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.
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”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 theorist, rampantly 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.