Virginia’s Executive Mansion, where the governor and his family reside. (Virginia Department of Historic Resources)
When Jennifer Carroll Foy was first thinking of running for office in 2017, she says she sensed she wasn’t the favorite of party leaders. Two years earlier, Democrat Josh King had already come close to flipping the Prince William-area House of Delegates seat she had her eyes on, and several elected Democrats were backing his better-funded campaign in a targeted swing district.
“There was a sentiment of people saying you need to wait your turn and you need to wait your time,” Carroll Foy said in a recent interview. “People believed that you had to be tapped on the shoulder to be able to run.”
She ran anyway and won the primary by a dozen votes. Four years later, she’s trying to build a national profile as she runs for governor, part of a wave of new faces taking their shots the top jobs in state politics.
For Virginia Democrats, the explosion of candidates up and down the ticket in 2021 represents a shift from the orderly, top-down process that once determined whose turn it was to rise to higher office.
A diverse field of 15 Democratic candidates is competing for the chance to be on the ballot for three statewide offices this fall, five for governor, eight for lieutenant governor and two for attorney general. With all 100 House seats also up for election, a record 13 Democratic incumbents are facing primary challenges, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.
Democratic Party of Virginia Chairwoman Susan Swecker said the level of competition “clearly shows that we have a healthy, vibrant Democratic Party.”
“The days of being tapped and signaled to are long gone,” Swecker said. “I do remember those days. And I also remember the days where we had to resort to taking out an ad in the classifieds to get candidates.”
After two years of full Democratic control of state government, the 2021 primary contests are centered largely around questions of how Democrats have and haven’t wielded that power and to what extent the party should prioritize diversity and fresh leadership.
Two-thirds of the Democratic ticket from 2013, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Attorney General Mark Herring, are running for the same jobs they won seven years ago. Part of their challenge will be convincing Democratic voters that experienced, familiar leaders should prevail in a year when several women and candidates of color are arguing it’s well past time for their experiences and outlooks to be represented at the top levels of power.
McAuliffe launched his comeback in December as the presumptive frontrunner and has shown big advantages in early polls, fundraising and endorsements. The first two candidates to announce last year were Carroll Foy, who resigned from the House to focus on her campaign, and Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, both of whom would be the first Black woman elected governor of any state.
The party’s staunchly anti-corporate wing also has a gubernatorial hopeful in Del. Lee Carter, D-Manassas, a self-described socialist who, like Carroll Foy, was part of the surge of newcomers who flipped Republican-held House seats in 2017.
Meanwhile, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, the second Black man ever elected to statewide office in Virginia after former Gov. Doug Wilder’s groundbreaking win in 1989, is adhering to tradition by trying to use his current role as a launchpad for governor. But he’s still trying to recover from the largely uninvestigated sexual assault allegations leveled against him in 2019, which he denies.
Though some activists have faulted McAuliffe for potentially denying opportunity to two well-qualified Black women, other Democrats feel it’s unfair to hold McAuliffe’s identity against him given his record on issues affecting women and the Black community. McAuliffe’s roster of endorsers includes several prominent Black members of the General Assembly, as well as female leaders like Hillary Clinton, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Virginia House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax.
Asked for comment on the Democratic field, the Republican Governors Association took aim at the identity fault lines, saying McAuliffe and his allies “have not been shy about sabotaging one of the most diverse candidate fields in Virginia’s history.”
Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, a member of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus serving as McAuliffe’s campaign co-chair, rejected that accusation, noting the diversity of those backing McAuliffe.
“They’ve done so because they’ve said he’s the best person in America to rebuild this economy,” Lucas said. Last year, Lucas told Politico McClellan and Carroll Foy might have a shot “at the appropriate time.”
The size of the next tier of would-be up-and-comers is on display in the competition for lieutenant governor, a contest that includes four House members: Dels. Hala Ayala, D-Prince William, Elizabeth Guzman, D-Prince William, Mark Levine, D-Alexandria and Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke. Rounding out the field are Sean Perryman, a former chairman of the Fairfax County NAACP, Norfolk City Council member Andria McClellan, Paul Goldman, a former aide to Wilder, and businessman Xavier Warren.
Ayala and Guzman were the first two Latinas ever elected to the General Assembly. Rasoul, a son of Palestinian immigrants, is one of just a handful of Democrats representing Southwest Virginia, potentially bringing geographic diversity to a party increasingly rooted in Northern Virginia and eastern parts of the state.
In the attorney general race, Herring’s decision to hold off on running for governor two cycles in a row set him on a collision course with Del. Jay Jones, D-Norfolk, now running an aggressive campaign to deny Herring a third term.
Herring considered running for governor in 2017 but decided against it, seemingly allowing then-Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam a clear path to the nomination before former congressman Tom Perriello launched an unsuccessful challenge to Northam late in that cycle. In late 2018, Herring announced he would run for governor in 2021. But he shifted gears last fall, announcing he’d instead seek a third term as attorney general despite Jones announcing his campaign a few months earlier.
In an interview, Jones said the Democrats’ robust field “speaks to the fact that we’re a big-tent party.”
“I challenge you to find another state party that’s had the sort of evolution that we have over the last five, six, seven years,” Jones said. “You have choice. You’ve got different people with different backgrounds and with different stories and from different parts of the state.”
Before Northam vs. Perriello, the last contested Democratic primary for governor was in 2009, when Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, beat McAuliffe and Brian Moran, now the state’s secretary of public safety, in a three-way race. U.S. Sens. Tim Kaine, D-Va., and Mark Warner, D-Va., didn’t face primary competition when they successfully ran for governor in 2005 and 2001, respectively.
A Christopher Newport University poll released last month showed McAuliffe as the favorite with just over a quarter of the Democratic vote, reflecting speculation that if non-McAuliffe voters are split between four other candidates, the former governor could have a fairly easy path to the nomination. But almost half of Democratic respondents said they were undecided, indicating there may be room for another candidate to break through as his strongest competitor.
The Democratic Party has sanctioned four gubernatorial debates starting next month, but the candidates are already starting to make joint appearances at virtual forums. Every candidate but McAuliffe participated in the so-called Virginia People’s Debate, an event organized by dozens of progressive groups.
Over two mostly congenial hours, the candidates were generally in sync on a variety of progressive policy issues, including legalizing marijuana, ending qualified immunity that shields police officers from lawsuits, promoting affordable housing and protecting tenants from aggressive evictions, supporting immigrants and minimizing cooperation with ICE, slowing climate change, protecting LGBTQ rights, addressing racial inequities and reforming campaign finance laws.
Saying he’s the only candidate that “stands truly apart from the field,” Carter said he has the cleanest record of refusing campaign contributions from corporations and other for-profit interests.
“Corruption in politics doesn’t look like it does in the movies. It’s not a lobbyist handing you an envelope full of cash and saying ‘I need you to be a friend to me on this,’” Carter said. “It is a system where the donors decide who is a viable candidate and who is not. And the only people that the donors decide are viable candidates are the people that are not a threat to that system.”
Carroll Foy, who took a few shots at McAuliffe for skipping the forum, repeatedly connected the issues back to her personal story, saying that as someone who grew up in the impoverished city of Petersburg, she has firsthand experience with working-class struggles.
“Virginians want a governor who has walked in their shoes,” she said.
McClellan sought to showcase her policy knowledge and legislative wins built over 15 years at the statehouse, suggesting voters don’t necessarily have to choose between deep experience and fresh perspectives.
“We are more diverse than ever before. But we have a long way to go,” McClellan said. “And our governor has never had the perspective of anyone other than a man. Mostly White men.”
Fairfax emphasized the historic symbolism of his surname, retelling the story of how his family discovered an enslaved ancestor’s manumission document just before he was sworn in as one of Virginia’s top officials.
“That is the people’s journey,” he said. “The people, eight and a half million Virginians, as my mentor Doug Wilder says, are always ahead of the politicians.”
Wilder has not endorsed in the governor’s race.
Progressives fully dissatisfied with the pace of change in Virginia since Democrats took over could also have an alternative option on the ballot for governor.
Princess Blanding, a police reform activist who got involved in the legislative process after her brother, Marcus David-Peters, was fatally shot by a Richmond officer, is running under the banner of the newly formed Liberation Party. In an interview, Blanding said her campaign is partly an outgrowth of last year’s nationwide racial justice movement that took off after the killing of George Floyd. But, she said, it’s broadly about “putting people over profit and politics.”
“We keep doing the same thing and expect different results,” Blanding said. “What we know is the Democratic Party has appealed to Black people, marginalized people, working-class, and all they’re giving us is crumbs. And we deserve a four-course meal.”
Blanding said she was particularly frustrated that the Democratic-led General Assembly has refused to end qualified immunity and “watered down” the legislation she was advocating for the creation of a new law enforcement system, named the Marcus Alert after her late brother, to give mental health professionals a bigger role in responding to people in crisis.
Though Democrats are quick to acknowledge there’s more work to be done, many say they’re proud of the sweeping change they’ve ushered in over the last few years on issues like gun control, raising the minimum wage, expanding Medicaid, protecting voting rights and promoting racial equity.
“We ran on an agenda and on promises and we kept them,” Swecker said. “Virginians are safer, families have more access to health care and we are more open, progressive and inclusive as a commonwealth. And we are all better off for it.”
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