Vote Local is creating a model for turning Appalachia blue again

As Democrats continue to rebuild their state and local parties, they would be wise to look to Virginia. Once a solid red state, it has become reliably blue on both the national and state government level, giving its electoral votes to Democrats and sending Dems to both Congress and the Governor’s Mansion. The party even looks poised to flip the state legislature this fall, aided by new court-ordered nonpartisan maps. In broad strokes, Virginia is a major success story.

But drill down a little further and you’ll find an extreme partisan stratification that mirrors much of what we are seeing across the country. The Democratic waves have been powered mostly by the affluent suburbs of northern Virginia, while the more rural southwest, which is more impoverished Appalachia than planned communities of federal contractors, has become a Republican stronghold. The party has a lock on the state’s ninth Congressional District and many counties in the area; if Democrats ever want to improve conditions for people and compete nationally there, it will require a major injection of both support and fresh faces.

Enter Andrew Whitley and his new organization, Vote Local. He is a Virginia-based campaign veteran who has spent nearly a decade in the state’s progressive political infrastructure.

In 2017, Whitley ran Chris Hurst’s high-profile and ultimately victoriouslegislative campaign. Hurst was a young local TV anchor who pivoted to politics after his wife, a fellow reporter, was shot to death on air; he ran as a gun control advocate and defeated a card-carrying member of the NRA, a credit to both his personal touch and Whitley’s campaign skills.

After going out west in 2018 to manage a successful Lt. Governor race in Nevada, Whitley is returning home to southwestern Virginia with designs on rebuilding the Democratic Party in the region. Vote Local is building from the ground up, putting together a slate of candidates on the county level that can install progressive policy and eventually move on to bigger offices. The initial goal is flipping two seats on the Republican-held Board of Supervisors in Montgomery County this fall.

The group has announced one candidate so far, Robbie Jones, a former head of the Montgomery County Education Association and long-time community activist. Whitley gave Progressives Everywhere his pitch for the group earlier this month.

Virginia is trending blue — but the south has gone from blue to red. What’s Vote Local going to do about it?

I’m a southwest Virginia guy, born and bred there. That’s the area of the state that could benefit from and needs Democratic progressive policies the most, but rejects them the most. A lot of folks talk about how we can take back the ninth [congressional district] and unfortunately I’m subscribed to the mindset that it’s not possible right now. We’re not going to be able to take back a congressional seat and we’re not going to be able to win too many more legislative seats in the ninth right now. So where do we go from here? It’s local.

My goal is to find good, qualified, progressive candidates who are well-respected in their communities, run them for some of these local seats, and maybe after a few years of serving and showing that they’re good, outstanding citizens we can eventually have the take the step up, run for delegate, run for state senator, and over time, change the attitude and the perception of the Democratic Party in southwest.

People will see that there are people that you voted for that actually work for you, and these policies are a result of you electing them. Hopefully, it’ll make the difference. It’s not going to be an overnight thing, but we’re definitely gonna give it a shot this cycle.

CLICK HERE to donate to Vote Local via Progressives Everywhere’s ActBlue page!

There are still some local Democratic office-holders in the area — why haven’t they made the leap? Why not work with them?

I think that these local officials, they know all too well that if they make that leap and if they do announce, they’re going to be left unsupported. They’re gonna have to raise a lot of money. And I’m not blaming the state party or the caucuses for this, but generally, the candidates have to do a lot on their own and they don’t get the support they need. So in [the officials’] minds, why would I leave an office that I’m doing really good in right now to take a chance to run for something that I’m probably not going to win and I’m not going to be supported in?

My hope is that if they look at this new wave of local candidates, they will see that they will get support and here’s how we can help them, then maybe they will take the step. And also, the good that they will do in these local seats, it can’t be understated. When I managed Chris’s race, I naively did not understand the power that local government has in Virginia, in the county Board of Supervisors.

Thanks to the Republicans on that board, schools haven’t been funded the way that they should. Teachers haven’t received the raises that they should. So even if they don’t run for higher offices, the good that we can do by getting some of these boards flipped with good candidates, I think is worth it.

How bad is the Democratic brand there?

I’ll speak anecdotally. The county that I’m from, Smyth County, it’s right near the Tennessee border. It has a Democratic sheriff, all the constitutional officers are Democrats. There are a couple of Republicans on the Board of Supervisors, but it’s dominated by Democrats. Then you get Scott County and other counties that are the opposite. So it’s definitely not one or the other. There’s still a really good crew of candidates, of local office holders there that proved that you can elect these local Democratic offices.

CLICK HERE to donate to Vote Local via Progressives Everywhere’s ActBlue page!

Chris Hurst ran as a gun control advocate, but he had a very unique story. Do you see him as a blueprint or an anomaly?

His story is obviously very unique, but one of the things that we did is we didn’t make the issue about guns. He wasn’t afraid to say what his position was when asked — and he was asked many times — but we talked about education. That was our big issue. Making sure the kids had a quality education. We talked about improving education, transportation, and local issues that make a difference in everyday people’s lives. And it resonated. So yeah, I do think that he is somewhat of a blueprint. If you get the right candidate to talk about the right issues, then it’s possible.

Some of these races are pretty inexpensive, maybe $3,000 to run a decent campaign. How do you plan on spending the money, what’s the campaign strategy?

I talked to a couple of friends of mine that are in the campaign world, and we’re going to focus on mail and we’re gonna focus on digital. I’m paying myself like a small stipend monthly to work on it as well. I think it’s like 90 percent of the budget is going directly to the candidates and campaign efforts. I’m going to be kind of their go-to guy to help guide them through any press stuff that they might have or if they need any help with fundraising themselves or if they want to do meet and greets or when you help with knocking doors.

I wanted to start small and keep the test study small, stick to Montgomery County to not overwhelm myself and also show that if we’ve got a good blueprint here, which I think we do, we can take the success that we have this cycle and move it forward to other localities.

So tell me about Robbie Jones.

She was a former Montgomery County Educational Association President, the first person to ever be elected president of the local MCEA that’s not an actual educator.

She’s head custodial staff. She’s a blue-collar worker, fits the district really well, cares about public education. Her opponent has done nothing but oppose what the school board has asked for. Our candidates care about the county. They care about our issues and they want to move it forward.

CLICK HERE to donate to Vote Local via Progressives Everywhere’s ActBlue page!

Inching toward universal healthcare: New York City to guarantee healthcare to everyone, Washington State plans a public option

A demented old racist has taken our federal government and TV news bureaus hostage, so it’s easy to overlook the progressive policy announcements made over the last few days. But with new Democratic administrations taking office and others looking to make a splash, it’s been a good few days, especially for healthcare policy.

In New York on Tuesday, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the city would be moving toward guaranteed healthcare for undocumented immigrants and low-income residents. It’s not any kind of Medicaid expansion — states run that program — or new health plan, but instead, a guarantee of proactive care that won’t cost patients anything if they can’t afford to pay.

From the NY Times:

The city already has a kind of public option for health insurance for low-income New Yorkers, through an insurance plan run by city hospitals known as MetroPlus.

The new proposal would improve that coverage, which already insures some 516,000 people, and aim to reach more of those who are eligible, such as the young and uninsured, and others who qualify but have not applied.

It would also provide additional direct city spending, at least $100 million per year when fully implemented, officials said, for the city’s hospital system to support care for those without insurance. The city estimates the uninsured population to be about 600,000 people, including as many as 300,000 undocumented residents. A major component of that effort would be improving customer service, including the phone line, to help those with questions about their care.

The program will have a membership card that will allow patients to get care from a wide array of doctors. Right now, over half a million people use the city’s emergency rooms for their medical care, which is a very unhealthy and fiscally disastrous status quo. According to NBC New York, this new program will allow people to seek “primary and specialty care, from pediatrics to OBGYN, geriatric, mental health and other services.”

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Womp womp: Tony Evers says he was totally misunderstood and will follow Republican laws

There are two types of Democrats: Those that talk tough, and those that are actually willing to fight. There are far too many of the former already, and unfortunately, we know that at the very least, new Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers does not belong in the latter camp.

Yesterday, the newly elected governor drew cheers and many, many upvotes when he said that he would be ignoring at least some of the ridiculous, restrictive laws passed by Republicans during a dirty lame-duck session last month. He had won a lawsuit against the power-grab that Republicans had enacted against him when he was the state’s school superintendent, so this didn’t seem like that unusual a statement for him.

Turns out, when he said that he expected to be sued, he didn’t mean for non-compliance. Instead, he says he was suggesting that outside groups might sue the state (ie him) to lift the restrictions on his power (something he’d welcome, but won’t do himself). Via the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel:

“I have no intent of breaking the law,” Evers told reporters at a news conference Thursday.

The incoming Democratic governor said he believed he would be sued not by detractors trying to force him to follow the laws passed in a lame-duck session but by supporters who want to get him out from under the laws. Provisions of those laws will limit his ability to write state rules and oversee economic development.

“I personally have reviewed (the new laws) and reviewed them with attorneys and other legal staff,” Evers said. “We haven’t decided what to do personally. It’s just that in my experience that when this happens, it likely will happen from the outside.”

This comes after (expected) Republican backlash to his comments. Perhaps he’s trying to make peace before the legislative session, or maybe not show his hand (or,  pull it back, as it were). Either way, he will follow the laws, he says,  until a court strikes them down.

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New Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (D) plans to ignore lame-duck power grab, tells Republicans: Sue me

Tony Evers has seen this before. When he was Wisconsin’s state schools superintendent, the GOP-controlled legislature and Gov. Scott Walker tried to limit his powers. He sued them over it, and the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled in his favor. So after deposing Walker in November’s gubernatorial election, he’s not surprised that the GOP came after him again, passing a sheaf of last-minute laws in a lame-duck session that would severely restrict his ability to do his job and fulfill the promises he made to voters.

So, once again, he plans to rely on the courts to protect his right to do the job to which he was democratically elected. Via Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel:

He suggested he wouldn’t go along with parts of those wide-ranging measures but wouldn’t specify which ones. The new laws limit his authority over state rules, require him to get permission from lawmakers to adjust public benefits programs and diminish his say over the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.

“Having gone through this in my previous job as state superintendent, I think it’s more likely that I will be sued because I’m now the chief executive of the state,” Evers said of a potential legal fight over the lame-duck legislation “Same thing happened when I was state superintendent — I was sued. So that’s where I anticipate most of the action to be.”

Evers didn’t specify which restrictions he would ignore, but he did lay out an ambitious first budget and agenda which can give us a few clues. According to the Journal-Sentinel report, he is aiming to “expand health insurance coverage under the ACA; allow illegal immigrants to qualify for driver’s cards; give immigrants who came to the state illegally as children the chance to pay in-state tuition; and allow property taxes to rise by more than they have in the past.”

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Virginia State Senator Dick Black, an unrepentant bigot monster, won’t run for re-election

State Senator Dick Black, who met with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in 2016 and has been a monstrous enemy of women and LGBTQ people, has announced that he is retiring from the Virginia State Senate at the end of his term.

It’s hard to overemphasize how awful Black, who represents Virginia’s 13th State Senate district, has been while in office. He backs dictators, is an unhinged conspiracy theoristrampantly homophobic, and viciously anti-choice. (For his greatest hits, check out Blue Virginia’s post from last summer.) The fact that he’s leaving is in and of itself great news, even before you get to the political opportunity offered by his exit.

Black’s district has backed Democrats for state and national office of late, with Tim Kaine beating Black’s fellow alt-right bigot Corey Stewart by 19% and Ralph Northam winning the governor’s race by 11% there. Some argue that he’s a better target than a boring, moderate Republican, but he won his race in 2015 after saying some pretty awful stuff, so this time around, Democrats won’t have to worry about whatever blinding spell he cast over his constituents.

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