Stafford County, Virginia—Under a dazzling purple-and-orange sunset at the Stafford County Fair last weekend, Jennifer Carroll Foy, a candidate for the state House of Delegates, strolled confidently toward a skinny young white man wearing a Confederate-flag “Don’t tread on me” T-shirt. One of the first black female graduates of the Virginia Military Institute, Carroll Foy was there to ask for his vote. The man looked stunned as she approached, while his wife seemed mildly curious. And then Carroll Foy was really there—smiling, standing tall, handing out literature, explaining why she was running to represent the good people of Virginia’s Second District.
But first she had to figure out if the couple actually lived in her district. Even explaining where her district begins and ends proved complicated, as every district in the state has been distorted by GOP gerrymandering. Virginia’s Second District, for example, pulls in only half of Stafford County; the rest is in Prince William County. The couple stared at her, confused and silent. Then the man broke the spell by saying, No, they didn’t live in her district. He looked down at the ground, while his wife, carrying a toddler, awkwardly thanked Carroll Foy.
The very fact that Carroll Foy even attempted to reach a man in a Confederate T-shirt—just 95 miles away from where white supremacists menaced counter-protesters and where one of them murdered Heather Heyer with his car two months earlier—felt like a victory of sorts. A victory for showing up in the age of Donald Trump, for standing your ground, asserting your equality—and our common humanity—whether that young man believes in it or not.
Carroll Foy is one of 26 first-time Democratic women candidates running for delegate in Virginia this year. Like New Jersey’s, the state’s off-year election is on November 7. I wrote about this amazing surge of women candidates in August. Carolyn Fiddler, a Virginia Democratic party veteran, now with Daily Kos, called it “the Trump effect”—the exhilarating rush of female candidates who said to themselves: If that fucking schlub can be president, I can run for office. Since she won her primary in June—against the local party-establishment favorite, in a recount, and by just 14 votes—Carroll Foy has been placed in the top tier of these candidates, in terms of her overall strength and capacity to win. “Even though she got a late start because of the recount, she’s done a really good job at fundraising,” Carolyn Fiddler says. In fact, she’s raised more than $300,000, and, astoundingly, 60 outside groups have helped her along the way.
“It’s been overwhelming,” she says of the national support.
“Good overwhelming, or…?” I ask.
“All good!” she laughs.
Teddy Smyth, her campaign manager, holds a weekly conference call to tell outside groups what the campaign needs (Virginia law allows coordination between campaigns and outside organizations). “We’ve made it work,” he tells me.
Catherine Vaughan of Flippable, a new group focused on flipping statehouses by backing candidates like Carroll Foy, says Smyth’s conference calls “have been a great way for the campaign to gain extra capacity by specifying what they need—campaign e-mails, design help.”
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I came to Virginia to see how this first-time candidate was navigating a racially and economically diverse suburban area during the Trump presidency. Virginia’s Second District is 57 percent white, 26 percent African American, 18 percent Latino, 7 percent Asian, and 10 percent other. Stafford County, scooped into the district to protect GOP incumbents (but Representative Mark Dudenhefer decided not to run again), is even whiter and includes more whites without a college degree, i.e., Trump’s base. By contrast, Prince William County, where Carroll Foy enjoys a strong base of support, is majority minority. To win, she’ll need to pull votes from both sides of her district. Could a black progressive candidate like Carroll Foy bring some white Republican voters into her coalition?
I watched her move from a multiracial canvass operation to look at toxic coal-ash ponds at nearby Possum Point, then from the mostly white Stafford County Fair to a black Baptist church, and finally to a Latino bar and restaurant. She was comfortable in every culture. Her pitch doesn’t vary much, group to group; she’s not doing much segmenting of her electorate. And in all of those settings, more or less, her pitch worked.
I’m also curious to see the results of the Democrats’ new (and sadly belated) commitment to taking back statehouses. In Virginia, they’re running 54 challengers against GOP incumbents, up from only 21 in 2015. They need to pick up 17 seats to flip the 100-member House of Delegates—and there just happen to be 17 districts in GOP hands where Clinton defeated Trump last November. Democratic women are running in 11 of them.
While Virginia Democrats started this election cycle with a lot of optimism, things have become more worrying as of late. Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam, running to succeed Terry McAuliffe as governor, is just a nose ahead of Republican Ed Gillespie in most polls, even though Gillespie has run as an immigrant-scapegoating Trump clone in a state with a rising number of immigrants who voted against Trump in 2016.
The insult to injury, should Gillespie win, is this: He’s an architect of Operation REDMAP, which helped gerrymander statehouse seats in places like Virginia in favor of Republicans, which then let those GOP statehouse reps create even redder congressional districts. Republicans control seven of Virginia’s eleven seats in the House of Representatives; Democrats hold four, despite their dominance in statewide races.
And as Prince William County goes, Senator Tim Kaine tells me, so go the Democrats’ fortunes. “Prince William County is the battleground of the battleground,” he says. “I won it in 2006, for the first time for a Democrat since 1985.” Since then, the margins have only grown. “Barack won twice; Hillary and I won last year. I know where Northam is looking right now.” There are eight delegate seats that include parts of Prince William County. Incumbent Democrats hold just two of them, and the party is running challengers in the six GOP-held seats. Of these challengers, four are women, one is a black man, and one is a white man. Each of the four women has been given a strong chance to win.
Yet Carroll Foy says activism in her district has dipped some. “We started out with a big surge after I won the primary, but now it’s plateaued,” she said.
“The campaign has a volunteer deficit right now that needs to be filled for GOTV, and that is what we are prioritizing for them,” says Vaughan of Flippable.
As one of the better-funded Democrats, Carroll Foy may be suffering from the expectation that she’s got the race in the bag. While she’s up eight points on GOP candidate Mike Makee, she doesn’t feel safe. She remembers last November 8 all too vividly. And if Carroll Foy doesn’t feel safe, Democrats, statewide and nationally, shouldn’t feel safe either.
On the October Saturday I visited Carroll Foy’s campaign, however, there was no visible enthusiasm problem. Every few hours, a new crew of at least a dozen canvassers showed up at a staging location, a corner home in the diverse Port Potomac neighborhood of Woodbridge, where they picked up maps and literature about Carroll Foy, as well as the whole Democratic ticket, and set out to knock on doors to identify Democratic voters and get them to commit to voting on November 7. The time for persuasion had mostly passed. Now the main job was to reach out to registered Democrats and/or people the campaign had already identified as Carroll Foy supporters.
Most of the canvassers were locals, but I saw a large contingent from Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander’s “Let America Vote” project, as well as dozens of Washington, DC, college students, including a Jeep-load of white students from Catholic University’s College Democrats. I met Amal Mimish, a young woman unaffiliated with any group, who grew up in nearby Fairfax but drove in from suburban Maryland, where she now lives. Mimish said she was there because she wishes she’d done more to elect Hillary Clinton last November. “When Trump got elected, I regretted not volunteering and organizing like this, and I swore to get involved,” she told me. After researching Virginia candidates, she settled on Carroll Foy. “She’s awesome.”
Every few hours, Carroll Foy comes in to thank the canvassing groups and tell them her story. Raised by her grandparents, who had an eighth-grade education, she was one of the first black women admitted to VMI. “That’s where I learned how to work with people who’d rather I not be there,” she says. Then Carroll Foy headed to law school, but afterward, instead of going into private practice, she became a public defender. “My family said, ‘We sent you to law school to make money,’ but I saw disparities in the justice system…. My clients are the indigent, children, the mentally ill, substance abusers. Everyone deserves competent defense.” She’s also been a foster parent for eight years, and, once she saw the obstacles foster families face, she started a foundation for foster children. Carroll Foy also just gave birth to premature twin boys, Alex and Xander, who remain in the neonatal unit almost four months later; she tries to visit them twice a day. Listening to this extraordinary story, several volunteers start shaking their heads in wonder.
“I think she’s absolutely wonderful,” Shirley Clark, a veteran African-American Democratic Party volunteer, tells me. Clark is checking in canvassers, but she turns around in her chair to watch Carroll Foy talk. Clark has worked for dozens of Democrats over decades—she is who people mean when they say black women are the backbone of the Democratic Party—but hasn’t had many chances to work for a black woman. Later she hugs Carroll Foy and tells her how proud of her she is.
“I’ve had to get used to that,” Carroll Foy confesses over coffee. It happens to her all the time.
We go canvassing together in a neighborhood where houses range from modest to mansions. By chance, a stylish older black woman answers our first door. “I already voted for you, by absentee,” she tells her. So did her husband. “Don’t you disappoint me!” the woman tells her. “I won’t!” Carroll Foy promises.
We knock on door after door of Democrats—black, Latino, Asian. “My wife already told me about you, we are voting for you!” says a Latino man, who greeted the candidate like a celebrity. An older Muslim woman in a bright red headscarf and a long orange dress assures Carroll Foy that she and her husband will vote for her. It’s not always that easy. Not a single white person lives in the houses on our list. But back at the staging location, the canvassing teams, with volunteers of every age, included plenty of white people.
Across the street, red signs for Ed Gillespie dotted the lawn, in quiet competition with signs for Carroll Foy and Ralph Northam. As I was getting in my car to go to our next event, a white man in a camouflage T-shirt rode by on his bicycle alongside a young boy. He pointed to the canvassers and shouted, “Look, they’re Democrats!” as though showing the boy a rare beast in the wild. “Democrats support sanctuary cities—they let illegals who rape and murder hide from the police,” he said.
Ed Gillespie’s campaign against Ralph Northam has been just like that, featuring ugly and false claims. One in frequent rotation insists Northam has supported sanctuary for the violent MS-13 gang. But Virginia has no sanctuary cities, and Northam doesn’t want to see any established. He does support the Dream Act, as well as comprehensive immigration reform.
So far, Carroll Foy hasn’t faced much ugly culture-war stuff, although her GOP opponent, Mike Makee, has run an ad insisting that her support for in-state tuition for DACA kids will displace native Virginian college students. Also, so far Makee hasn’t attracted support from national Republican organizations that can rival the intensity from progressive groups backing Carroll Foy. In a brief break from campaigning, she ticks off the ones that have given her the biggest boost.
Tech for Campaigns, which attracts volunteers from the technology industry to do pro bono work for candidates, designed her website, redesigned her logo, and has been making and testing Facebook ads.
Emerge Virginia, which trains new Democratic women candidates, was crucial. “Without them, I don’t know where I’d be.” The group staged a weekend boot camp for women who were thinking of running. “It was brutal, honest, raw. It taught us about fundraising, even about what we wore. They focused us on thinking, ‘What conversations will people have about me when I’m not there?’” All the Emerge-trained women won their primaries. “That’s how good it was,” she notes.
Emily’s List paid her recount legal fees and serve on her “consulting team.” Daily Kos helped raise tens of thousands with its e-mail pitches on her behalf; some of its donors only sent a dollar, but those dollars added up. Flippable came through with an early $5,000 donation. I saw Kander’s “Let America Vote” canvassers in action in Woodbridge. Sister District and Run for Something have helped raise money, too.
“From a candidate and campaign quality perspective, JCF is exceptional,” Vaughan writes in an e-mail. “It’s clear why she’s a favorite of a number of progressive groups.”
And yet, Carroll Foy also believes she has to reach out to white voters, some of whom may be fairly conservative. Knocking doors in Port Potomac, she and I talked about the shock of November 2016. The result devastated her, and drove her to run for this office. “I went to bed election night knowing he was ahead, but also knowing that the American people would never, ever elect anyone as intolerant or incompetent,” she told me in August. Obviously, she was wrong.
Post-election soul-searching has made her more concerned about the white working-class voters in her district who had abandoned Democrats—some of them after voting for Obama. “It’s not pleasant to hear, but I think our economic message just didn’t come through. I think we had one, but people didn’t hear it. I listened to the critique, and I took ownership of it. We have to talk about economic issues that matter to them on a daily basis.”
So while she’s still running as an unabashed liberal—supporting reproductive rights, a $15 minimum wage, protecting DACA kids—there’s been a slight shift in her pitch since we talked in August. She emphasizes traffic everywhere she goes. The Washington Post recently judged that District Two has the worst traffic in the state, “and that’s not something you want to be number-one in,” she jokes more than once. When she pitches Medicaid expansion, she always says, “It’s not about Democrats and Republicans, it’s about people.” She promises she can work across party lines. “People are tired of gridlock,” she says at every gathering. At VMI “I learned how to work with people who didn’t want me in the room,” she says again. I ask her whether she favors single-payer health care—she is endorsed by Bernie Sanders’s “Our Revolution”—and she demurs. “In a state where we haven’t even expanded Medicaid, we’re not talking about it now. Long-term, it might be the ideal, but I’m not really looking at it much.”
And she looks for issues that let her connect with Republicans and independents. On Saturday afternoon we met with Patty and Dan Morrow, who are renowned in Northern Virginia for their passionate crusade to get powerful Dominion Power to face up to its toxic-coal-ash disposal problem. “I’m a registered Republican,” Patty confesses to me. “Although, lately, I’ve been voting for some Democrats.”
A few years ago, the entire Morrow family began to suffer acute health issues—bone troubles, blood diseases, spiking cholesterol; even their beloved mini-Yorkie, Bill, got horribly sick and vets couldn’t diagnose the problem. They also began to notice that their water sometimes changed color and that their pipes and shower heads were crusted with mystery crud. When they began giving Bill the Yorkie bottled water, he gradually became the energetic dog he was before. Other neighbors noticed similar problems, and they began to suspect that their well water had been contaminated by toxic chemicals leaking out of the coal-ash ponds that Dominion uses to store its waste. (Its Possum Point plant hasn’t burned coal since 2003, but the ash seems eternal.) The Morrows worked to get their well water and soil tested, and faced pushback from Dominion as well as state and local environmental bureaucrats. Finally, a test by the Potomac Riverkeepers showing unhealthy levels of toxins made state and local authorities pay attention.
Now there’s a moratorium on Dominion’s coal-ash storage plans until the state can test the soil and water and investigate other options. The company cleaned out its five or so coal-ash ponds and deposited them in one big happy toxic pool—though the Morrows claim, with some evidence and eyewitness accounts, that Dominion dumped some of it into the gorgeous Quantico creek. Dominion denies this. Now the company wants to cover the remaining coal-ash container with rubber or plastic. But many neighbors want Dominion to remove the coal ash permanently, hopefully to recycle it. Carroll Foy asked pointed questions like the lawyer she is, then promised the Morrows she would stay on the issue when she goes to Richmond.
By the end of their talk, Patty has a candidate. She walked away with Smyth to get some Carroll Foy yard signs out of his car, while the candidate began an intense conversation with Dan. More coal-ash issues? No, they were talking about restoring old cars, which Dan did for a living until bone problems forced him to retire. They head to the family garage, and there he shows her two lovingly restored Chevy Novas from the 1960s. It turns out Carroll Foy just finished work on her own 1972 Nova and is beginning to restore a ’65 Mustang.
Smyth, who’s been politely trying to pry the candidate away to her next event, gives up. “I didn’t know any of this,” he blurts out.
“You’re missing out on a big campaign pitch,” Patty teases him. “The guys will love this!”
Carroll Foy seems surprised that anyone would care about her hobby, but Smyth agrees with the Morrows. He’ll work something up to appeal to the “guys.” As we pull out of the driveway to head to the Stafford County Fair, Patty, the registered Republican, is putting her lawn signs on her property, as well as at the side of the road where her driveway begins.
The Stafford County Fair probably wasn’t the most natural setting for Carroll Foy, but she tackled it gamely. A Tae Kwon Do teacher peddling classes to children asked Foy to try to split some wood planks. He was used to kids and women failing; Foy did it on her first try. A Gideon Bible proselytizer came by to ask the devout, churchgoing Carroll Foy if she’s 100 percent convinced she’s “saved,” and, after a short exchange, she shook his hand. “Thank you for your evangelical service, sir.” Two young white women with pastel highlights in their hair told Foy a friend had already told them they had to vote for her; they hugged her like an old friend.
At the Stafford County Democrats table, Yolanda Roussell assures me the area is getting more diverse and Democratic, and that Carroll Foy has a real chance here. Roussell is running for county supervisor, to advance traffic solutions, but also to figure out a way to take down the gigantic Confederate flag that billows on an 80-foot pole over the town of Aquia (officials say it’s on private property, so there’s nothing they can do). “Oh, it’s coming down,” Roussell promises me.
Elsewhere, though, Carroll Foy doesn’t get the most enthusiastic reception. People brush her off by saying, “We’re Republicans.” At least some smile politely. She gets a few people to listen to her by telling them her plans to reduce traffic in the district. A few diffident couples brightened up at her plans to extend the Metro deep into Prince William County and create more bus lines for Stafford County, and took her literature.
Toward the end of the night, as the sky darkened, the tractor-trailer competition heated up, and Carroll Foy began to tire. Campaign manager Teddy Smyth took over introducing her to voters. Gamely, Smyth approached two older, beefy, red-faced white men in trucker caps, who looked something like the Southern sheriffs we remember from the ’50s and ’60s. With cold stares, they refused to even meet Carroll Foy and, as Smyth and the candidate walked away, the older guy in glasses joked to his friend, “Do I look black?”
Republicans began to run on racial grievance in the 1960s. Trump perfected the formula. Gillespie, a former moderate, has begun to channel it. After his MS-13 ad, he ran a spot denouncing Terry McAuliffe for giving back the right to vote to Virginia felons who’ve served their time, as clear a dog whistle as possible. In a recent interview he claimed there were more than 2,000 MS-13 gang members in Fairfax County alone (the Washington Post Fact Checker dinged him for that one). If the statewide race gets charged racially, can Carroll Foy avoid the sludge with her warm, rational appeal?
The Prince William County section of her district is diverse and Democratic, but even there, in Dumfries, a couple of miles from where we canvassed in an integrated neighborhood, a man is accused of placing Nazi and Confederate literature at a black church, in a mall bathroom, and in neighbors’ mailboxes. Tim Kaine thinks Carroll Foy has the right background and temperament to win the district. “Somebody who went through VMI, especially when she did, has to be strong, a path breaker. And now, as a public defender, she’s up close and personal with the poor and vulnerable. She’s just extraordinary.”
Her VMI background seems critical. I have come to understand why she says, at every stop, “at VMI, I learned how to work with people who didn’t want me in the room.” That will be necessary for her in Richmond. Beyond her warm persona, she’s tough as steel. That’s how she faces down young men in Confederate T-shirts.
But on Sunday morning I saw a softer side of the very private Carroll Foy, when we attended services at Little Forest Baptist Church in Stafford. I was one of three white people welcomed warmly by the black churchgoers. At one point, a deacon asked if anyone in the congregation wanted to “testify” to God’s role in their life. No one stood up, and he began to move into “This Little Light of Mine,” when Carroll Foy came forward to talk about something she rarely mentions: her very tough pregnancy.
“I found out I was pregnant with twins, and my doctor told me some women are built for multiple pregnancies but I wasn’t one of them.” She doesn’t mention that this was unplanned, and after she’d launched her campaign. “I just put the decision in God’s hands.” When her babies were born at 22 and a half weeks, despite her spending time on bed rest, they weren’t expected to make it. “Again, I left it up to God.” Now both boys are six pounds and are soon expected to leave the neonatal intensive-care unit. She gave thanks to God, and the crowd began testifying about her testimony, thanking her for proving “with God all things are possible.” Later, she gave a short speech about her campaign and her background, but she didn’t need to sell hard. Pastor Nate Sneed told his congregation that they had “a moral duty to vote,” though he couldn’t endorse a candidate, and the church said “Amen.”
After the services, Carroll Foy got hugged by everyone there, and then hugged again. Outside, people were asking Teddy Smyth for more lawn signs, and promising to take them to friends who attend other churches. The campaign manager was getting close to running out, but everybody who asked got their signs, a miracle of placards and stakes in Stafford. An older man in glasses who sat behind me in the service, helping me find the hymns and the scripture, came over holding about six signs, and shook my hand. “We can do this. We’re gonna get her over the finish line.”