Whether or not you believe in a higher power or divine influence, it’d be hard to argue that Joshua Cole wasn’t born to lead his community and help create progressive change in government.
Not yet 30, the Virginia Democrat has been involved in the legislative process since he was a teenager serving as a page in Richmond, first for the House of Delegates and then for then-Governor Mark Warner. He now works as a chief of staff for a delegate there, which is somehow only one of his public service gigs — Cole is also an associate pastor, community activist, and the head of his local chapter of the NAACP in Stafford County. That’s all in addition to running to represent the 28th district in Virginia’s House of Delegates, which he is doing for the second time after shocking everyone by nearly flipping the districting in 2017.
“I work an hour from where I live, so typically I get up in the mornings at about six and I’m on the road by seven,” says Cole, who has spent years making that commute from Stafford to Richmond. “I do call time on my lunch break. I come back home and typically every evening we have events. So whether it’s knocking doors, going to fundraisers, going to some community meeting, or something church-related, I always have something going on every day after work. And I’m normally not home until after nine or 10 o’clock and get right back up to do it all over again.”
It’s an exhausting schedule, though Cole is pretty good at keeping up the energy levels — we spoke after his work in the capitol was done for the day, and he was all geared up to talk about the campaign and the policy goals he wants to pursue; big focuses include criminal justice reform and ending the playground-to-prison pipeline, improving public schools and teacher pay, and access to affordable prescription medication. He talks with the excitement and confidence of a guy who knows he’s got a real chance of winning and doesn’t want to leave any stone unturned or ounce of energy untapped — after all, Cole knows better than anyone else that every vote counts.
Last time around, Cole, then a first-time candidate, lost his race by an excruciatingly minuscule 73 votes. Lawyers wound up getting involved, and there were enough irregularities that Cole could have easily been the rightful winner. The close call was especially brutal because it left Democrats just shy of flipping control of the legislature. Now, Cole is running again to finish the job — he’s just not going to be getting a rematch.
The Republican who beat him, Del. Bob Thomas turned out to be far more wingnuty than advertised — he’s the guy who said he’d welcome Georgia’s abhorrent new abortion policy in Virginia — and yet somehow, he was not quite insane enough for the local GOP. In part because he begrudgingly voted for Medicaid expansion (with work requirements!), Thomas got primaried by his 2017 GOP opponent, Paul Milde, and in a tight decision, the insurgent came out on top.
That means this November’s election will feature two candidates who know how to motivate their respective bases. But only Cole knows how to connect with voters on the other side of the aisle, a talent he acquired by going behind what most progressives would automatically consider enemy lines. His resume is filled with progressive bonafides, with one seemingly incongruous bullet point in education, and he laughs when I ask him how he wound up attending Liberty University, the religious school founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell and now run by his infamously pro-Trump and anti-tact son, Jerry Falwell, Jr.
“I didn’t decide to go there,” he promises. “My mom said, because she paid for my college, that’s where she was sending me. My mother is not political, doesn’t know politics, and while everyone in Virginia knows about Jerry Falwell and some of his statements, she didn’t know about Jerry Jr. She was more concerned with me being in ministry, and I’d been in ministry since I was 16, so she thought it was a great school for me to go to. And, it was affordable.”
Cole’s time at Liberty was filled with self-discovery, though this is not the story of a young man who discovered hypocrisy and broke away from the dogmatic reactionary beliefs that had governed his life. Instead, the awakening was more of a clarification and then re-enforcement.
“I thought I was going to Liberty to learn what I should believe,” Cole says, “and I actually ended up learning how to defend what I already believe.”
The College Democrats are banned from official recognition on the Liberty campus, and while there were no red MAGA hats being worn as pseudo-school colors while Cole was a student there, the Tea Party was mixing the Kool-Aid at frat parties while Cole attended the school. It was not easy to be an “out” progressive on campus, let alone a Black one, and so one of his proudest moments, he says with a chuckle, was voting for President Obama in an on-campus voting booth there.
Obviously, that decision was made in private, but Cole was not shy about arguing with his suitemates about politics and trying to break through what was a relentless (and frequently misleading) conservative message coming from official campus channels.
“The only thing they could harp on was abortion and gay rights, so when I would ask them if they looked at the economy, which consistently does better under Democratic leadership, they had no rebuttal,” Cole remembers. “All they wanted to immediately go to was capitalism and why it’s greater and how it fits into scripture and blah blah blah. But then I would challenge them on how socialism could be viewed in scripture and how Jesus said, ‘what you’ve done to the least of these you’ve done to me.’ And then it caused them to get it. They didn’t have any rebuttal.”
While it’s pretty unlikely that he’d have converted Falwell himself to a pro-choice, Medicare for All advocate had he stayed at the school — eventually, theological differences led Cole to leave Liberty — it’s that history of reaching across the aisle and the dorm room that makes him such an enticing candidate, fit for a district that has been historically conservative but is rapidly changing. It’s not that Cole hews to the center, but how he frames the values of social justice that helps him break through that divide.
His years in the legislature and work in the community combine to give him a good grip on the issues facing working people and what tangible solutions are possible.
Criminal justice reform is the first item he mentions, and it’s especially pertinent in Virginia right now. Two reform-focused primary challengers took down incarceration-happy prosecutors in the northern part of the state just last week, and Cole wants to further tackle both the reasons people wind up on the wrong side of the law and how they can rebuild their lives once they’ve paid their debt to society.
Cole has some family members who were formerly incarcerated and are now returning citizens, and he’s watched them struggle to be accepted back into society, both because of inherent stigmas and practical matters, including simple issues such as their driver licenses lapsing while they were serving time.
“One of the very first pieces of legislation that I want to introduce is, a week or two weeks or a month before they get ready to be released, we’d have a partnership with the DMV, to give returning citizens IDs as soon as they’re released, so that can help them out with getting jobs,” he says, displaying the sort of nuanced problem-solving ability that comes with years tracking legislation in the capitol.
That would help reduce the recidivism rate, and he also wants to make sure everyone who graduates high school has the opportunity to complete a skills training and certification, to ensure the job opportunities that cut down on economic hardship and other factors that are part of what put people at risk of arrest.
Cole has no shortage of legislative plans, but first, he needs to win his election. And while things are looking good this time around, the last experience taught him some important lessons. He’s now more mature and patient, he says, but no less scrappy and ready to operate like an underdog.
“Last time we knew we didn’t have money, so the biggest thing we could do was knock on doors,” he says. “This time we have money but we’re still not going to take knocking on doors — or the money — for granted. We still are going to hit the doors heavy. I’m from this district. This is the only home that I’ve known. I really know the issues that face the people. So we need to plan for the future.”