Phil Hernandez and the rise of the Obama generation

There was a record surge of young voter turnout in 2018, in part because we have young grassroots leaders running for office across the country, providing a new wave of energy and fight. That wasn’t a fluke, either.

This spring, as I interviewed candidates running for the legislature in Virginia, I asked their staffers and other activists who else I should highlight. The answer was pretty unanimous: talk to Phil Hernandez, a young candidate from Virginia Beach running for the House of Delegates. It was a lot of hype, but he more than lived up to it.

In his early 30s, Hernandez has the sort of resume that could get him just about any high-paying corporate job he wanted. The first member of his family to graduate from college, he went on to work in the Obama White House, moving up to the Domestic Policy Council. He later went to law school at Berkeley and became a civil rights attorney, working on behalf of low-income tenants and fighting on behalf of other people facing discrimination. He used his policy know-how to develop a bill that would help tackle homelessness in the state and it was eventually signed into law by California Gov. Jerry Brown.

Instead of cashing in on his experience, Hernandez decided to move home to the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, and now he’s running to represent the 100th district in the House of Delegates. What follows is a lightly edited version of our conversation.

Continue reading “Phil Hernandez and the rise of the Obama generation”

Joshua Cole is running on divine inspiration in Virginia

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.

Continue reading “Joshua Cole is running on divine inspiration in Virginia”

Amy Laufer is taking out a coal-fed right-wing idealogue in Virginia

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. Continue reading “Amy Laufer is taking out a coal-fed right-wing idealogue in Virginia”

Virginia’s Karen Mallard is a teacher, union leader, and the perfect progressive southern candidate

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.

Continue reading “Virginia’s Karen Mallard is a teacher, union leader, and the perfect progressive southern candidate”

Down Home is organizing the rural south and overcoming the legacy of racism

The Democratic Party made much of its inroads in 2018 by picking off low-hanging fruit, flipping some legislatures and half of Congress by winning districts with big demographics shifts, mainly in urban and large suburban areas. It was a huge first step, but any hope of a sustained majority and transformative progress is going to require success in more rural areas, which have become the bright-red homes to some of the most unhinged right-wing Republican lawmakers.

North Carolina is a perfect example. Democrats, powered by new voters in cities like Charlotte and Raleigh, won more votes in the state in 2018, and were able to break the GOP supermajority, but Republicans still won more seats in the state legislature and a whopping 10 out of 13 Congressional seats. Why? In a vile cycle of systemic evil that took decades to install, Republicans took control of rural areas, seized the state government in the 2010 wave election, and then gerrymandered the hell out of the state map. The NC GOP is a melange of unhinged reactionaries, and has been advancing blatantly anti-democratic, anti-human laws ever since, from voter ID to the ignominious anti-trans bathroom bills.

The 2018 election was a good first step for Democrats in the state, but the modest gains could prove short-lived if the 2020 election isn’t even better. “If it’s not divided at least between a majority in the two state houses,” explains Todd Zimmer, the co-founder of the activist group Down Home North Carolina, “the Republicans will be able to draw all the maps again right after the 2020 census and put us right back where we were 10 years ago.”

Democrats need to pick up five seats in the State Senate and six in the State House to take back the majority in each chamber, and now the road to restoring sanity and building equality in North Carolina runs through the still-red rural parts of the state. Down Home NC is helping to lead the charge. They’re working to build grassroots power 365 days a year, with an eye on winning elections at the local level up through the US Senate (North Carolina has a top-tier race in 2020), by organizing working people on a county-by-county level.

“We set out to start building permanent long-term infrastructure, including candidate pipelines,” Zimmer says. As a county-based organization with a state-wide umbrella leadership, Down Home North Carolina right now has three main chapters, two in Appalachian Mountain West and one in the central Piedmont of North Carolina. This will be a year of rapid expansion, with two more planned for 2019, one in the Appalachians and another Piedmont chapter closer to Charlotte. Unlike many groups, the local infrastructure is less a tool for disseminating top-down messages and priorities than rallying grassroots energy tailored to regional needs.

“When we enter a community, we do a several thousand door listening survey to find out what the top issues are for low-income people of all political stripes, and what their top solutions are,” Zimmer says. “We turn that into a platform and our members evaluate potential candidates based on that platform. We are really only trying to support candidates who are speaking to the top issues of rural communities.”

Continue reading “Down Home is organizing the rural south and overcoming the legacy of racism”