Virginia is seeing a sudden and unexpected burst of progressive political activism in the weeks after the inauguration of highly polarizing President Trump.
The phenomenon is remarkable and positive because it reflects how Virginia’s political scene is now more modern and diverse than ever. It promises to shape the state’s off-year elections in November.
Consider the scene Feb. 5 on the front lawn at the Islamic Center of Virginia in Midlothian, a Richmond suburb. More than 600 people of various religions and races gathered to show their support for Muslims after Trump’s erratically imposed ban (now altered) on travel to this country by citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries.
In the small town of Blackstone on Feb. 21, Rep. Dave Brat, a Republican representing Virginia’s 7th District, faced a hostile town hall crowd demanding answers on issues such as health care, women’s rights and his failure to reach out to his constituents.
Elsewhere in Virginia, long-dormant Democrats are planning to challenge 45 Republican state legislators, including 17 whose districts voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton in the presidential election. In 2015, Democrats didn’t bother showing up to run in 44 of 67 races.
One such challenger is Elizabeth Guzman, who immigrated to Virginia from Peru in the late 1990s. She says that steady, insulting profiling of her and her family by Prince William County officials and residents made her decide to run for the 31st District House seat held by veteran Republican L. Scott Lingamfelter. Prince William became a hotbed of anti-immigrant fervor a decade ago, mostly because of a crackdown on undocumented immigrants orchestrated by Board of County Supervisors Chairman Corey A. Stewart, who is running as a Republican for governor.
In the Old Dominion, this trend has special meaning.
For decades, ruling oligarchs from both parties did their best to keep ordinary people out of the political process. To keep voters uninterested, the state holds off-year elections. There are efforts to disenfranchise minority voters. Electoral districts are carefully gerrymandered to favor incumbents.
“Virginia never really has had the populist movements that you’ve seen in other Southern states like Texas, Louisiana and North Carolina,” says Stephen Farnsworth, professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington.
The only progressive populist in recent memory was the late Henry E. Howell, a former lieutenant governor who railed against big party politics, banks and Virginia Electric and Power Co. ( better known today as Dominion Virginia Power) as he ran unsuccessfully for governor in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Since then, “people have been complacent,” says Irene Leech, a consumer activist who teaches at Virginia Tech.
By chance, disaffected conservatives challenged established political authority about a decade ago by forming eclectic tea-party units. One victim was Eric Cantor, a Republican darling who served as House majority leader but was considered to be too tight with rich insiders. He lost the 2014 primary to Brat.
The big question is how much influence the progressive movement will have this election year. “All of a sudden you have this entirely new issue nexus,” says Bob Holsworth, a political analyst in Richmond. Topics include transgender bathrooms, protecting immigrants and political transparency — all driven by Trump’s constant, in-your-face tweets and speeches.
New players are rising up. For months, it was assumed that Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam was the shoo-in Democratic candidate for governor because the party machine backed him. Then Tom Perriello, a progressive former congressman, announced he was running. Polls suggest he presents serious competition.
Republicans are wary of the new progressives but claim they fall short of being a Democratic version of the tea party. “I don’t think you can compare the two. The tea party proved itself by winning elections,” says John C. Whitbeck Jr., a Leesburg lawyer and head of the state Republican Party.
To Democrats, the movement is “wonderfully overwhelming,” says Eileen Bedell, who, as a relative newcomer to politics, tried to unseat Brat last November.
The anti-Trump churn has created a bold new political dynamic for Virginia. Democrats may not win the General Assembly this year. But their new movement is a major and long-overdue step toward empowering voters. Its momentum will carry through to 2018’s federal races.