American government is by and large ruled at all levels by white men who were born rich, regard power as a birthright, and speak in platitudes vague enough to obscure the destructive, self-dealing policies they pursue in office. And then every once in a very long while, you get candidates like Amy Laufer, who obliterate all those corrupt plutocratic conventions and remind you that we can do things differently.
Laufer, who is running this fall for the Virginia State Senate seat from District 17, near Charlottesville, is a special mix of empathetic and no bullshit, with the life experience to understand how hard it is to get by and absolutely no patience for the people who make it harder. She’s a longtime teacher, member of the Charlottesville Board of Education, and the founder of Virginia’s List, an organization that recruits and trains women to run for office. Hers has been for a life devoted to progressive principles, shaped by her upbringing.
Biography doesn’t always translate to ideology in ways that seem logical to outsiders, but Laufer’s life experience has led her to active leadership in people-powered politics. That stands in stark contrast to the Republican incumbent she’s challenging, State Sen. Bryce Reeves, a virulently anti-abortion fear-monger who seems to misunderstand the point of democracy. Reeves loves to sue opponents and his top contributors — and, more importantly, beneficiaries — include coal executives, corrupt energy companies, tobacco conglomerates, insurance companies, and Republican dark money PACs.
Born on a dairy farm in Wisconsin, Laufer was one of eight children and spent years sharing a bed with one of her sisters. Nothing was handed to her, and after growing up working on the family farm, she paid her own way through college by juggling a rich array of low-wage jobs. “I had to fully fund it, so I packed fish in Alaska for three summers,” Laufer tells Progressives Everywhere. “I worked as a dry clean person. I worked at Wendy’s. I was a maid. I did whatever kind of job you can imagine to make sure I could afford college.”
After spending the first two-plus decades of her life gritting through hard work in frequently unglamorous circumstances, it would have been easy for Laufer to decide to cash in on her degree and focus on earning all the money she could — and it’d be hard to blame her had she done so. Instead, she went about as far in the opposite direction as she could; after a few years working for the state government in Wisconsin, Laufer joined the Peace Corps and became a teacher in Jamaica.
More than two decades later, the lending library she started in that Jamaican school continues to serve the community, as does the organic farm that Laufer helped the students build in the nearby the Blue Mountains. The farm won national awards, Laufer began working with special needs kids, and she ultimately fell in love with teaching. It became her passion, her mission, and when the assignment was over, she headed to New York to get her master’s in education. After graduating from Columbia, Laufer wound up teaching in downtown Manhattan, and was in the classroom on September 11th, 2001.
She was teaching when the two planes brought down the World Trade Center buildings, and the memory of evacuating her young students amid the chaos is seared into her memory. Years later, as a teacher in Virginia, she found herself bracing for domestic terrorism as she runs active shooter drills with her students. Kids forced to live in fear these days, she says, in part because the state’s Republican Party refuses to budge on gun laws. In fact, Reeves, the GOP incumbent in her district, is known to carry a gun at all times, and was instrumental in passing an expansion of concealed carry laws in the state.
It’s hard for Laufer to conceal the disgust she feels for Reeves’ habit for packing a weapon and his efforts to fight gun control in a state where just this week, a dozen people were killed by a mass shooter. In fact, so much of Laufer’s political activity over the last decade has come in response to sheer disbelief at what she discovered happening in Richmond after the GOP took over the state government in 2011.
“I had actually been going to Richmond to lobby for schools, because that’s part of the job of the school board,” she says. “Quite frankly, I could not believe how few women were elected. I’ll be honest, mainly the women were either receptionists or legislative aides, which is fine, but it really bothered me that there weren’t more women elected.”
Spurred by that obvious yawning gap and the toxic policies it produced, Laufer took a course with the activist group Emerge Virginia, where she met a dozen women running for state office. Like many one-time political outsiders, she decided the first thing she could do to help turn the tide was work to raise support and donations for women candidates, which led to the birth of Virginia’s List. In their first election, the group supported two dozen women seeking office; in 2017, that number more than doubled.
Democrats are now just a few seats away from finally flipping the legislature and enacting true change, making Laufer’s race absolutely crucial in a state where anything can happen.
Laufer ran for city council in 2017 and lost by just 55 votes in a tight and highly contested race. It was a disappointing result that nonetheless taught her a lot about messaging, community organizing, and that frequent bugaboo for progressives: asking for donations. Unlike Reeves, she’s not taking money from big business, and she’s sworn off any contributions from Dominion Energy, the controversial utility company that dominates Virginia politics and has kept the state from making important environmental reforms.
Laufer wants to make it illegal for Dominion to bribe politicians, a political and ethical change that will help clean up both Virginia’s politics and its air and water. The environment is just one of many issues that both get Laufer animated in conversation and illuminate just how far-right Reeves has voted while representing a district that he barely won in his two elections.
Along with tighter gun control, Laufer lists expanding access to healthcare, including a clean Medicaid expansion (which Reeves voted against); protecting LGBTQ rights (Reeves voted to protect the batshit abusive practice generously known as “conversion therapy”); and reckoning with state’s racist history as top priorities.
Charlottesville earned national notoriety in 2017 when a bunch of white supremacists rioted through its streets and clashed with progressive counter-protestors. Laufer was there that day — she has a knack for being present during crucial times in American history — and wound up calling the cops on one of the alt-right troglodytes. The Confederate monuments those racists were trying to protect ought to come down if the people they were erected to intimidate want them down, Laufer says.
“They put up these statues in the 1920s and just made a real purposeful effort to intimidate people of color. Many of these statutes were actually erected in the communities of African-Americans, sometimes even razed the homes and communities themselves for the memorialize,” Laufer explains, obliterating any misguided notion that they were intended to honor some genteel tradition that never actually existed. “One thing that we really want our state officials to do is to allow communities to take the monuments down if they so choose and to stop glorifying this part of our history.”
As you might expect from a guy who supports coal barons, religious kooks, and racists, Reeves has been spreading plenty of misinformation and fear about Laufer and her campaign. He’s viciously anti-choice and has gone around alleging Laufer is some sort of champion of infanticide, turning to a tired lie that is going to get him creamed in any face-to-face debate or conversation.
This is where Laufer gets fired up, ready and itching to expose Reeves and show the community how much more they deserve. Her fundraising has been solid thus far, and once it became clear that she is a formidable opponent, Reeves made the mistake of repeating Fox News talking points, activating the part of Amy Laufer that has had to fight hard for everything in life and on behalf of everything she believes in.
“I announced that I raised over a hundred thousand dollars in the first quarter and he immediately put together an email about me saying that I will bring infanticide to central Virginia,” Laufer says, hardly hiding her disdain. “Dude, I have three children, two have special needs — don’t go there with me. I can’t wait to have that argument. And he was just on the radio station, he wouldn’t say my name but he was saying that he was going to be facing this well-funded liberal person. I’m like, yeah dude, I’m going to take you out. That’s what’s happening.”