Prince William County has long been one of the most diverse localities in Virginia, but its state lawmakers have rarely reflected that diversity. In November, that could very well change.
Del. Luke Torian, D-52nd District, is the lone person of color to represent the state’s only majority-minority county, but this year’s House of Delegates elections have attracted a record number of diverse candidates to throw their hats in the ring for the other six seats that cover parts of Prince William.
Of the 15 challengers vying for seats in Districts 2, 13, 31, 50 and 51, eight are people of color. For context, only five candidates of color ran for those seats in the last decade of House elections.
There’s no guarantee all those candidates will ultimately make it to Richmond — some are facing off against each other in Democratic primaries on June 13, and many are up against entrenched Republican incumbents who could prove difficult to dislodge. But the county is guaranteed to elect at least one person of color this fall (the 2nd District contest features three African-American candidates, two Democrats and one Republican) and could very well send a few others to the General Assembly as well.
“For the first time that I’ve lived here, 15 years, it’s reflective of the demographics of the county,” said Cozy Bailey, president of Prince William’s chapter of the NAACP. “It’s exciting, and it doesn’t have much to do with who wins, as opposed to, we now feel empowered enough to enter the political process.”
Not only are five candidates vying for the chance to join the ranks of the 18 black representatives in the legislature, but two are hoping to become the first Hispanic women in the General Assembly, and one (Mansimran Kahlon in the 13th District) would be the first Sikh to serve in Richmond.
Many of this year’s contenders also happen to be women — five female candidates are running this year, compared to the four women who have stepped up to run for these House seats in the last five elections since 2007.
‘If it’s not us, then who?’
There are a wide variety of reasons for this influx of candidates from diverse backgrounds, but most attribute their newfound interest in the political process to one key factor: the election of President Donald Trump and his inflammatory comments about women, immigrants and African-Americans.
“We’ve worked so hard for equality, and when we see this effort to take us back to these regressive policies, we have to activate now,” said Jennifer Foy, a black woman running against Josh King for the Democratic nomination in the 2nd District. “If not now, when? If it’s not us, then who?”
But Del. Charniele Herring, D-46th District and the chair of the House Democratic caucus, says party leadership has also made the recruitment of minority candidates a priority since the 2015 elections. She points to King as the first example of that effort — the night he lost to retiring Republican Del. Mark Dudenhefer by just 125 votes, she asked him to run again, and he quickly agreed.
Considering that seven of the eight people of color running in Prince William are Democrats, those efforts have clearly paid off.
“We’ve been asking people to run who are typically not approached, and that makes for an exciting year and exciting slate of candidates,” Herring said. “So this was happening before Trump, but there was certainly a boost because of Trump too.”
Changing the conversation
The candidates stress that they don’t want to see more people of color winning elections simply for diversity’s sake — instead, they believe that having people from different backgrounds in these races will fundamentally change the conversations taking place in their communities.
Ken Boddye, a biracial man running for the Democratic nomination in the 51st District, believes that candidates of color are more likely to run on issues that others might not even consider. For instance, after watching his brother’s struggles navigating the criminal justice system, Boddye decided to prioritize a series of reforms to make the state less punitive and help people find a job more easily after a stint in prison.
“If someone has lived a life where that’s never been an issue for them, or anyone they really rub elbows with, it’s not going to be on their radar,” Boddye said. “But if it’s a lived experience they’ve had, or that someone they know has had, they’re going to talk about it, and they’re going to find people that it resonates with.”
But with a diversity of backgrounds also comes a diversity in socioeconomic status, which Boddye believes has clearly changed the tenor of his race against fellow Democrat Hala Ayala, who also hails from a mixed-race family.
He laments that in the past, his party has tended to pick people who are either “retirees or very well-off financially” to challenge the older: white Republicans that hold Prince William’s General Assembly seats. But Boddye says he’s still working to pay off student loans he accrued while getting his degree from Georgetown, while Ayala says she’s not all that far removed from the days she relied on Medicaid because she couldn’t get private health insurance.
Accordingly, Ayala believes both she and Boddye are engaging people around these issues in a way that their Democratic predecessors couldn’t.
“I’m not part of the 1 percent; I’m not even part of the 15 percent,” Ayala said.
Similarly, Elizabeth Guzman, a Latina running against Sara Townsend for the Democratic nomination in the 31st District, believes her experience as a recent immigrant working three jobs to raise a family gave her a firsthand look at the value of expanding access to early childcare in schools.
“Moving to this area, you might need two jobs to actually afford a mortgage, and now you need help raising your family,” Guzman said. “I saw for myself the difference having childcare can make.”
Yet Laquan Austion, a black Republican running in the 2nd District, believes that candidates of color need not only change the conversation around traditionally liberal issues like expanded childcare or criminal justice reform.
Austion spent the first few years of his life homeless while growing up in Newark, New Jersey, an experience that convinced him that social welfare programs are full of “perverse incentives that keep people in poverty.” Despite his challenging upbringing, he’s since built a career as a staffer with the ride-sharing company Lyft, which only strengthened his belief in the importance of shrinking government to spur entrepreneurship.
“It’s important for people to have access to the opportunity to pursue the American dream,” Austion said. “And that means keeping more money in your pocket, not giving it to bureaucrats in Richmond. It’s about giving people the opportunity to start businesses and do things they’re passionate about.”
Women at the table?
But the five women running say Republican majorities at both the state and federal level have consistently failed them, making it crucial for them to earn more female representation as well.
Many were particularly frustrated with GOP efforts in Richmond to mandate that any woman hoping to have an abortion must first undergo an invasive transvaginal ultrasound — that policy was ultimately pared back, but candidates like Foy say they haven’t forgotten it.
“After that, we thought things would get better, but then you have a bill designating the anniversary of Roe v. Wade as a day of mourning,” Foy said, referring to a House resolution from this year’s legislative session encouraging people to lower flags to half-staff on the anniversary of the Supreme Court case. “We have to have more women at the table so efforts like these aren’t a second thought.”
Yet there are still just 17 women in the 100-member legislature, a fact that the group “Emerge Virginia” is looking to change. Julie Copeland, the organization’s executive director, says they’re part of a national movement to spur more Democratic women to run for office, and they offer regular classes to train prospective female candidates.
“We see nationally, and at the state level, that it is hard to have a conversation about women’s health, or even childcare, when it’s all old, white men at the table,” Copeland said. “And Prince William is a place where we wanted to recruit as much as possible, because it is becoming a bellwether county, politically.”
Indeed, all five women running in the Prince William area participated in the “Emerge” program, including 13th District Democrat Danica Roem, who’s hoping to become the first transgender person in the General Assembly. Copeland celebrates that the 31st District Democratic primary even includes two women in Guzman and Townsend, something that she feels is all too rare when women are “often told ‘Just wait a few more years,’ or ‘This isn’t the right race for you.’”
But that race does underscore the point that not all of these candidates will advance past the June 13 primaries, and it’s no certainty they’ll make it to Richmond this fall. Yet, regardless of the results in 2017, Bailey expects that the county will only produce more diverse candidates as the years wear on.
“This is going to continue, because the demographics of this county are going to continue to evolve,” Bailey said.