A turn to pro­gres­sivism in the Old Do­min­ion

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS -

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, long­dor­mant 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 offyear 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.

Repub­li­cans are wary of the new pro­gres­sives but claim they fall short of be­ing a Demo­cratic ver­sion of the tea party.

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