In January, a federal court ruled that Virginia’s very, very obviously gerrymandered legislative map was so racist that it was unconstitutional, and drew up new districts that were way, way better for Democrats. It’s unclear whether the decision will stand, and because it depends on an upcoming Supreme Court decision, we should act as if the new fair districts will not hold, for two reasons.
First, when has this hijacked right-wing Supreme Court ever stood up for voting rights? And second, we shouldn’t be satisfied with just winning a slim majority this time around; progressives should be working to build long-term power with great candidates leading dynamic, community-based campaigns.
Karen Mallard is one of those candidates. She’s running for the House of Delegates seat from the state’s 84th legislative district, in Virginia Beach. Her story is the sort of biography that a regionally tuned super-algorithm might create: The daughter of coal miners, she spent her youth on picket lines, taught her own father to read, and has been a teacher for over 30 years, a career that has included a stint as the head of her teacher’s union. She’s not just a perfect fit on paper, either, as she backs it all up with a special mix of personal warmth and political fire.
Mallard ran for Congress in the Democratic primary in 2018, but the DCCC backed a much more centrist candidate — they had a broad gulf in policy preferences, including on guns, as Mallard went viral for sawing an AR-15 in half on video. But now, Mallard is the only Democratic candidate in her new race, so she’s already officially the nominee. She’ll be facing off against Republican Del. Glenn Davis, a stalwart conservative who won his last race by less than four points.
Mallard has a great chance of winning, thanks to both her long history in the community and her tireless campaigning, and earlier this week, she took some time after school to talk to me about her background, platform, and plans for the future of Virginia. She’s the kind of candidate that could bridge the gap for Democrats in the south and more rural working class areas, so she’s very worth supporting.
Progressives Everywhere: You ran for Congress last year, which must have been a grueling experience. Why run for office again, and so soon?
I’m a 30-year educator, a teacher and community leader. I’ve been very involved with the community. I’m super passionate about education because it lifted my family from poverty to prosperity in just one generation, and I want all children to have those opportunities to succeed. I was looking at the votes by my delegate and he’s radical and he radically opposed to public education. And I decided that I needed to stand up again and fight for the issues that I care most about: education, the environment, and health care, because his voting record is abysmal.
There was a teacher walkout in Virginia earlier this year, what’s the latest there?
The biggest thing is we have a teacher shortage here in Virginia, of over 1000 teachers. In Virginia, teachers make 31% less than other professionals with comparable education. And so it’s very difficult for us to attract and retain high-quality teachers. The shortages are in areas like math and science and special education. So we have people who aren’t certified to teach in those areas, they are long-term substitutes teaching special-ed children, who are the neediest children. I want to make Virginia the place for teachers to work and raise our salaries to the national average so that we can get the best teachers to come here to Virginia for our children.
What can be done legislatively that you plan on pursuing in office?
Well, I think we’ve made some progress this year, but obviously we need the Democratic majority in order to get more bills out of committee. Things like lifting the caps on funding from the recession in 2008 are very important. We need to reinstate capital funding for infrastructure and building. In Virginia Beach, we still have schools that have half-day kindergarten because we don’t have the classroom space for them. It’s because building is so expensive and so that’s something that we need to do as well.
Glenn Davis voted to remove $45.7 million from the education programs aimed at low-income students. You know, I was one of those low-income students, and my four brothers and I got to go to college because of grants and because of my teachers. It’s so important to lift the next generation up and provide for them. We had help to pay for college and my opponent also voted for this amendment that took $2.2 million of need-based financial aid from Virginia Commonwealth University. I have former students who go there. We have to do better than that for the next generation.
You mentioned that your family went from poverty-to-prosperity in one generation. You come from a mining family and have the sort of working-class success story that’s so much harder to achieve right now.
I grew up listening to stories that my grandfather told me about miners, the safety conditions and how miners lived before the union. My grandfather used to tell me how when miners were killed in the mine, [the company] would take them in and lay their bodies on the porch, go inside and take his family’s belongings out and kick the family out of the house, because the company owned the house, and put another family in. He even told me how miners were paid with company scrip, not even real money, and they had to use it at the company store. I grew up listening to stories like that and so that impacted my life a great deal.
It sounds like you learned the value of organized workers early on.
While my mama was cooking dinner, I would sit at the table with daddy and read the union contracts to him. So that was my first reading material. I grew up with that.
I had been teaching for a year and I was home visiting, that’s when Pittston coal company said they were going to stop with the healthcare benefits for retired miners and their widows. They were going to renege on their promise for that, so there was a strike.
Mama packed up the bologna sandwiches and I took them to daddy and while he was eating his on the tailgate of his pickup truck, I took his sign and stood right next to my grandfather on the picket line. So when you grow up with that, you understand the importance of fighting for safety and you want to make sure that people have safe working conditions, and you have to fight for those.
Virginia passed Medicaid expansion, but may ultimately have work requirements. Del. Davis has a mixed record on that. Where do you stand?
There are about 272,527 Virginians who now have insurance because of Medicaid expansion. 12,307 of those recipients live here in Virginia Beach. As a teacher, I see children without healthcare. If you have a toothache or need glasses or if you’re sick, you can’t learn. It’s difficult. And when children don’t have healthcare, the school nurse becomes their primary care physician.
One of our students a couple of years ago, one of our second graders who was a severe asthmatic, she had bronchitis in December and didn’t come to school for a couple of days. So the school nurse called her mom and they sent the ambulance and she passed away. There are serious repercussions to this. I think about that every day. My opponent voted against Medicaid expansion four times before he flipped flopped and finally voted for it. And he made opposing Medicaid expansion one of his key platform issues. All I can think of are the children that I teach who don’t have access to healthcare and the impacts of that for them.
Florida just passed a law that permits teachers to carry guns, which seems to be a different approach.
I’m a gun owner. I support the second amendment and I think [the Florida law] a terrible idea. In 2019, there have already been 15 school shootings. No child deserves to feel unsafe at school. And even just having the lockdowns are terrifying for children, the practice drills that we do, and there is no way that that would help [in a shooting]. All the teachers at VEA, we oppose that. We need to have school counselors helping children. Let’s spend our money on what will work and what will keep our children safer. And we made some inroads with that. But we need to increase the amount, a school counselor for every 125 students because our children have mental health needs and we need to meet those needs.
Last year, you made waves by sawing an AR-15 apart in a campaign video that went viral. It brought a lot of attention from right-wing media. How did that experience shape your campaign, then and now?
It was nothing compared to what the children in Parkland endured or what their parents endured. I destroyed that weapon to show solidarity with Parkland students. They were being bullied by those right wing trolls after their classmates were shot and killed, and I’m always going to stand up and fight for children. I wanted those kids to know that a gun owner heard them and took action because of their bravery, because they spoke out. And I want them to continue to stand up and speak truth to power.
I thought it could damage your campaign in a place like Virginia Beach, but I realize that Del. Davis won by just a few percentage points in 2017. The area now has a number of Democratic legislators. Why is Virginia Beach changing and will that help you?
The biggest thing here, as I’m talking to voters, is recurrent flooding. That’s one of the issues that is impacting the lives of people in Virginia Beach. We’re expected to see a foot and a half of sea level rise by 2050, and three feet by 2080. The annual cost of doing nothing is expected to be more than $270 million per year. Davis voted this past year to remove $50 million from the Stormwater Local Assistance Fund [from Gov. Northam’s budget proposal]. That’s used to fund flooding mitigation and stormwater infrastructure projects, and his vote puts Virginia Beach residents in danger.
Constituents are really upset with the Republicans and what they’ve done with healthcare, education, climate change. I think that’s the big reason that Democrats are doing better. Because when it comes to the issues that the voters care most about, we’re in line with them.