by Kellen Squire, an emergency department nurse running for Lieutenant Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia.
2019 represented the most important election in Virginia’s history. I know we say that every single year, but damn if it isn’t also true every single year. This one in particular. With everything from non-partisan redistricting to the climate crisis requiring tough, long-term action right now, we were backed up onto our own metaphorical goal line – any backwards progress, and we could lose the game entirely.
The Virginia GOP came loaded for bear, with tens of millions of dollars in dark money and corporate cash. Out-of-state megadonors took advantage of Virginia’s non-existent campaign finance laws, found candidates they wanted to cultivate (as if the people of Virginia are like a damn rose garden to them), and threw boatloads of cash at them, in up to $500,000 increments at a time.
But we won! It wasn’t a Blue Wave; more of a Blue Tide. Waves are sudden events; tides are massive, inexorable. And the amount of work put in by the army of volunteers and small donors across the Commonwealth is the only reason progress was made on election night. We had great candidates – but as a candidate myself, I can tell you that we’re often the least important part of that equation. If this dedicated and amazing group of people didn’t let us stand with them, we wouldn’t get anywhere.
I might be running for Lieutenant Governor of Virginia, but I’ll never be too good to do the gruntwork that is the true determinant of how campaigns are won or lost. It’s why I spent the last few months doing just that; it’s why the organizing and fundraising that I did during that time was not for me, but for tight races across the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Which is how I found myself in Stafford County, Virginia, on election day, working as a poll greeter for Joshua Cole, a truly inspiring candidate who lost by only 73 votes in 2017 (Cole was then forced to reconcile with the fact a registar gave out more than double that number of wrong ballots to voters in a key precinct… a ballot with another candidate whose last name was “Cole” on them).
In the interim, though, Josh has been amazing. He never lost his faith. He always kept his head up. I know it wasn’t easy for him, but he never let those struggles take him off the path forward. Which is why I told Josh long ago that when Election Day came, I’d be there for him– from the very first voter, to the very last.
Bright red Stafford County, Virginia- home of the giant Confederate Flag hanging off of I-95– isn’t an optimal place for a statewide candidate to park themselves on election day. Where you really want to be is in a bright blue precinct where a huge number of strong Democrats turn out. You know the Democrat on the ballot is probably going to win, and you can ingratiate yourself with the folks who show up, since you’ll need their vote in a primary someday.
But let’s be real. A redneck Democrat with a southern drawl who knows how to make progressive arguments in libertarian/conservative language is going to be the most help in a place like Stafford, in a key precinct where we have to keep the other folks from running up the numbers.
Let me interject here by saying that being a poll greeter, especially for down ballot elections, makes an enormous difference, because a stunning number of people make up their minds about who to vote for at the polls. If you can staff every polling place with bright, energetic, and polite volunteers who know how to advocate for their candidates, you can affect races to the tune of several percentage points. That’s no joke.
It was clear from when I arrived at the polls at 5:45am, having driven an hour and a half from my home in the hollers and hills of Barboursville, that the local Republicans were not used to this kind of Democratic presence at the polls. The Stafford Dems are a simply amazing group, but until recently, have been vastly outnumbered- after all, Hillary Clinton only took 42% of the vote in Stafford.
But we had the fire in our bellies to finish the fight we’d started in 2017, and flip the House and Senate for good. And we started making an immediate impact, answering questions for inquisitive voters on candidates’ positions, handing out sample ballots, and being generally as upbeat and warm as we could be.
The crowning jewel of the morning for me was when a middle-aged voter and his wife were walking in to vote as I was answering the questions of an elderly voter who was asking about our candidates’ healthcare positions. I saw him do a double-take out of the corner of my eye, apparently caught off-guard by my presence, then whispering sotto voce to his wife, “Jesus! It must be bad if even the rednecks are voting for the Democrats!”
It was an amazing day. At the precincts I was at, turnout was amazingly high across the board. In fact, Republican turnout was up- but Democratic turnout was up even higher. And as we were persuading undecided voters, the Republicans started to get more and more hostile. Not our opposite numbers greeting voters; they were invariably pleasant, if a bit wary. No, it was some of the voters who seemed upset that we had the gall to be at “their” polling place, with signs for people with strange names like “Jess Foster” (whose tagline was “A Woman’s Place is in the House… Of Delegates!”) and “Qasim Rashid”.
The kicker for the day was when I got body-slammed by a Republican voter.
Sometimes, you can just tell when people are itching for a fight- and I could tell by the way this voter approached the polling station that we’d be in for a tangle. I figured it’d be the purely verbal kind; another of the snide “baby killers!” or “Communist!” comments some folks had passive-aggressively made as they walked by.
Oh, how little did I know. He sauntered over to the GOP booth, shaking hands with the poll greeters on their side, and making some unkind comments about us that were accidentally too loud. I just smiled and kept doing my job- there were votes to earn!
This, of course, grated on him. I watched him stew in my peripheral vision, staring and listening as I greeted voter after voter. Finally, he’d seen all he could handle, and he hollered at me, gesturing at our canopy festooned with equality posters and candidate yard signs, “I don’t understand how you can be over there!”
I’ll admit, I don’t know exactly what he meant by that comment. It could have been any number of things. But from his tone, and from having handled similar situations innumerable times before, I had a hunch. So I turned to look at him, smiled as widely as I could, and said, “Well, sir, I’m just a redneck and a Christian, I guess I don’t know any better.”
I must have been dead-on, because he didn’t have anything to say to that. He just sputtered, almost spitting angry, and stomped inside the polling location to vote. I figured that’d be the end of it; maybe I’d get a passive aggressive comment as he came back out.
Boy, was I wrong.
A few minutes later, I was relating the story to another poll greeter who had just arrived, in response to her inquiry of how the crowds had been. Suddenly, she glanced over my shoulder, her eyes widening. I turned around to discover, hovering just a foot or so away from me, our friend from earlier.
I assume he meant to intimidate me; he had four inches on me and probably a good sixty or seventy pounds, at least. He stabbed a finger at my chest, and started into a diatribe about my lack of ethics, questioned my religious views, etc. – all sorts of personal attacks. Pretty uninventive, nothing I haven’t heard before. He closed out by questioning my morality, admonishing me that “You say you’re a Christian, and you belong to the abortion-on-demand party!”
I thought briefly about informing him that I, as an ER Nurse, am actually an abortion provider, but ultimately decided not to. I’ve been told I’m a murderer for that many times before (apparently, it’s God’s will to let women die for lack of healthcare). And as hostile as this gentleman was, I decided he might very well escalate the situation dramatically. But still, I’d decided that I’d had enough of “turning the other cheek”- maybe I’m not as good a Christian as I should be- and so I replied to him, simply, “As opposed to only supporting abortions when the President’s paying his mistresses to get them, am I right, sir?”
He stopped cold- and then moved forward.
I think he thought I’d flinch and backpedal. When I didn’t, we made contact. As “bodyslams” go, this was milquetoast to the point of yawning- any slower and it’d have been almost a caress- and only happened because I wouldn’t cower. Well, I thought to myself, this is what happens when you lose an argument. My guess is he’d done that in the past, just never to an ER Nurse. And, indeed, when he realized I wasn’t going to back down, his face reddened and he almost shouted at me. “It doesn’t matter what the President did!”
Which stopped me cold. Here he was, lecturing me on morality, and he’d shrug at anything Donald Trump did.
I told him as he left that I would pray for him- which I made sure to say sincerely and not sarcastically, because I truly meant it. He might be dead wrong, but he’s still a human being and a Virginian. If he came into my ER, I’d treat him the same as any other patient. If I was elected to represent him, I would fight to make things better for him just as hard as anyone else. That’s what we do, as progressives; we fight for everyone.
In the end, it was well worth every one of the thirteen hours I spent working the polls with an amazing group of Stafford County Dems. Like Steve, who had cancer surgery the day before the election, but refused to cancel his shift! Like Jo, Alaine, Susan- everyone who was there was amazing! And the hard work we did made a material difference on a very tight race. One that let me help send my friend Josh to Richmond!
But as I drove back home, reflecting on the day, I realized that the progress we’re doing in fostering a progressive revolution in rural America will have to be done by inches, instead of miles. And the instant we stop pushing forward… we will skyrocket backwards.
And that’s why I’m here- that’s why I’m fighting. To make sure we don’t take a single step back. To usher in the progressive revolution, a people-powered, progressive populist movement to stand up for working Virginia families in every corner of the Commonwealth of Virginia, every holler and hill, every zip code- and fight unapologetically for all of them.
Let’s bring progress to Virginia- together.
Kellen Squire, RN