Marrow, Curren face steep hills to climb
Story by Chris Graham
A candidate for public office needs to shake as many hands and slap as many backs as possible. A Democratic Party candidate in the bright-red Shenandoah Valley has to work twice as hard to have a shot on Election Day.
“You’ve got to beat the streets, pound the pavement,” 25th District Democratic Party candidate Greg Marrow said before a meet-and-greet with voters in Waynesboro earlier this month. “I’ve gone through two pairs of shoes already. You’re hot, sweaty, tired. You want to go home and play with your children. But you just know that it’s worth it. You have to believe that it’s going to happen.”
Marrow is trying to do the next-to-impossible – Republicans have held the seat in the 25th, which represents Waynesboro and portions of Augusta County, Albemarle County and Rockingham County, dating back to the 1960s, which is to say, dating back to when Virginia was a solid, solid Democratic Party state.
It’s to the point where seven-term incumbent Steve Landes hasn’t even had a Democratic opponent since his first run for the seat to replace his mentor, Pete Giesen, in 1995. But Marrow seems to be making some inroads. An agitated Landes made headlines at a debate in Waynesboro in September when he forcefully interrupted a Marrow answer to a question, then backed out of a second debate that had been proposed by the News Leader and WHSV-TV3 citing what he claimed were issues with editorial fairness on the part of the News Leader.
Democrat Erik Curren over in the 20th District, which represents Staunton, portions of Augusta and Rockingham and all of Highland County, is facing having to climb an even steeper hill, if that’s possible. The 20th was carved out of the Valley in the 2001 legislative redistricting by the majority Republican Party with the idea that it would be a solid GOP district. Curren’s task was made less daunting when Chris Saxman, who had represented the district since the ‘01 redistricting, decided against seeking a fifth term, but in Dickie Bell, Curren is facing a candidate who has won four elections to the City Council in Staunton, the only independent city in the district and the only real potential base of power for Democrats in the 20th.
“The voters I talk to seem to have more confidence in new voices than folks who have been there for a while,” Curren said after a meeting with voters in Bridgewater last month. “I think people were really dismayed by the Republican vote not to take the stimulus money, for example. When I talk about that, that really resonates with people.
“There’s also just a feeling of throw the bums out. People want fresh faces, fresh voices, fresh ideas,” Curren said.
Retired Bridgewater College history and political-science professor David McQuilkin thinks the Curren-Bell race is the Valley Democratic Party’s best hope for a pickup in the local House races.
“Bell isn’t a strong candidate,” said McQuilkin, who still foresees a Bell victory in the Nov. 3 elections, though “not by the margins you’re likely to see elsewhere in the Valley.”
Staunton, even with Bell’s electoral history, could go to Curren. And Waynesboro and Crozet could be a strong base of support for Marrow in his race against Landes, given the numbers from the 2008 elections in those two localities for President Barack Obama and U.S. Sen. Mark Warner. The problem for Democrats is in the counties.
“Rockingham County is going to go dramatically in favor of the Republican candidates. Augusta County is going to go dramatically in favor of the Republican candidates. Staunton may go Democratic, Waynesboro may go Democratic, but you’re going to be closer to a split in the cities, and the margin in the counties for Republican is likely to be pretty significant. And it’s going to be hard for the Democrats to overcome that,” McQuilkin said.
That’s the conventional wisdom, anyway. Local blogger Riley Murray thinks there could be an undercurrent favorable for Democrats that the conventional wisdom would miss.
“In a different day and time, I might have been considered an Eisenhower Republican, because I’m not a fan of taxes and big-government involvement, but I also don’t believe in laissez-faire, just let what’s going to happen happen,” said Riley, an engineer whose blog, Blue Ridge Data, takes a data-based, analytical approach to local politics and public-policy matters.
“The issue for many moderate Republicans is that the right has gone so far right that for those of us from a more middle-of-the-road, independent background – and I’m coming from a science and technology background – there’s no room for us anymore in the Republican Party. Particularly in science. If you say evidence and data and fact-based decision-making matters in public policy, you have no place over there,” Murray said.
Marrow, in particular, fits that mold of new Democrat. A self-described “Reagan Democrat,” the Navy veteran and successful small businessman has the potential to appeal to moderate Republican voters looking for an alternative to what Republicans have been offering of late.
Marrow recounted a day way back in his campaign in the 25th, before he was even on the June 9 Democratic Party primary ballot, getting signatures for his ballot petition at the post office on Wayne Avenue in Waynesboro.
“I’m wanting to talk issues that I’m passionate about – health care, veterans care, job creation, those kinds of things that motivated me to run in the first place. I got to talking to this gentleman. We probably talked 20 minutes or so. He told he’d never, ever voted for a Republican, had never done anything for a Democrat, but after talking with me, he was very proud to say he was going to sign my petition,” Marrow said.
“It was a big deal for him, and it was a big deal for me, too. It meant that the issues I’m talking about could resonate with folks,” Marrow said.
His work is cut for him, though, and Marrow knows this well.
“This district hasn’t had a Democrat even opposing the incumbent in 15 years. It’s a generation that’s essentially grown up voting for Steve Landes. Just letting people know that there is an alternative out there, to get them to tune into what we’re saying, is huge,” Marrow said.