Less than a month out from Election Day, topline numbers look very good for Democrats in Virginia, as a number of exciting candidates, including several we’ve featured here, are poised to flip both houses of the legislature. Pundits will hail that as a bellwether for 2020, but to truly ensure a brighter (and bluer) future, we have to dig past the suburban seats already trending our way and listen to candidates like Beverly Harrison, who is running for Delegate in Virginia’s rural 15th district.
Progressive activists have spent the last two cycles pushing to have (good) Democratic candidates run for every office in every district in the country, a herculean task made that much more difficult by the fact that the party largely abandoned (and was driven out from) rural America over the last 40 years. The silver lining of the endless, obvious treachery of Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell, and their cabal of thieves is that it has inspired a record number of enthusiastic Democratic candidates, many of them first-timers. We consider these cheap local races to support, but we don’t always quite appreciate the high price paid by the candidates running in the ruby-red districts.
“The stakes are high out here. You’re going to lose friends, you’re going to be ostracized,” Harrison tells Progressives Everywhere. “You’re probably gonna get some hate mail and ridiculed if you lose. That probably happens in a lot of places, but in the country, where we all end up at the same Walmart or the Food Lion every day, it’s very personal. I have Republican supporters who will not publicly acknowledge they support me, nor will they put up a sign in their front yard. When you run for office, you’re putting your name out there.”
So why run? Why is Harrison putting her name out there? She seems to be living a pretty decent life. She spent much of her career as a health educator, before the nonprofit where she worked shut down, but now she has a steady job as an administrator, working with contracts, which she can do remotely. It wasn’t easy, but she raised two children as a single mother, steering them both toward college. So why upend her life, running for office in what seems like hostile territory?
“Initially it was because of the Equal Rights Amendment — last summer I discovered that it never made it into the Constitution,” Harrison says. “I’d been busy being a single parent, head of household and doing my thing. I became an ERA grassroots activist because I found that unacceptable. And then when the session started this year, it was my own delegate who prevented the House of Delegates for being able to vote on ERA ratification. We had the votes, but he would not permit it. And so when he shut down equality for the nation, I found that unacceptable.”
The Delegate in question is Todd Gilbert, the Republican House Majority Leader who shut down debate on a rules change that would have allowed Virginia to become the state that put the Equal Rights Amendment, crawling towards ratification since the 1970s, over the top.
Gilbert is a powerhouse in Virginia politics, with a massive campaign war chest and a tight grip on his district. Even as he’s come under fire in the state as Democrats have clawed back power over the last few years, he’s run unopposed again and again. Until this year.
What happens when an ERA advocate takes on the man who prevented Virginia delegates from being able to vote on ratification. #EqualRightsAmendment #ERA #ERAnow #VAratifyERA #BeverlyHarrison pic.twitter.com/LATqPfhWUs
— Beverly Harrison for Delegate (@Bev4District15) October 12, 2019
“After about a week of being just very angry, I decided no one had run against this man in 10 years, that it was time for somebody to do something about it, and that person was going to be me,” Harrison explains. “And so I jumped in. And then when I started looking through his voting record, I discovered the myriad of ways he’s not been helping this district.”
What she discovered was Gilbert’s opposition to Medicaid expansion in Virginia, his work to stymie public notice about progressive policies being passed in Richmond, and perhaps egregiously, Gilbert’s role in shutting down the legislature’s debate on gun control after just 90 minutes. That earned him a cool $200,000 from the NRA, which was terrified that an assault rifle ban might pass in Virginia had Gilbert not stepped in.
Harrison is motivated not just by the hot button issues, but also the challenges facing her rural neighbors, whether or not they want to talk to her at the Walmart or put up her yard signs. While she’s able to telecommute for her job, it’s a luxury not available to most people in her district due to the utter lack of reliable broadband internet. It makes it difficult for local businesses to thrive — even brick and mortar stores need an online presence — and really hard for students to keep up.
“When you have online homework, these kids either can’t do their homework or they may have to go to the library or rural America’s internet provider, which is McDonald’s,” she says.
The internet issue is also a major health concern, especially in a region still struggling with the opioid crisis and a whopping 12.2% uninsured rate. There’s a lack of quality information about how to identify addiction and where to get help, and without reliable internet, people can’t do it in the privacy of their own homes. Telemedicine is also out of reach, robbing rural residents of affordable care and therapy; instead, they sometimes have to drive hours to see a doctor.
As a former educator, Harrison returns to the subject over and over, linking most issues back to it in some way. She wants to push for vocational school to train students in new, modern skills — including those involving computers — as a way to not only create jobs, but fill the ones that are open.
“Employers out here are having jobs that are unfilled because they don’t have skilled workers to fill them,” she says. “And those are some great jobs, so we need to do a better job preparing our students to fill those jobs. In doing so, we would allow our students to actually live and work in the same area.”
Right now, Harrison says, gifted students are leaving for more populous places like Fairfax and other Virginia cities, where the tech industry is putting down roots. It’d be easy for her to decamp for a thriving community, too; her kids are both away at college on full scholarships, and moving to a city, or even a suburb, would make any commute much less prohibitive. But Harrison loves the Shenandoah Valley and wants to help rebuild what’s been stripped away over the last 40 years, even if she’s coming up against some resistance.
She’s received little assistance from state leaders, but she continues to fight while continuing to work full-time, doing the hard work that must be done to remake the culture and country. Instead, the state party has focused largely on the few most winnable races, so that it can flip the legislature, even if by the barest of margins. Short-term, that’s understandable, but if we want to truly build a progressive majority and help people everywhere — not to mention not sweat every single suburban seat every two years — it’s helping candidates like Beverly Harrison that will prove to be the best investment.