by Jon Sokolow
Sometimes a chance encounter changes the course of events.
In the fall of 2018, Delegate Sam Rasoul happened to meet Al Gore III, son of former Vice President, Al Gore, Jr., at an event. They got to talking about Rasoul’s work in the fight to stop two huge, fracked gas projects in Virginia, the $8 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the now $6.2 billion Mountain Valley Pipeline. Rasoul had become a prominent leader in the movement to stop those two projects, which were announced in 2014, the same year Rasoul was first elected to the House of Delegates.
Over the years, Rasoul has participated in countless anti-pipeline events, taking on the leadership of his own party in the process. In December 2017, Rasoul was a featured speaker at an anti-pipeline concert and rally in Richmond. Later that same month, Rasoul sued the Virginia State Water Control Board, contending that the Board should not have approved the Mountain Valley Pipeline.
In 2018, the anti-pipeline fight in Virginia made national news, with a series of tree sits and other direct actions. In March 2018, Rasoul trekked up a difficult trail to visit a blockade at Peters Mountain, Virginia, where a young woman who called herself Nutty occupied a “monopod,” a telephone pole like structure with a cot perched on top, for 57 days, blocking a road used to move construction equipment. Before Nutty, several other protestors had occupied tree stands on Peters Mountain, which straddles the Virginia/West Virginia border.
In early April 2018, inspired by the Peters Mountain actions, a 61-year-old forklift drive named Red Terry, and her daughter, Minor Terry, occupied two tree sits to block construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline on their property, which had been in their family for seven generations. They were later charged with trespassing – on their own land. Rasoul had visited the Terry’s tree sits on multiple occasions, conceiving and then organizing what became a national movement to “Stand with Red.”
As an attorney, writer and activist in Northern Virginia, I had become heavily involved in the anti-pipeline movement in 2017 and I had gotten to know Rasoul. I found him to be a dedicated and talented organizer, as well as a kind and decent human being. So it was no surprise that within an hour of Red and Minor Terry having come down from their trees and ending their 34 day protest, Rasoul called me to propose an immediate statewide Stand with Red tour, which we organized and held that same week, featuring Red and Minor Terry and supportive legislators like Delegate Mark Keam. It was a watershed moment. And Sam Rasoul was the driving force.
Hearing about all of this in his discussion with Rasoul, Al Gore III told Rasoul something that would end up elevating the anti-pipeline fight to a new level.
“You should meet my sister,” Gore said. “She was arrested protesting a pipeline.”
Indeed, Karenna Gore, like her father, Vice President Gore, is a prominent environmental activist, as well as a religious leader, having founded and led the Center for Earth Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York. In 2016, she was one of 23 people arrested in Boston for protesting a fracked gas pipeline. Months before Gore III and Rasoul met, a judge had dismissed all charges against the protestors, ruling that they had acted not with criminal intent, a necessary element of most crimes, but because they considered it was necessary to prevent climate change.
Rasoul texted Karenna Gore and suggested they arrange a call to talk about the pipeline fights in Virginia. She went him one better, inviting him to an environmental conference that was going on in North Carolina.
Shortly thereafter, Rasoul drove to North Carolina, where he met Karenna Gore, as well as former Vice President Gore and Reverend William Barber II, the leader of the Poor People’s Campaign and one of the most prominent civil rights leaders of our generation. Rasoul told them about the anti-pipeline movement in Virginia. In particular, he told them about the struggle to save the historic African American community of Union Hill in Buckingham County, which had been targeted by Dominion Energy and Duke Energy, the developers of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, with a massive compressor station – an essential part of the project and the only compressor station along the proposed 400-mile route in Virginia. Union Hill was settled after the civil war by freedmen and women who had worked as slaves on the tobacco plantation there. More than 83% African American, most of the community descended from those formerly enslaved persons.
The Gore/Barber/Rasoul meeting bore fruit.
Several months later, in February 2019, Vice President Gore and Reverend Barber led a rally in Buckingham County attended by more than 1,100 people – the largest gathering there in living memory. The Gore/Barber rally made national news and helped change the balance of forces in the pipeline fight in Virginia.
In the fall of 2019, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral argument on the legal challenge to the compressor station permit in the Union Hill case. Rasoul helped recruit 28 members of the Virginia General Assembly to sign on to a friend of the court brief in support of Union Hill. The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights under Law, one of the most prominent civil rights organizations in the country, also filed a brief in support of Union Hill, as did the NAACP, the Center for Earth Ethics, the Sierra Club and others.
In January 2020, the court threw out the compressor station permit, ruling that Virginia had violated its own laws by not giving due consideration to environmental justice. “Environmental justice,” the court wrote, “is not merely a box to be checked.”
A few months later, on the July 4 weekend in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dominion and Duke cancelled the Atlantic Coast Pipeline in its entirety.
It took a national movement and thousands of committed activists to win the battle to stop the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. No one person can or should take the credit.
But as someone who was there, I can say this: Sam Rasoul was at the center of that fight and his quiet behind the scenes organizing was a key factor in that win.
In December 2018, Rasoul also conceived and initiated the formation of Green New Deal Virginia and in 2019 he introduced the Green New Deal Act, an intersectional environmental, economic and social justice bill designed to create hundreds of thousands of good paying union jobs as part of a “just transition” to a green economy. As Vice President of Green New Deal Virginia, I was there for its founding – at a series of late night meetings in Rasoul’s office – and saw Rasoul pull together the organizations that would form its core. The coalition has now grown to more than 80 organizations.
Rasoul also has been supportive of the formation of the Poor Peoples Campaign in Virginia and joined many of us at a national conference in D.C.
These are not the actions of a typical politician. These are the actions of a dedicated community organizer who is all about bringing together diverse coalitions to work together to build a better world.
Now Rasoul is running for Lieutenant Governor of Virginia. And he has my full support.
Because the Sam Rasoul you see in front of the camera is the same Sam Rasoul you see when the klieg lights are off. You can tell a lot about a person when you see how they work when no one is watching. Rasoul works tirelessly, often behind the scenes, quietly, to uplift communities and bring people together. And he is not afraid to speak out publicly and loudly, when he needs to, even when it takes on powerful interests.
The Washington Post recently endorsed Rasoul for Lieutenant Governor, noting “Mr. Rasoul has guts.” As the Post noted:
“[T]there is no doubt about Mr. Rasoul’s command of complex issues; his skills as an organizer in his district; or his detail-oriented legislative work to strengthen free health clinics, safeguard drinking water and boost aid to struggling families.”
And the Post endorsement noted that Rasoul is willing to stand up to his own party when necessary, as he did when he opposed an environmental bill that, while doing some positive things for the environment, gouged Dominion Energy ratepayers to the tune of billions of dollars.
I support Sam Rasoul for Lieutenant Governor because the Washington Post is right – he has guts.
Sure, he’s got a solid progressive agenda. In fact, his campaign has a smorgasbord of progressive programs, from a Marshall Plan for Moms that would uplift working women and families, to making sure older Virginians are protected in healthcare, to making broadband the new utility and accessible to all, to ending mass incarceration and protecting the right to vote – and even a plan to protect local media outlets.
Sure, he’s been endorsed not only by the Washington Post, but also by an incredible coalition of individuals and organizations, including Senator Elizabeth Warren, former Congressman Rick Boucher, former Virginia Attorney General Mary Sue Terry, the national Sunrise Movement, the Virginia Sunrise Movement, Our Revolution and Richmond for All, among many others.
Sure, he has been endorsed by United Rural Democrats, which is key, as Democrats likely need to win rural districts in 2022 if they are to keep control of Congress in the midterms.
And sure, he has run an uplifting campaign to unite people around his three family values of Truth, Love and Grit – always tell the truth, always be kind, and never be afraid.
I support Sam Rasoul for all of these reasons.
But mostly I support his candidacy for this reason: he is a leader made for these times.
We are emerging right now from a global pandemic that has inflicted unprecedented pain and suffering on millions of people and created unspeakable hardships right here in Virginia.
We have just survived four years of a bigoted, corrupt, authoritarian President who made blood sport out of dividing people and demonizing people and entire communities.
And we are at an inflection point in this country’s centuries long battle to recognize and then dismantle structural racism, in the former capital of the Confederacy, which bears its share of responsibility for America’s original sin.
As Reverend Barber has aptly noted, we are in desperate need of a Third Reconstruction, a new social, economic and environmental justice agenda that will finally finish the building of a just society that we started after the Civil War and then during the Civil Rights Movement.
And we need leaders who can actually lead us together to a better world. Leaders who have walked the talk. Leaders who lead when the cameras are off.
Sam Rasoul is our best shot at electing a true progressive to statewide office in Virginia in 2021, someone who “gets it,” and who is willing to do the work even when the odds are against us. Especially when the odds are against us.
Because, in the end, it’s not just what you stand for that’s important. It’s how you go about your work and who you stand with. Sam Rasoul stands with all of us.
Now it’s time for us to stand with him.
Vote for Sam Rasoul for Lieutenant Governor. Polls are open now through June 8.