As Virginia’s Democratic gubernatorial primary approached this spring, Josh Stanfield, campaign manager for Democratic Socialist Delegate Lee Carter, began to worry that state party officials and the Department of Elections weren’t treating all candidates equally. Among other worries, he’d heard that some establishment candidates got different (and more accurate) instructions for submitting their nominating petitions than Carter did. That matters, because the first to file is first on the ballot, which research shows can provide a slight advantage. As it turned out, front-runner and former governor Terry McAuliffe wound up at the top of the June 8 ballot; Carter is fourth of five.
Stanfield filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the Elections Department to see if he could find out what happened. He didn’t. But he found out other things. Among the documents Stanfield received were several having to do not with Carter but with another primary election controversy—over whether party officials had been fair to three Black progressives, all challenging Democratic House of Delegates incumbents, who were disqualified by the State Board of Elections for problems with filing required paperwork, including a statement of qualifications and another on their economic interests. (I wrote about the controversy here.)
The documents Stanfield received suggested the answer was no.
All three, indeed, had filing problems, each of them different, but candidates have routinely been given a chance to fix them, under a state-sanctioned 10-day grace period. This year, for the first time in memory, they were not. Richmond City Council member the Rev. Mike Jones, Arlington activist Matt Rogers, and Dumfries Town Council member Cydny Neville found their campaigns, already in full swing, abruptly terminated, their names barred from the June primary ballot. Virginia’s NAACP blasted “the appearance of disparate treatment of candidates of color…who sought to challenge incumbent legislators.”
There was another level of alleged unfairness, though: The three candidates, and others, had heard about Virginia Democratic Party officials’ working with the Department of Elections to find out which candidates had paperwork problems, so they could fix them by the deadline—but the three challengers never got such help. There were rumors of a “spreadsheet” being used to track compliance. I wrote about this earlier this month, and when I asked party officials about those reports, I was told there was no such operation; Democratic Party staffers had merely helped with internal party business, including verifying nominating petitions, but not with whether candidates had filed their state-mandated Certificate of Candidate Qualifications (CCQ) or Statement of Economic Interest (SOEI), also known as an ethics statement.
The House Democratic Caucus, I was told, had the job of communicating with all candidates on those two issues. But caucus sources told me they only work with their members—who are by definition, incumbents—so it wasn’t their job to help challengers. It looked rather like an incumbent-protection racket, but at least they were all being honest about it.
Among Stanfield’s FOIA documents, however, were two spreadsheets that focused on exactly those questions, as well as communications between Elections Department staffers and the party’s political director, Shyam Raman. On March 8, Raman e-mailed the Department of Elections’s Paul Saunders with the subject line “Happy Filing Day.” His message read: “As we go through these 17 days [before the filing deadline] are you able to send us the Democratic Candidates who have submitted their SOEI and CCQ? Just so we can track them and make sure nobody misses out on anything.” (To reiterate: Those are the filings the Virginia Democratic Party says it doesn’t work with candidates on.) Saunders submitted information every few days. As the March 25 final filing deadline approached, Raman again e-mailed Saunders: “Would you be able to send this updated list today, tomorrow, and wednesday? And if possible, mid-day thursday? I want to be sure everyone gets their paperwork in the mail by 5pm on the 25th.” The updates then came daily. Throughout the long e-mail chain, there is no mention of passing the spreadsheets on to the House Democratic Caucus so that they could reach out to candidates; Raman repeatedly says “we” or “I” are making sure “everyone gets their paperwork in” by the deadline.
Saunders and his supervisor at the Department of Elections David Nichols didn’t reply to requests for comment.
Now that we have the FOIA documents, this seems more obviously a case of party misbehavior. But it’s still hard to tease out. I don’t want to make a villain of Raman, who referred my questions to the state party’s communications director, Grant Fox. Whatever Raman did was at the behest of party leaders. And the seemingly incriminating e-mail doesn’t prove the information wasn’t shared with the caucus. Indeed, party officials continue to tell me that, despite what the documents appear to say, they were not working directly with candidates on their qualifications or ethics statements; that’s the caucus’s job.
To tell the truth, for a while, I felt a little like I was being gas-lighted—I thought of the old expression, “Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?” No one would ever discuss the FOIA documents with me, e-mail by e-mail, one by one. But I’m not comfortable calling anyone I spoke to a liar.
Still, the questions raised by what all parties admit was a major political mess remain vexing. The release of the FOIA documents renewed the ire of the three excluded candidates, weeks after they were disqualified. “The results of the FOIA speak for themselves,” Neville texted me crisply, though she declined to comment further. “It’s NOT good,” Jones wrote. Rogers thought it was proof that party officials had lied about not directly working to clear up other candidates’ paperwork.
But all three decided against mounting any legal challenge that might have—no guarantees, and who knows the expense—reversed the Board of Elections decision. State Board of Elections Chair Bob Brink, a longtime Virginia Democratic leader, talked to me freely for my last story, but he did not return requests for comment on this one. As I write, ballots are being printed without the three challengers’ names. This story is over. Jones, who is always funny and smart, answered his phone Monday by saying, “You know the old Boys2Men song: ‘We’ve come to the end of the road.’” Apparently, it’s the end of the road for these three candidates.
This story has gotten scant local news attention. But it raises nationally resonant questions about how much Democratic Party institutions are committed to inclusion, versus protecting incumbents and the party establishment.
“Knocking on doors in Richmond’s African American neighborhoods, the main reason I heard for people not voting is that they think it’s all rigged,” Jones told me dejectedly.
“The loyalty here should be to Democrats, not to incumbents,” he continues. “To truly eliminate bias—whether in terms of race, economics or incumbency—you need a fair, equitable, and transparent process. This wasn’t it. This was cronyism.” Jones thinks candidates should be able to file their documents online, and check regularly to make sure they were submitted correctly. “We do everything else that way, why not this?”
Stanfield agreed. “This is typical party-machine manipulation,” the longtime Activate Virginia activist told me. “You have an asymmetry of information between establishment candidates and outsiders.”
In his case, Carter’s campaign and its leaders, with others, had gone to court to get party officials to let supporters sign nominating petitions digitally because of Covid. They got a consent decree backing them. Then they were told the state Department of Elections would also create a way to file those petitions online instead of in person. But according to Stanfield, it never happened. “We just kept hitting ‘refresh, refresh, refresh,’” on the website they were told to use on filing day, he says. It never worked. Thus Carter wound up filing later than three of the five candidates running for governor, putting him behind them on the ballot.
In the case of the disqualified delegate candidates, it didn’t pretty up the situation that all three are Black. That’s not necessarily because of racism: There are certainly other Black candidates who made the Democratic delegate ballot, and three of Virginia’s five Democratic gubernatorial candidates are Black. (All are far behind McAuliffe in current polls, as is Carter.)
But as I argued in my last piece, race plays out in these decisions nonetheless. We know from experience that some of the best opportunities to elect BIPOC and female leaders, as well as progressives, from the city council to Congress, will come in solidly Democratic districts, like the ones in Virginia where the three Black challengers to more moderate Democratic incumbents wound up being blocked from the ballot. The successful primary challenges of Boston’s Ayanna Pressley, New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and St. Louis’s Cori Bush come to mind (as does the resistance of some Democratic Party congressional leaders to those Democratic primary challengers).
The party’s commitment to diversity, inclusion, and growing its base can only be served by promoting fairness to candidates who are outsiders, even if challenging incumbents. Which sometimes hurts. I get it.
But excluding promising candidates of color will, in the long run, hurt more. How many voters of color, in those three districts, have been denied a choice between the challenger and an incumbent? Dr. Fergie Reid Jr., founder of the voting rights and candidate recruitment group 90 for 90, estimates it’s about 80,000. (And of course plenty of white voters would like a choice, too.)
At the end of my last piece, I quoted Virginia Democratic Party Executive Director Andrew Whitley acknowledging the confusion. “We have to make sure we don’t have a replication of this again,” Whitley told me. The conflict over the FOIA documents made that task more urgent, Communications Director Fox reiterated Monday afternoon. “We have to make sure whatever process we go through next time, this doesn’t happen again.”
Let’s hope so, because it’s not clear state party leaders could have designed a process more likely to sow distrust if they tried to. Virginia has been a bellwether of the post-Trump Democratic revival. We should all learn from not just from its successes but als0 its mistakes. And learn too, I hope, when the state fixes them.