Democratic Party of Virginia Chairwoman Susan Swecker. (2021 photo by Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)
For Susan Swecker’s first six years leading the Democratic Party of Virginia, there was always a Democratic governor in charge.
That changed this year, when Gov. Glenn Youngkin scored an upset win and returned Republicans to power in Richmond, snapping a more than decade-long losing streak in statewide contests. Democrats also lost the other two statewide offices — attorney general and lieutenant governor — as well as their majority in the House of Delegates in a state Joe Biden had won handily the year before, prompting some criticism of the party’s messaging and strategy.
But Swecker, a public-affairs consultant who has served as DPVA chair since early 2015, and other prominent Virginia Democrats say that’s no reason to pick a different leader in internal party elections happening Saturday. At a virtual convention, the 300-some members of the party’s Central Committee will select new officers to lead the organization.
In an interview, Swecker said she’s heard from many Democrats who want “stable leadership” and experience as the party works to hold the line against Republicans and looks toward regaining Democratic majorities in the 2023 General Assembly elections.
“It is important to hold Governor Youngkin and Republicans accountable for trying to take us back,” said Swecker, who has been endorsed by former Govs. Terry McAuliffe and Ralph Northam, U.S. Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner and Democratic leaders in the legislature.
Among the accomplishments touted by Swecker’s supporters are expanding DPVA from four full-time staffers to 15, Democrats winning a trifecta in state government (controlling all three executive offices and both chambers of the General Assembly in 2020 and 2021) for the first time in more than two decades, stronger fundraising and steps to make the party more inclusive, like changing the name of the party’s former Jefferson Jackson Dinner to the Blue Commonwealth Gala.
The two other candidates running against Swecker — progressive activist Josh Stanfield, who serves on the party’s Central Committee, and Fairfax County Democratic Committee member Jim McBride — say the party hasn’t done enough to reflect on what went wrong in 2021 and adjust accordingly.
“I haven’t seen any reform ideas, any autopsy of last year’s operations,” Stanfield, who helped run former Del. Lee Carter’s campaign for governor last year, said in an interview. “Or any acceptance of responsibility. It can be true that they don’t believe they have any responsibility. But what kind of leadership style doesn’t own the problem?”
McBride, who has worked in PR in addition to his political organizing efforts, said the Democratic messaging last year from the party and former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, which largely was a relentless effort to tie Youngkin to former President Donald Trump, skewed far too negative, moving away from hope and change to a campaign style “built on fear.”
“It was all about the other guy and what could happen if you don’t stick with us,” McBride said. “And I think that unfortunately, internally, that is a problem with the party. Where it’s like you better stick with the people in charge, because if it changes we’re going to be really upset with you.”
McBride said he understands the need to draw a contrast with Republicans when the GOP opposes something the Democrats support. But telling voters what Democrats are for, he said, should be the bigger part of the equation.
“He talked about big ideas when he was running in the primary,” McBride said of McAuliffe. “But where were those ideas? Where was the discussion of what the Northam administration did? That never seemed to come up.”
Swecker disagreed with that assessment.
“I don’t know who they were talking to because I was constantly talking about all the good things that we did,” she said. “Record job growth. Low unemployment. Expansion of voting rights… All I know is I was shouting it from the rooftops, as was our team.”
But Northam, who could not run again because Virginia prevents governors from serving two consecutive terms, leveled the same criticism.
“I wasn’t running this year,” Northam told VPM in an exit interview earlier this year. “But I don’t think those that ran on the Democratic ticket talked enough about what we’ve been able to accomplish.”
Though the McAuliffe campaign was largely responsible for its own strategy, political parties work hand-in-hand with their ticket, helping to amplify chosen messages and coordinate surrogate messengers.
“It was one of the closest elections in Virginia history,” Swecker said. “We faced political headwinds that were really tough that always come after a presidential victory.”
After last year’s elections, Swecker said she traveled around Virginia to hear from party activists on the ground. One idea that emerged from that process, she said, was to have year-round organizers assigned to a particular region. She also said she wants the party to get more involved in local races, particularly defending Democratic school board members who now find themselves on the political front lines due to Republicans’ new emphasis on education issues.
A Highland County native, Swecker often stresses her rural roots. But Youngkin’s victory last year was partially powered by Trump-friendly rural areas revolting against Democrats like never before. Swecker said Democrats didn’t lose rural Virginia overnight, and they won’t win it back without a concerted, long-term effort to convince voters there that Democratic policies have helped them.
“Just remember it was Democrats who gave people in rural areas Medicaid expansion,” Swecker said. “That’s gotten messaged all over the place but for some reason it hasn’t resonated. I don’t think it’s bad messaging.”
Stanfield said the party is afflicted by an insidery “leadership clique” that’s not particularly welcoming to new people or new ideas. He said he suspects a different leadership team might have forced a more robust discussion about whether it was wise to have McAuliffe come out of “relative obscurity” to lead the party again as opposed to making room for a new gubernatorial contender like Sen. Jennifer McClellan or former Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy.
“It is a very top-heavy organization,” Stanfield said.
Carroll Foy, who has said she intends to run for a Northern Virginia state Senate seat, has expressed support for Swecker.
Stanfield drew a contrast with the way the Republican Party of Virginia selected its statewide candidates last year. In at-times chaotic process, GOP factions fought publicly over whether to nominate candidates at a primary or a convention, then continued fighting over convention rules. In the end, the party landed on a somewhat insular convention and ranked-choice voting system that produced Youngkin, a deep-pocketed outsider who proved his electability last November.
“And Rich Anderson was not able to drop a hammer and shut everyone up,” Stanfield said, referring to the chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia.
The Republican Party responded to Swecker’s re-election announcement with trolling, issuing a statement saying the GOP also supports her continuing to serve as DPVA chair.
“Under Ms. Swecker’s watch, Republicans scored historic victories over her party in last November’s elections,” the RPV said. “But as Ms. Swecker says, ‘there is important work still to be done.’ She’s right – Democrats still have congressional seats to lose this fall and a state Senate majority to lose next November.”
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