‘The party needs to have a tough conversation’: Republicans play catch-up when it comes to diversity

By: - November 1, 2019 12:01 am

Garrison Coward, left, a Republican candidate for a Richmond-area House of Delegates seat, sits for an interview with NBC 12. (NBC 12)

Compared to past cycles, the Virginia GOP is running a more diverse slate of candidates for this year’s General Assembly elections that includes 13 women who are not incumbents, two black men and one Asian man.

But there’s still work that can, and should, be done on that front, some of the candidates said.

“The party needs to have a tough conversation about where they want to be,” said Garrison Coward, the young, black chief operating officer of a data analytics firm who is running against Democratic Del. Dawn Adams to represent parts of the city of Richmond and Chesterfield and Henrico counties. “They should rally behind everyone and anyone who wants to run on our side.”

Historically, black Americans have favored Democratic candidates and more recently in Virginia, white suburban women have also flocked to Democrats.

“The last several years have really been marked by rapidly increasing diversity in terms of people being elected to office,” said Stephen Farnsworth, political scientist at the University of Mary Washington. “The Democratic candidates who prevailed in 2017 House of Delegates races, specifically in the suburbs, made the House much more diverse. The Republican Party is trying to catch up to provide candidates who aren’t just white males.”

That year, the Democratic Party welcomed the first openly transgender delegate, first openly lesbian delegate, first Asian American woman and the first two Latinas to the General Assembly. That’s in addition to 18 black members between the two chambers who are all Democrats.

But even if Republicans had an equally diverse roster this year, it’s unlikely to help them on Election Day for now, Farnsworth said.

“Donald Trump is a key factor in a lot of races around the country and around Virginia and it’s very hard for a Republican candidate — no matter what their policy positions are, no matter what they look like — to get (people) out from under the orientation for voting for Democrats if they don’t like Trump and voting for Republicans if they do,” he said.

Coward, whose campaign focuses on a promise to lower taxes, support affordable health care and create good-paying jobs, said both parties need to move away from “identity politics” and welcome people who want to run, regardless of what they look like.

“Folks are waking up, I believe, and they’re becoming more party-agnostic,” he said. “People nowadays are more focused on results.”

Shannon Kane, a Republican running in Virginia Beach’s 21st District against Democratic Del. Kelly Fowler, said her party could use more women, especially in south Hampton Roads. There are two other Republican women running in that area: Jen Kiggans in the 7th Senate District seat vacated by Frank Wagner and Elizabeth Lankford, who is running against Sen. Lynnwood Lewis to represent part of Norfolk and all of the Eastern Shore.

In the 2019 General Assembly session, there were 37 women between both chambers and parties. Eight of those women were Republicans.

“I consider myself a common-sense person,” Kane said. “I try to listen to both sides and I think my city council background really opened me up to listening to all angles of things.” Kane served on the Virginia Beach City Council for five years before resigning in March when she moved out of the council district she represented.

She wanted to run for higher office in part because of Virginia Beach’s recurring severe flooding, but also wants to see increased teacher pay and see the state do more to support businesses owned by minorities and women. 

Speaker of the House Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, donated $82,000 to Kane’s campaign through his leadership political action committee in October and House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, pitched in $25,000, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.

Kane said that’s one way the party could encourage more diverse candidates to run for office — making sure they have support.

“I don’t know if it’s the party that can make people step up,” Kane said. “The politics are tough. It’s not something that I ever thought I would want to do.”

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Mechelle Hankerson
Mechelle Hankerson

Mechelle, born and raised in Virginia Beach, is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in mass communications and a concentration in print journalism. She covered the General Assembly for the university’s Capital News Service and was among 12 student journalists in swing states selected by the Washington Post to cover the 2012 presidential election. For the past five years, she has covered local government, crime, housing, infrastructure and other issues at the Raleigh News & Observer and The Virginian-Pilot, where she most recently covered the state’s biggest city, Virginia Beach. Mechelle was with the Virginia Mercury until January 3rd, 2019.