Friday morning rush hour on Route 28. Courtesy of the author.

Virginia’s lessons for progressives

Last month, Democrats picked up 15 seats in the Virginia House of Delegates, beating even the most optimistic of predictions. Some see the election as a rejection of Trump-style politics, but in one county, it’s a little more complicated.

It’s after 7 p.m. on a weeknight, and the middle school auditorium in Prince William County, Virginia is standing room only. Teachers, parents, and school counselors are waiting for an audience with their newest state legislators, Hala Ayala, Lee Carter, Elizabeth Guzman, and Danica Roem.

These four delegates-elect are part of November’s historic sweep, which was followed by a thrilling win for Democrats in Alabama in December. Democrats picked up 15 seats in the Virginia House of Delegates, beating even the most optimistic of predictions, with a slate of diverse and unabashedly progressive candidates. A few of the races are pending recounts and could still give Democrats a majority in the lower chamber.

Tonight is a panel of firsts: Ayala and Guzman are the first two Latina delegates in Virginia, Carter Virginia’s first democratic socialist, and Roem one of the first openly transgender candidates to be elected to any state office.

Hala Ayala and Danica Roem talk with attendees after an education town hall in Prince William County, Virginia. Courtesy of the author.

“The goal for all of us was not to win one race, but take over Prince William County,” Guzman had said a few weeks earlier to Scalawag.

A month after the election, the landslide Democratic wins in Virginia’s House of Delegates are still at the forefront of people’s conversations.

These candidates in Northern Virginia were at the center of a national wave of support from Democratic super PACs and progressive organizations across the country

“So, we retired Bob Marshall?” says one older white man to another, referencing the incumbent Roem unseated: a staunchly socially conservative Republican who drafted Virginia’s version of North Carolina’s anti-trans bathroom bill and has referred to himself as the state’s “chief homophobe.”

“No,” the second man retorts, grinning. “We fired Bob Marshall.”

And indeed, some see this election as the beginning of a backlash, a rejection of Trump-style politics at the national and local level propelled by the burgeoning resistance. But in Prince William County and the city of Manassas, areas of Northern Virginia where Democratic wins were concentrated, the picture looks more complicated.

Asked about the key to their successes, several candidates pointed to a strong ground game and a laser focus on the policies that actually affect Virginians’ lives.

At the same time, these candidates in Northern Virginia were at the center of a national wave of support from Democratic super PACs and progressive organizations across the country, as well as local attention from state and national political advocacy groups.

Traffic, demographics, and cash

This election cycle’s key themes were pretty basic: demographics, local issues, and cash.

Prince William County is an outer suburb, growing steadily. Long expanses of six-lane highways peppered with strip malls and new townhouse developments exit onto two-lane back roads through farmland and forests. Manassas and Manassas Park nestle near the eastern border of the county. When Guzman moved there from neighboring Fairfax, Virginia in the early 2000s, hers was the only Latino family in her neighborhood. But now, the county is majority people of color, and 22 percent of county residents are Latino.

Many residents commute daily to jobs in Washington, D.C., a trip often marred by brutal, bumper to bumper traffic. Roem campaigned on ending the gridlock, especially along Route 28, a perpetually-congested highway that runs through several counties in Northern Virginia. She’s brought the highway up—by name—in almost every national news interview she’s given since the election. She even talked about Virginia’s traffic problems with a perplexed red carpet interviewer when she was Demi Lovato’s guest to the American Music Awards.

Developments of townhouses and single family homes dot the highways in Prince William County, among fields and construction sites. The area's population has continued to grow since 2010, and is now majority people of color. Courtesy of the author.

But obviously, vehicular congestion and other hyperlocal issues weren’t the only thing that turned this election towards a batch of progressive candidates. The demographics of this region are changing. Until this election, Northern Virginia has been mostly represented in the House of Delegates by white, Republican men. But this area, with 54 percent people of color and a significant number of federal government workers, has been more purple than red for a while now. Every district that overlaps with Prince William County or the cities of Manassas and Manassas Park voted Democrat in the past two presidential elections and the last governor’s election, but many still had Republicans representing them at the state level.

The difference this year was Trump. “The people were motivated to receive the message.”

And this year, all eyes were on Virginia. Other than New Jersey, and the special Senate election in Alabama which led to a stunning Democratic win last week, it was the only place in the country holding statewide elections this year. Candidates in these districts received an avalanche of donations and support on the ground—from the state Democratic party, but also from newly-minted Democratic super PACs like Forward Majority, Flippable, and The Arena.

All but for Carter, whose campaign decided to break ties with the state party, the Democratic challengers that won outraised their opponents with the help of national organizations. Some spent double the funds of these Republican incumbents.

Allen Muchnick, the co-chair of the Manassas Park Cities Democratic Committee, says even with all the national interest, the work of the committee wasn’t that different from past election years.

“We work hard every election. Sometimes we win, sometimes we don’t,” Muchnick said. The difference this year was Trump. “The people were motivated to receive the message.”

An anti-Trump backlash

In past election years, Holly Hazard would tell friends she was canvassing and if she was lucky, could get someone to come along. This year was different. “I had friends emailing me and calling me who had never been involved in politics before,” she said.

A couple who lived on her street knocked doors for Roem; another neighbor did the same for David Reid, a Democratic challenger who won this year in the 32nd District. Right before the election on a miserable, rainy weekend, Hazard went out one more time to canvas for Democrats. Outside, lined up around the house, were 150 volunteers waiting to get packets.

Hazard is an organizer with Network NoVA, a local women-led grassroots group that formed out of the Women’s March. In the group’s early days, she and the other members focused their attention on Washington, writing letters against Trump’s executive actions and nominees like Scott Pruitt (in her day job, Hazard is a senior vice president at the Humane Society).

But in the spring, they turned their attention back home. As people stepped up to run for office, Hazard said she and others felt that “if they’re going to run, we’re going to support them.”

And they wanted to go beyond protecting seats that were already safely Democratic. Instead, Network NoVA targeted their organizing experience and D.C. political connections toward parts of the state still represented by Republicans. In June, they held a summit for women looking to get involved in the upcoming elections, inviting 40 national progressive groups. “We purposefully had it outside the Beltway, we had it in far out Loudon county,” said Hazard.

The D.C. branch of the the Democratic Socialists of America, the Metro DC DSA, also pulled in volunteers from the city. The branch, which endorsed Carter’s campaign, was able to knock about 1,000 doors each weekend in the two months leading up to the campaign, said Harry Baker, a member of one of the chapter’s organizing committees. Most of these volunteers traveled from D.C., though some also came from Maryland and Virginia.

The D.C. DSA hadn’t done much canvassing before the 2017 election cycle—they did a little door knocking for Bernie Sanders, but that was it, Baker said—but they came out of this election with well-developed infrastructure to get out the vote.

Building grassroots trust

Public advocacy groups that work with marginalized communities also played a huge role in Virginia’s races.

For Tram Nguyen, the co-executive director of New Virginia Majority, it’s hard to separate out the work that they’ve been doing this election cycle from the work that they do everyday. The organization, founded ten years ago, aims to organize communities of color, women, LGBT communities, and working people to develop a culture of informed, progressive voting. New Virginia Majority sent out targeted election mailers to Asian American and Black voters, as well as Spanish-speakers, and did a big voter registration push.

But these strategies only work, she said, because organizers are in contact with these communities yearound. “That level of trust is important, because so many of these communities are so used to campaigns parachuting in and saying, ‘We’re going to do all of these things,’ and it’s very transactional.”

The messages these candidates chose might have resonated with some moderates, but they were decidedly not centrist.

“Folks knew us, absolutely,” said Yaheiry Mora, the senior policy and elections manager for the immigrant rights organization CASA. CASA in Action, the group’s electoral organization, focused its work in areas with at least 20 percent Latino voters. “They got our calls, they got our texts, they got our knocks.”

Often, canvassers would speak to voters who hadn’t heard from anyone but CASA in Action. “Every time we’d go out, folks would get so excited when you would share that you had the women who would be the first two Latinas elected.”

They recognized themselves in their stories, Mora said, and they were excited that there were women running for office who said they’d fight for them. In precincts where at least one third of the voters were Latino, voter turnout went up almost five percent from 2013.

A new strategy for winning the South

The messages these candidates chose might have resonated with some moderates, but they were decidedly not centrist.

Among them, the Prince William County and Manassas candidates ran on criminal justice reform, Medicaid expansion, women’s right to choose, and driver’s licenses made available to everyone in Virginia, including undocumented immigrants.

The focus of the townhall meeting with the newly elected delegates is education, and as the representatives talk about student-counselor ratios and mental health services, the stories from the stage quickly become personal.

“I know what it’s like to be that kid who desperately needs to see a counselor and can’t do it,” says Roem. “I’m a child of suicide, and as someone who knew that I was transgender by the time I was 10 years old, I had no one to talk to about it in the 90s. That just was not my reality.”

She pledges to work with her colleagues on the stage to advocate as strongly as possible for a decrease in the counselor-student ratio in Virginia. Someone in the audience lets out a cheer.

As Ayala starts to speak about her two children, who both have mental health needs, she starts to cry. “We got elected to put the heartbeat back into Richmond, back into the way we do business. Back into the way we treat our families and children,” she says. She looks into the audience, addressing a teenager who spoke earlier in the evening about friends’ struggle to find treatment. “Whatever I can do, to make your life better, that’s what I’m going to do.” Roem jumps out of her chair and wraps Ayala in a hug.

“We have these opportunities that really do exist in the South—to build a progressive base, to engage Black voters and Black communities at scale—and there’s been little investment and infrastructure. And that’s a problem.”

Seeing candidates proudly run on these issues—and win—is an “assertion and an affirmation” of the kind of politics the country needs going forward, said Adrianne Shropshire, the executive director of BlackPAC, which spent over five hundred thousand dollars on get out the vote efforts targeted to Black Virginians.

But Democrats need to build consistent, sustainable ways to engage Black voters, said Shropshire.

“We have these opportunities that really do exist in the South—to build a progressive base, to engage Black voters and Black communities at scale—and there’s been little investment and infrastructure. And that’s a problem.”

And just promising to create jobs isn’t enough, she said. A progressive politics for the nation, that centers not just economic equality but healthcare, education, and racial justice, can’t be created by ignoring swaths of the country. “Trying to get to those things by tiptoeing around the South is not going to get us there.”

  • About

    Sarah Schwartz is a freelance reporter and a contributing writer for Education Week. She’s a native of the Washington, D.C. area.