be proud of it because of how we started the year...One of the reasons we’re so proud to be part of the coordinated [campaign] table…We work with all of these people as a group…We’ve been working on this thing for well over a year at this point…We will have significantly higher turnout than in 2015…We are competing in more places…spending money…paid communications…doing field work in more places…We have great candidates all over the place…You put great Democratic candidates in front of voters, we’re confident in their ability to turn out more voters.”
“People are excited, there’s all that enthusiasm, but we haven’t won yet. We can’t let up on the gas. We’ve got to keep focused, don’t get distracted. Crazy stuff happens in that last couple weeks…We’ve got to keep our eye on the goal and not celebrate before it’s time to celebrate.”
I asked Swecker about the DNC’s recent vote against holding a separate climate debate. Swecker said she went out there with an open mind, listened to the debate – “I’ll give Chairman Perez credit for allowing both sides to speak and giving them additional time because so many people lined up.” She said she had two concerns: 1) “there were numerous people of color that stood up and asked for a debate on immigration, or a debate on workers’ rights…or a debate on guns…and made very passionate [arguments] about if you do one on that, yes that’s important, but this is important too...” and 2) there had been rules set in place from early on – Perez “laid it out and candidates agreed to it, so unfortunately to just change the rules in the middle for one issue, albeit an incredibly important issue…we’ve had one forum hosted by CNN, tomorrow night and the next night is a two-day symposium I believe Georgetown is hosting…I really don’t like the debates and the gotcha game of it…as opposed to a thoughtful discussion; I think these forums provide more of that, so that’s why I voted to not allow it.” “But is it important? Absolutely! Would I love to have something here in Virginia on it? Absolutely!…Why is it so hot [in Highland County] right now?”
On the presidential election, Swecker noted that candidates are already working in Virginia to get their petitions in by the middle of December. Swecker added that “the presidential candidates have come in and not just taken money out of here, they’ve come in and helped our candidates.” She said she’s expecting more candidates to be coming in the next few weeks. Swecker agreed on the importance of tying these elections to the urgency of pushing back against Trump…”and here’s the other thing…Tommy Norment, do you stand with Donald Trump; Kirk Cox, do you stand with Donald Trump…that’s important to know, who are you with, the people of Virginia or Donald Trump?”
Finally, Rubenstein argued that “this is a chance to…[show] that 2017, 2018 and now 2019, Virginia is continuing to show that Trump is under water, Trump doesn’t have it, and we’re going to put the nail in the coffin.” From Rubenstein’s mouth to the voters’ ears, I’d say!