Are Virginia Democrats Running Progressive Challengers Out of the 2021 Primary?

Virginia State Capitol

The Virginia State Capitol in Richmond, Va. (Bob Brown / Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP, Pool)

The Democratic Party’s post-Trump revival began in Virginia in 2017. That’s when a state, local and national backlash against the racist demagogue helped the party win the top three races—governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general—and 15 House of Delegate seats, missing taking the majority by a tie in one district, which got settled by selecting the name of the winner, a Republican, from a ceramic bowl. Democrats then took the majority of Virginia’s House of Representatives delegation in 2018, and won control of the state General Assembly, both the House of Delegates and the state Senate, in 2019.

But to paraphrase the old rap song: more incumbents, more problems. Now some Virginia Democrats are in a circular firing squad, with progressive party insurgents blasting the establishment. Last week the state Board of Elections, chaired by a Democrat, disqualified three House of Delegates candidates who were challenging Democratic incumbents, for various problems with filing campaign paperwork. All three happen to be Black. The state NAACP quickly spoke out against “the appearance of disparate treatment of candidates of color…who sought to challenge incumbent legislators.”

The three challengers—Richmond City Council member Dr. Michael Jones, Arlington legislative aide and activist Matt Rogers, and Dumfries Town Council member Cydny Neville, from Prince William County—come from different corners of the Commonwealth and different backgrounds. Their paperwork problems are different, too—and tedious, as such problems always are. But the state board has routinely granted candidates extensions to solve such problems—at least eight got them in 2020, including GOP congressional candidates Delegate Nick Freitas (who lost) and Bob Good (who won). State law provides for a 10-day “grace period” at the board’s discretion.

While exercising that discretion last year, chair Bob Brink called disqualifying candidates over paperwork errors a “draconian” move. “Doing that would run counter to my personal belief that, as much as possible, we ought to permit access to the ballot and let the voters decide,” Brink told The Roanoke Times. “The board is between a rock and the hard place. We don’t want to be in the position of picking and choosing winners and losers. That’s the voters’ job.” To be fair, Brink also complained that by granting the extensions the board was “giving a pass to the scofflaws at the expense of the candidates who followed the rules.”

But this year, the first time in ages that state Democrats are defending majorities in the General Assembly, the board suddenly made candidates’ paperwork troubles a capital offense, with no grace period to fix them. “I’m not gonna lie,” Jones told me; if flawed paperwork normally doomed candidates, he’d go back to his life as a Richmond pastor and City Council member “and take the L. But granting extensions was their practice. They change the rules in the middle of a pandemic?” The NAACP has asked the board to proceed with extensions “in the same manner it has consistently done in the past,” but there’s no evidence the decision will be reconsidered.

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