Previewing the Virginia Legislative Elections and Our Candidates

Virginia has gone increasingly blue at the national level but has been hindered by Republican gerrymanders statewide. With those unfair districts vacated by courts and new ones drawn up, Democrats are well-positioned to finally flip both houses of the legislature. And if they can do that, they can make major progress on teacher pay and education funding, tackling coal companies, creating affordable housing, and making sure the state doesn’t get gerrymandered again in 2021.

Polling on the issues is looking good, but every donation and volunteer hour makes a difference. After all, control of the House of Delegates was determined by a coin flip in 2017.

I’ve spent a lot of time talking to and supporting six candidates in Virginia over the last 8 months, and each represents an important element of the new progressive coalition. Barack Obama recently put out his Virginia endorsements, which include three of the candidates below (Cole, Mallard, Hernandez). You can DONATE to them all by clicking here; info on each and links to our stories are below:

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Josh Cole is a dynamic young pastor and NAACP chapter president who is running again to represent District 28 House of Delegates after losing his race in 2017 by just 73 votes.

He’s very focused on criminal justice reform and economic inequality, and he works the kind of hours that should clear how dedicated he is to public service.

Fun note: After his religious, apolitical mom insisted he enroll at Liberty University, he worked on the underground College Dems before ultimately quitting the school.

“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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Unlike Scott Walker, new Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers has a soul

We focus on winning elections, and a lot of times, it feels more like team sports or a fight based on abstract principles. But these races matter — just look at what’s happening in Wisconsin, New Mexico, and several other newly blue (or purple) states.

Wisconsin:

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers unveiled his first budget and it did not disappoint. It’s loaded with progressive priorities, from a raised minimum wage and increased public school funding to automatic voter registration and nonpartisan redistricting reform. It would also fully expand Medicaid, decriminalize small amounts of marijuana, freeze school vouchers, and undo Scott Walker’s signature Right to Work For Less law, which nearly caused the lifelong government succubus to be recalled during his first term.

Even though Democrats won a vast majority of votes in November, the GOP’s egregious gerrymander helped the party keep control of the state legislature, which means that this ambitious budget will have to be scaled back. Republicans have vowed to ignore the funding levels and begin working from their paltry austerity budgets of the past few years, but Evers has laid down some bold markers, and there’s a lot he can do without GOP support.

Fully expanding Medicaid is particularly notable, because Scott Walker refused to do so for six years out of sheer malignant principle. He slightly expanded eligibility, but refused to take it to the point at which the state (and working people) would get hundreds of millions of dollars from the federal government. That’s what we call being a spiteful jerk.

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