by Tim Hickey, who ran for the House of Delegates as a Democrat this year in the deep-red 59th District. And though he didn’t win the election, he believes that his run accomplished a lot.
To my progressive friends in traditionally red areas: please get active and get involved. If you’re not already a member, join your county or city Democratic Committee. Go to a meeting. Step up to serve in a leadership position. Volunteer for a local candidate. Run for office yourself. If you want to see change, we need you to get off the sidelines and get in the game. As someone who recently finished running a year long campaign as a Democrat in just such a District, my main message to you is this: do not assume anyone is doing the vital work of political organizing in your area if you’re not doing it yourself. We all need to be the change we seek.
This year I ran for the Virginia House of Delegates in the 59th District. For perspective, Trump won this District by roughly 28%. So it’s not the race one runs as a Democrat if political ambition or power is the goal. I ran because I believe our country and our Commonwealth are in trouble and I thought that this was one small thing I could do to help. Even though I didn’t win the election, I believe it was worth it. I believe that together with everyone who worked on my campaign, we made a real difference. Electoral victory is not the sole measure of success. Nor should the probability of winning the next election be the basis on which you decide whether or not to get involved politically or to run for office.
When we organize in these tough districts, so many good things happen. And when we don’t, so many bad things fester and build up. As a public school teacher, I’ve always told my students that when you don’t try, you fail 100% of the time. But even worse, you set yourself up for failure. As Tony Bennett preaches to his basketball players at UVA, if you learn to use it right, adversity will buy you a ticket to a place you couldn’t have gone any other way. In that spirit, I offer you the top 10 reasons to run and organize everywhere, right now.
First, our arguments are better, so go make them. As one of my super-volunteers reminded me on Election night, we’re right. On so many issues, the clear weight of the facts, evidence and law is on our side. A higher minimum wage is good for workers. The Equal Rights Amendment is essential to help level the playing field. Expanding broadband is a basic investment in opportunity. Clean energy is good for our environment and our economy. Requiring background checks for every gun purchase saves lives. Medicaid expansion was both the fiscally responsible choice and the moral choice, and we need to protect it. So even though I had lost my election, I was overjoyed on Election Night when I learned Democrats had flipped our Virginia General Assembly. Not because “our team” had won or because we could stick it to Trump or his followers, but because we were going to be able to do a lot of good for a lot of people. So go make the arguments. Not everyone will be persuaded, but some folks will.
Second, we make progress. In 2013 and 2015, nobody even ran for Delegate as a Democrat here. In 2017, someone did run and he earned 8,773 (34.08%) votes. This year, a year without any statewide races that traditionally has the lowest turnout in Virginia’s 4-year election cycle, we got 9,541 (36.68%) votes. That’s progress. We saw other signs of hope here as well. In two of our counties, we had a Democratic State Senate candidate on the ballot who ran a campaign on a shoestring budget. He did not have the same resources to reach voters, but it provides a useful baseline comparison. In Appomattox County, both the state Democratic Senate candidate and I lost handily. But, my campaign was able to cut the margin by 250 votes compared to the Senate race. In other words, it looks like we were able to convince roughly 100 to 125 folks who voted Republican in the state Senate race to pull the lever for a Democrat in the House race. That matters. We saw a similar phenomenon in Buckingham County. In that race, the Democratic state Senate candidate got 37.5% of the vote. We were able to break the 40% barrier. Again, that’s progress. When we show up, make the argument and give folks the option to vote Democratic, we can change some hearts and minds. Now imagine if we had been making these arguments and campaigning hard in 2013 and 2015.
Third, we spread GOP resources thin and force them to spend money playing defense everywhere. While my opponent did contribute a significant amount of money to other candidates and PACs this year, he also had to spend tens of thousands of dollars on his own campaign. Democrats ran in 93 of the 100 Virginia House of Delegates races this year. Spreading our political opponents thin makes it more likely that we can take more seats, which is exactly what happened.
Fourth, we make a statement that we’re not going to be intimidated or afraid. A lot of progressives in rural areas feel isolated or fearful about speaking their mind. So we made a point of asking a lot of folks to put up our yard signs. I get it. Yard signs don’t vote. But putting up a Democratic yard sign in a traditionally Republican area is often a small act of hope and courage that can build on itself. This is particularly true in this era where the Trump administration spews so much bigotry, hate, and dishonesty while rank and file followers try to normalize it. We progressives are not living our lives in fear in the 59th. We’ll never pretend that this sort of con-man wannabe authoritarianism is remotely ok. Nope. When I taught U.S. History, I kept a framed photograph over my desk of Ida B. Wells, the courageous Jim Crow era journalist and co-founder of the NAACP who brought attention to the frequent lynchings of her time. Whenever I felt even the slightest bit reticent or scared about voicing an opinion or showing up at a parade or an event, I simply thought of her courage and told myself to quickly get over it. “The way to right wrongs is to shine the light of truth upon them.” Damn right.
Fifth, those of us who worked on our campaign both learned from and educated constituents about issues and about our representatives. In my District for instance, everywhere our campaign went we heard about the need for high speed internet to access economic, political, and social opportunities. We also took the time to point out that Republicans cut roughly $30 million from the proposed state budget for broadband. We heard about concerns over gun violence and learned that many people thought we already had universal background checks in Virginia. When we pointed out that we don’t, they were absolutely on board with implementing them. I’ve seen not a single Second Amendment Sanctuary advocate explain why people with felony convictions, a history of domestic abuse, or dangerous mental instability ought to have unfettered access to firearms. And I believe when push comes to shove, they will be enforced. As a teacher, much of my campaign was focused on educational issues. We heard a lot about how one of our counties had cut ten instructional staff positions, including music, art, teachers aides, and drivers education. So we highlighted the need for resources for our rural school divisions. We heard a lot of voters asking about gerrymandering and how to fix it. We were happy to educate them, point them to resources and organizations like OneVirginia2021, and emphasize the importance of fair voting districts for a functional democracy. We learned so much about the lives and values of our neighbors while simultaneously educating folks on political issues that affect our daily lives.
Sixth, when nobody challenges incumbents, there exists a false appearance that they have more widespread support than they actually do. My Delegate will now have to consider being more responsive to those who did not vote for him. At the very least, it is clear that his support is far from unanimous and if he refuses to hold town halls or show up all over the District, it presents a political risk. Our numbers are growing. We are not going away. We will not be ignored. We will not be silent in the face of gross disrespect by people who are supposed to be representing us. This is not going to be fun or easy anymore for our elected officials who fail to listen to us.
Seventh, we planted seeds. It is impossible to know in what ways people here may have been affected by our campaign. But it is also impossible to deny that many people were indeed called to act. I was in fact inspired to run for office by prior progressive candidates like Kellen Squire, Jennifer Lewis, Angela Lynn, Brent Finnegan, and so many others who ran in traditionally red areas in 2017. Change is often incremental. It requires time and persistence. When we organize everywhere, folks are spurred to get more involved in their Democratic Committees or in organizations tackling a variety of causes. I met many folks who simply took some measure of solace that we had the audacity to hope that we could restore sanity to our country and were fighting this fight. I made one friend on the campaign trail who told me her kids were getting much more engaged in politics as a result of our race. You never know how far your inspiration will reach.
Eighth, it is critical that Democrats have candidates ready in case Republican incumbents mess up. They may make a mistake in filing their paperwork, violate campaign finance law or commit some other blunder. When we have someone ready and on deck, it leaves them little room for error. We have to be ready to pounce when opportunities present themselves.
Ninth, and this is big, we build capacity for the future. My campaign manager had been an organizer, but had never run a campaign. Now she has. And she can take those skills and apply them to future races. I had volunteered for campaigns but never run for public office. I am now going to be able to help future campaigns, including the one that will flip our Fifth Congressional District next year. We had folks who had for the first time in their lives volunteered for a political campaign. Maybe they held a house party, wrote postcards, or contributed. And now they will feel a lot more confident and comfortable doing that for future candidates. Activism begets activism. Apathy begets apathy.
Tenth, we coordinated with other campaigns and were able to help get good folks elected to a variety of positions. Here in Albemarle County, we worked with the Jim Hingelely for Commonwealth’s Attorney campaign. Jim, who successfully ousted the GOP incumbent, is a criminal justice reformer who will not enforce cash bail or the death penalty in our county. Also here in Albemarle County, we worked with Chan Bryant who won her election and will be the first female sheriff in county history. Jim and Chan probably would have been elected regardless of whether or not I ran. But I also have no doubt that we helped turn out votes for both of them. And in other areas, working together will indeed push some candidates over the top.
To my eyes, we are living through a dangerous historical era. Humanity is tensing up in a way similar to the way it did in the 1930s leading up to the horrors of World War II. A toxic current of xenophobia, fear, ignorance, and anger is rippling across mankind. But our democratic institutions and international alliances are buying us time to work our way through it. So while we still have the chance, we have to peacefully and democratically take power away from those who are riding this toxic tide. Run everywhere, friends. Organize everywhere. Right now. Please.