Activist faces uphill battle in rural 25th

virginia general assemblyWhat works on cable TV debate shows doesn’t work in the real world. A self-styled local activist making noise about running for the House of Delegates will soon find that out.

Jennifer Kitchen has been all over the local media the past few days, talking up her interest in running for the 25th District seat in the House of Delegates, which has been held by Republican Steve Landes since 1996.

The 25th is among the tougher districts for Democrats, with no cities located in the district, which stretches across the Blue Ridge, from the western edge of Albemarle County, into Augusta County, north of Waynesboro, and into Rockingham County, cutting across the southern half all the way to the West Virginia border.

No cities, in politics shorthand, means lots of rural, and rural in modern American politics means heavily Republican.

The 25th takes that shorthand to the extreme. Outside of the Albemarle County precincts, it’s even less friendly to Democrats than you might otherwise expect from a rural district.

This isn’t an academic discussion to me. I’m an alum of the 25th, growing up in Crimora, one of several unincorporated communities on the Route 340-Route 256-Route 257 corridor located west of the Blue Ridge.

The stretch of the district west of the Blue Ridge cast 63.3 percent of the votes in the 25th in Landes’ most recent re-election battle, in 2017, when he defeated Democrat Angela Lynn by 16 points district-wide, but received 69 percent of the votes in Augusta and Rockingham.

The challenge for Democrats here is that the Augusta-Rockingham portions of the 25th aren’t just rural; they’re working-class, hard-core working class.

The stretch of Crimora that I grew up in was marked by a succession of trailer parks – three in one quarter-mile stretch, five within roughly three miles of each other.

Up through Grottoes, west toward Weyers Cave and Bridgewater, to the shadow of Reddish Knob, there’s an awful lot of people who live paycheck-to-paycheck, a car problem or trip to the doctor away from losing their jobs, their houses, their marriages, who yet have voted for Republicans dating back to FDR.

They’re what I have come to think of as being cultural Republicans, who dislike Democrats not because labor unions wouldn’t protect them on the job, not because Medicare for All wouldn’t make them healthier, at a lower cost, not because a better public education system wouldn’t give their kids a fighting chance to climb the social and income ladder, but because they think pointy-headed liberal socialist commie Democrats look down their overeducated noses at them.

Now, throw into this equation that Kitchen is being advertised in the local media as an activist, which, in rural voter speak, roughly translates to pointy-headed liberal socialist commie, and she’s already lost half the battle.

The other half is lost when you factor in what her activism translates to: feel-good marches and rallies on women’s and immigrants’ rights that are, yes, admirable in their intent, but not exactly hot-button issues in the 25th, as much as they should be.

General Assembly seats come up in odd-year elections in Virginia, so we’re talking 2019 for the race in the 25th, plenty of time for Kitchen to learn that affordable high-speed Internet is far from being the biggest issue that folks in the 25th are facing.

Whoever in Richmond is responsible for inserting that play into the rural Democrat issues playbook deserves to be sacked.

One thing Kitchen is right about is that Landes is hopelessly out of touch with his constituents: his active role in fighting Medicaid expansion the past five years is a clear indication of that.

But you’re not going to get the working-class folks of Augusta and Rockingham to come to the conclusion that an activist who thinks organizing marches and rallies is the key to making their lives better when they’re a $400 emergency away from their lives coming crashing down around them is any more in touch.

Column by Chris Graham


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