Virginia’s Democratic renaissance has largely been powered by women—female candidates as well as voters. When Democrats came within a seat of taking the House of Delegates in 2017 (they finished the job in 2019); 11 of 15 victorious challengers were women, including several women of color, propelled by a wave of anti-Trump revulsion. Already two women, both of them African American, have launched campaigns for governor in 2021 (incumbent Ralph Northam can serve only one term). Second-term Delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy and 14-year veteran state Senator Jennifer McClellan made their announcements within days of one another last summer—a historic first for Black women in the former capital of the Confederacy.
But when former governor Terry McAuliffe announced his intention to seek another term Wednesday (you can’t run twice in a row in Virginia; nothing stops him from running now), you could feel a collective sigh of dismay from much of the progressive feminist resistance—in Virginia, and around the country. “All of these women have put in all this work—we are living in a completely different state from four years ago, built by women—and now a man’s going to step in?” asked Ivonne Wallace Fuentes, a historian and founder of one of the earliest Indivisible chapters, in Roanoke, Va.
It’s hard to resist a comparison to President-elect Joe Biden, who jumped into the most diverse presidential primary field in history—six women, four of them senators, one of them African American (now his vice president–elect, Kamala Harris); a Black man, a Latino man, an Asian American, a Jewish democratic socialist, a gay mayor and… others. In the end, Biden’s strength with older black voters, his rivals’ own campaign challenges, plus the competition among women as well as candidates of color, ensured his victory. Is McAuliffe about to ride the same dynamics back to Richmond?
Not necessarily. Lots of people caution against declaring the race over just because a popular former governor and national fundraising titan jumped in. “This race is still taking shape,” says longtime Virginia Democratic activist Carolyn Fiddler of Daily Kos. Fergie Reid Jr. of 90 for 90, which began a Virginia voter registration drive that is partly credited for the state’s blue turnaround, agrees. “He’s gonna have to fight for it.” In addition to McClellan and Carroll Foy, the race also includes Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, whose term was marred by accusations of sexual assault from two women, which he has repeatedly denied. Democratic socialist Lee Carter has also filed paperwork to begin fundraising, but hasn’t officially joined the race. The Nation will cover several of the candidates as the campaign continues.
Reid emphatically declares this is a great development for the Commonwealth. “We have an embarrassment of riches right now: three black people running for governor—and the white guy is getting all the heat!” He adds: “And the white guys [Carter and McAuliffe] are from opposite ends of the spectrum. It doesn’t get any better than that!”
Not everyone is as happy. Some Virginians worry that McAuliffe will benefit from divisions among Black voters and progressive voters, given the existing field. He showcased his appeal to the state’s Black electorate—a quarter of the total—by launching his campaign alongside exclusively African American leaders, including House majority leader Charniele Herring, state Senator Louise Lucas and Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney. But Lucas didn’t help McAuliffe’s cause by suggesting to Politico that McClellan and Carroll Foy might be good candidates “at the appropriate time. But for right now what we need is Terry McAuliffe, somebody who we know has history with the Black community. He always asks what the Black community’s needs are. We’ve got somebody who we know can deliver.”
That sounded to a lot of women, Black or not, like “wait your turn.” It also echoed South Carolina Representative Jim Clyburn’s decisive (and pithier) endorsement of Biden: “We know Joe. Joe knows us.” But who knows? It could work.
To be fair to McAuliffe, he has many admirers—he left the governor’s office with overwhelming approval—as well as civil rights and women’s rights bona fides. Near the end of his term, he moved to restore voting rights to 173,000 formerly incarcerated Virginians. He was such a reliable defender of reproductive rights, vetoing ugly GOP anti-abortion laws, that NARAL Pro Choice Virginia gave him its 2017 “Brick Wall” award. (Ironically, at the group’s virtual fundraising gala Wednesday night, his rival McClellan won its “Legislator of the Year” award; McAuliffe and Carroll Foy also spoke briefly.) He emerged as one of Virginia’s leading white voices of outrage after the 2017 Charlottesville white supremacist rally that killed anti-racist protester Heather Heyer. And when Northam was damaged by a blackface scandal, and then Fairfax by sexual assault allegations, McAuliffe stepped in, campaigning and raising money for House and Senate candidates in 2019 when neither of the two top leaders was able (or welcome) to do so. His political action committee was the largest donor to state races in 2019.
So far, Carroll Foy has taken the lead in questioning McAuliffe’s rationale for running. She slightly upstaged him by announcing she was resigning her Prince William County Second District delegate seat the day before he was set to launch his run. She did it, she said, to give Second District voters a full-time delegate—there will be a special election in January—“and because it’s what’s best for my family. Running for governor is not conducive to working moms,” she told me.
Then she dug in: “I come from one of the poorest communities. I was raised by my grandmother. I’ve been a foster parent and a public defender. I’ve lived a life of service—I don’t have wealth.” The contrast with the wealthy McAuliffe went unstated, at first. But when I asked her about the core of the former governor’s pitch—that he has the experience to rescue the state from the coronavirus crisis and the related economic crash—she got more pointed.
“I think it’s an affront to women and people of color who are in this race, to say he can do something we can’t do.” Carroll Foy called the experience argument “coded language” and a “dog whistle,” noting that McAuliffe himself had no elected experience “whatsoever” when he first ran for governor in 2009 (and lost; he won in 2013). She and McClellan, she notes, have much more government experience than McAuliffe did when he took office almost seven years ago.
At Higher Heights, a national group that advocates for black women’s leadership, cofounder Glynda Carr tries to take a tone like Fergie Reid’s. “What this is demonstrating is the black women’s leadership bench is wide and deep,” she says. She shrugs off concerns that McClellan and Carroll Foy, not to mention Fairfax, will split black voters. “Certainly, we’ve never said ‘there are too many white men’ in any race.”
Still, she can’t ignore certain parallels with the Democratic presidential primary, when Higher Heights endorsed Kamala Harris early. “We’re about to see how the diversity and the dynamics that we saw in the presidential race plays out in a gubernatorial race in Virginia,” she tells me. Voters say they want diverse leadership, and this race “will test their appetite.”
Fuentes worries that women, especially, don’t have the “emotional bandwidth,” especially during the pandemic, to deliver the activism necessary to power Carroll Foy or McClellan past McAuliffe. “He’s not as progressive as I want, but he has seen that the party has shifted left—it could be that he’ll dance with us.”
Carroll Foy believes Virginia’s women activists will be there with her. “The people I fight for know that I’m one of them. We’re running the most aggressive grassroots movement this state has ever seen.”