Q&A: Why Kirk Cox thinks he can win the governor’s mansion in an ever-bluer Virginia

By: - November 17, 2020 12:01 am
House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, took notice of the hot dog costume worn by Asiaonna Pope, 10, of Hopewell, at a festival he hosted in a Chesterfield County park.

House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, took notice of the hot dog costume worn by Asiaonna Pope, 10, of Hopewell, at a festival he hosted in a Chesterfield County park. (Graham Moomaw/Virginia Mercury)

In 2019, a blue wave swept away the GOP majority Kirk Cox presided over as speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates. But he prevailed in his own race despite steep odds in a newly redrawn district.

Two years later, Cox is pointing to the victory as evidence he is uniquely qualified to win back the governor’s office for the GOP, which the party hasn’t held since 2014, when Bob McDonnell left office.

Cox, a retired teacher with low-key style, has been exploring a run for governor since August. On Tuesday, he made it official, formally announcing he will seek the GOP’s nomination for governor in a field that thus far had been limited to a single entrant, Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, who has built her far-right campaign in the mold of Donald Trump.

Ahead of the announcement, he spoke with the Mercury about his policy goals, the post-Trump electoral landscape and the party’s prospects in an ever-bluer Virginia.

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Mercury: Republicans have been losing statewide races in Virginia for more than a decade now and, especially in the past few years, those contests haven’t exactly been close. Why do you think you have a shot where they failed?

Cox: First of all, I think unchecked one-party Democratic control in Richmond has really been very detrimental to the state and people have seen that — whether it be the public safety issue, a total lack of leadership on school opening or anti-business legislation — everything from tax increases, the Clean Economy Act, which, I think will cost the average family $800. For the first time in a long time, I think people have seen this is what it looks like if Democrats are in control.

Number two, I’m a winner. If you look over the history of what I’ve done, I have the bluest district of any (Republican-held) district in the state. I do think your record is important. If you look at what we left Virginia with: we were the number one state to do business, a billion-dollar tax cut, $1.2 billion in surpluses and $1.6 billion in reserve.

And I guess I have a little bit of a unique background. I’m a 30-year public-school teacher who has taught Petersburg, Prince George and Chesterfield. I do feel like I can really relate to folks, especially the working and middle class. That’s where I’ve solidly been all my life. To me, people are looking for someone that will fight for what they believe in but also will listen. And that’s a quality I think we lack a little bit today.

House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, declared victory at his election night party in 2019. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

A lot of the legislation Democrats passed during the regular session had a lot of support, at least looking at public polling — from the ERA to the red flag law to the minimum wage hike. How does that mesh with your view that voters are concerned about what they saw and where in particular do you see an opening there?

Some of it didn’t pass, but having said that, whether it be the budget amendment to cut state police by 25 percent, you had another budget amendment do away with school resource officers, you had, certainly, an initial bill that would have really dramatically reduced the time violent felons had to serve. This is murderers and rapists. Bills that would have reduced assaulting a police officer from a felony to a misdemeanor. Go ask law enforcement whether they think Democrats have not been supportive of them. You can talk to anyone, a local department, state police — their morale is terrible. And so, certainly a lot of these things, some passed in various forms, some did not pass. But I do think it was very detrimental.

I would be more than happy to contrast where Virginia was when we were in charge — fourth lowest violent crime rate, lowest recidivism rate, etc. — and we had a school safety committee that I chaired that I thought did some very responsible things. I would say I think there’s a lot of people who think there’s been a lot of liberal overreach. And the handling of the pandemic — and I think that’s key — we were in the bottom five in testing. The Virginia Employment Commission — these are people who are struggling with not only unemployment claims, but trying to get their job — we have the biggest backlog I think of almost any state. We have five-month long waits at DMV. It’s a poorly run governor’s office by almost anyone’s measure.

People within the state GOP have been calling for a reckoning within the party for years now as support has eroded in traditional strongholds. Do you agree with those calls and if so, what should it look like and where do you fit in?

I don’t think anyone could fit in any better. President Trump got 500,000 votes over Ralph Northam, so certainly the votes are there. But we do need to really pull votes out of the suburbs and I’ve had a suburban district forever. So if you’re trying to look for a candidate that has strengths in the suburbs and has a district that’s, once again, the bluest, I think I’m a very good model for that.

I think the K-12 issue is going to be huge. You have a terrible lack of leadership this summer. I’ll say, it is hard to open schools. But Carrie Coyner, Jen Kiggans, myself, Jill Vogel — way back in early July — put together a very comprehensive proposal on how to reopen schools and give schools and localities a pathway. You’re talking about a huge suburban issue, you’re talking about a huge issue with communities of color and almost anyone right now. This governor did almost nothing to help out with that.

A lot of parents are looking for help. I put a budget amendment in called the Read Act on helping with things like teaching pods and internet access, which the Democrats had no interest in. Where I think we’re going to really be able to appeal to — whether it’s suburban voters or folks in the inner cities — is that we’re going to deal with the problems they’re facing now. Not sort of ideological types of things. And I have a very good record having done that.

Do you agree with the conventional wisdom that Donald Trump’s presidency has been terrible for the state party’s electoral prospects or would you blame those losses over the past few years on something else?

There have been a million analyses of elections. I’ve gone through the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s and different decades, etc. — so it’s hard to tell how much various presidents have effects on races. You can go back and look at President Obama and go back and look at governorships and how many seats were exchanged in the House. I don’t think that’s what you can really focus on.

If you look, the president turned out a ton of folks over what Ralph Northam did. The votes are there for Republicans. If you look, he did pretty well with some communities of color and Hispanic voters who I think are really seeing the Republican party being much more attuned to the working class than the costal elites of the Democratic Party. I think you’re starting to see a little bit of a realignment there. If you look historically with Virginia, it doesn’t matter who the president is, the opposite party tends to pick up seats in the House of Delegates. That’s happened from, gosh, Bill Clinton to today.

We’re at this extraordinary moment in history where we have a sitting president who against all evidence is claiming that he won outright and that the election was rigged against him. You’re a longtime government teacher. Do you agree with the president that there was any kind of rigging of the election or that he won?

People are very frustrated. There’s 70 million people that voted for the president. And let’s be candid, if the shoe was on the other foot and Joe Biden trailed by just a few ten-thousands of votes in some of these districts, you’d have every Democrat in the world doing exactly what the president is doing now. They’ll be seeking recounts, exploring irregularities, litigating what needs to be litigated.

I think we all need to take a deep breath. You do need to count the legal votes and vigorously investigate irregularities and allow the courts to resolve disputes. When you have close elections like this one, you know, you really need to take your time and make sure the legal process plays through. At the same time, as a teacher, my kids always used to say, ‘Why do we have to memorize this date, Mr. Cox.’ I would always tell them, ‘The Monday after the second Wednesday in December is the electoral college.’ This year it’s December 14. And I’m very confident that when the electoral college meets and votes, we’ll have a president. I will recognize that and we’ll all be able to move on.

Your opponent Amanda Chase has really embraced Trump and his style of politics and that’s so-far proved very successful within GOP nominating contests. You have a very different, low-key kind of temperament. Are you worried that will be difficult to overcome or what is your strategy there?

No, I’m not. I’m really not. To me, if you look in my history, I’ve really fought for what I believed in and I think really affected change — not being dramatic to be dramatic. You know, pro-life is a really big issue for me and we had the Kathy Tran bill and others, which I thought would have been devastating.

I was very disturbed and I came off the rostrum. It was the first time that I can recollect that a speaker has ever given a speech from the floor on pro-life. And that was what my heart felt like. I did it because I thought it was the right thing to do. I’m going to be Kirk Cox. I think you have to be. People are looking for you to be authentic. To just be yourself. And you can both fight for what you believe in, which I certainly have a reputation of. You can also listen to people, be considerate of people and you can respect people.

I would guess, by, June of next year, I think people yearn to some degree for strong leadership but leadership that’s just going to be straight with them and is also going to listen. And that’s going to be very important to winning an election, too, because when you go into — as I’ve said my district is over 30 percent Hispanic, communities of color, etc. — I’ve always gotten a good reception because people go, ‘Hey, he’ll come and actually listen.’ There are a lot of issues that Republicans promote that really fit very well with a lot of independent groups. And the messenger is really important. I feel like I’m the right messenger.

What are you most proud of from your work as speaker?

A lot of things. Certainly freezing college tuition for the first time in 20 years is something. I’ve worked on tuition moderation my entire career in appropriations, so getting that done was certainly something I was extremely proud of. A lot of just the smart blocking and tackling. When you look at the billion-dollar tax cut, which was not easy to get through, obviously if we had not done that, a lot of the effects of the federal tax cut would have frankly been not realized by people.

Speaker of the House of Delegates, Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, stands in the chamber in 2018. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

On the pandemic, what’s the biggest thing you would do differently from what we’ve seen from Northam’s administration?

There are two things I would have done differently. First of all, I think K-12 was probably the biggest failure, to me, as far as the governor leading. And still, I’m sort of confused where the leadership’s coming from in the state. We did very little during the special session on school opening. There’s a ton of issues that should have been worked through that would have really helped localities.

The second thing, especially for business, was the starts and stops, the uncertainty and the late and contradictory press conferences saying you’re going to do something and then reversing yourself — Just very unclear guidance and very poorly run government.

And I’ll say it over and over again, you can ask any delegate how many calls they get on issues dealing with the Virginie Employment Commission, unemployment, everything else — and they never get back with us. Maybe that’s not the most exciting thing in the world, but I had a guy today stop me in church — a really good man who has been waiting for almost two months to hear from adjudication. He gets this letter today that says he’s turned down. Well, it’s not him. It’s a guy with the same name and a different social security number. So he’s scared whether or not he wants to call back because they’re so poorly run he’s afraid that if he calls back and says, ‘Hey, I’m a different guy,’ that that will actually effect his case. I’m sorry, when you’re getting that kind of response from folks just stopping you every day in droves to say how poorly things are run — a governor effects that dramatically. And knowing that and putting good administrators in and people who really are competent and not political to run things are a great failing of this governor. This is not a well-run administration.

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.