In the shadow of Virginia’s close-fought Democratic gubernatorial primary, three Democrats from the D.C. suburbs who have never held office are competing to be the state’s next lieutenant governor.
Attorney and former federal prosecutor Justin Fairfax, who narrowly lost the 2013 Democratic primary for attorney general, leads in endorsements and campaign cash. Lobbyist and former Democratic operative Susan Platt launched a late campaign focused on resisting President Trump and electing women to higher office. And Gene Rossi is running a largely self-financed underdog bid after retiring from a 27-year career as a federal prosecutor.
The lieutenant governor’s job is limited: Preside over the state Senate and cast tiebreaking votes, serve on various boards and fill in if the governor is incapacitated.
The office also serves as a steppingstone for higher office, and almost every lieutenant governor in modern history has run for governor (including the Democratic incumbent, Ralph Northam).
The race, although a low-key affair so far, could make history. Fairfax would be the first African American to hold statewide office since Gov. L. Douglas Wilder in the early 1990s. Platt would be the first woman elected to one of the state’s top two offices.
The winner of the June 13 primary will face one of three state lawmakers seeking the GOP nomination: Del. Glenn R. Davis Jr. (Virginia Beach) and Sens. Bryce E. Reeves (Spotsylvania) and Jill Holtzman Vogel (Fauquier).
Here’s a look at the Democratic candidates:
Fairfax shocked the state Democratic Party establishment in 2013 when, as an outsider candidate, he came within three percentage points of defeating then-state Sen. Mark R. Herring in the primary for attorney general.
Since then, he has co-chaired the 2014 reelection bid of Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), tried to diversify the bench of Northern Virginia’s Democratic candidates, and toured the state to meet party activists and help local candidates.
Fairfax, 38, has picked up support from dozens of elected officials, including more than half of the Democratic state senators, Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) and several national progressive groups. Neither Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) nor any of the other four statewide elected officials has made an endorsement in the race.
Fairfax, who was raised by a single mother in the District and moved to Virginia in 2005, lives with his wife and two young children in Fairfax County.
He started his career as a staffer in the U.S. Senate, went to law school and joined the U.S. attorney’s office in Alexandria before moving to private practice at Venable LLP. He also co-owns his wife’s dental practice.
Fairfax said his top focus as lieutenant governor would be the economy. He said he’d promote a $15 minimum wage, ways to ease student loan debt and policies to make it easier for people to train for jobs such as electricians and machine operators that are in demand but vacant. A former prosecutor, he wants to make the criminal-justice system more rehabilitative and less punitive, and he has condemned U.S. Attorney General Jeff Session’s return to tougher sentencing for drug crimes.
“We’ve seen those policies fail,” Fairfax said. “We see them result in untold misery for people in the criminal-justice system and significant costs, both financial and otherwise, to our system.”
A veteran political operative, Platt ran statewide campaigns for Virginia Democrats in the 1990s, including Sen. Charles S. Robb’s 1994 reelection bid and Don Beyer’s unsuccessful 1997 gubernatorial campaign.
More recently, she founded a group with former state attorney general Mary Sue Terry — the only woman elected to statewide office in Virginia history — to encourage female candidates.
At 62, Platt is making her first run for office, saying she was inspired to do so after Trump’s election.
“I will always fight back against bully in chief,” said Platt, who lives in Great Falls with her husband. “I believe a woman on the ticket this year will help our Democratic candidate for governor because I’ve had more women volunteer for this campaign who have never been involved in politics ever saying, ‘Enough, I’m not going to sit back anymore.’ ”
Platt’s campaign has picked up support from more than a dozen elected officials and Emily’s List, a national group that helps female candidates who support abortion rights.
Platt has sought to channel the anti-Trump fervor into support for her campaign. She announced her campaign with a video of her participation in the Women’s March and she plans to lead a protest of the Trump National Golf Club in Sterling during the Senior PGA Championship over Memorial Day weekend.
While she frequently describes herself as a former chief of staff to then-Sen. Joe Biden, Platt held that position between 1995 and 1997 and isn’t in touch with him. More recently, she has worked as a federal lobbyist and consultant to groups including payroll company ADP and tobacco giant Altria.
Platt said she would quit consulting and serve full time as lieutenant governor. She said she would focus on economic development in coal country and other depressed areas.
Democrats need to increase their attention to rural areas to break the cycle of repeated electoral losses, Platt said.
“I do believe we have to focus more on the whole of the commonwealth, and there are so many parts of it in more rural areas and western parts of the state that have been really hard hit in the changing economy,” she said.
Rossi said his decision to run for lieutenant governor traces back to 2013, when he was watching the second inauguration of President Barack Obama from his hospital bed while undergoing treatment for a rare blood disease.
With doctors giving him 50-50 odds, Rossi said he vowed to realize his dream of running for state office, one he had harbored since he worked for the governor of his native Connecticut.
Now retired from the Justice Department after nearly three decades as a prosecutor, including a multiyear opioid investigation that resulted in 235 convictions, Rossi is making good on his promise.
Despite his legal background, Rossi said his top focus as lieutenant governor would be health care, particularly the expansion of Medicaid to low-income Virginians. He said he would speak from the heart as someone who almost died, and as a parent who cared for a teenager who with health-insurance coverage beat a near-fatal lymphoma.
“What better advocate to promote Medicaid expansion than a person who is a 27-year prosecutor and he and his daughter almost died from health issues?” said the 60-year-old Alexandria resident.
Rossi has struggled to raise campaign cash (his bid has been largely self-financed) and secure endorsements. And he acknowledges that he doesn’t attract the same kind of buzz as Virginia’s potential second black or female statewide officeholder.
“I really believe in what Martin Luther King said that you should judge a person not by the color of their skin, but the content of their character,” Rossi said. “Having diversity on the ticket is a noble goal, but I hope people look at who I am, and what I stand for, and realize you have a candidate in Gene Rossi who has incredible depth of experience, incredible fight and has the newest blood.”