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2017-11-08 / Featured / Front Page

Election wins buoy county Democrats

Statewide sweep signals county’s shifting electorate
BY JIM McCONNELL STAFF WRITER

Chesterfield Democrats, pictured here at the Midlothian Day Parade in October, secured key victories in Tuesday’s election, winning the race for county commissioner of the revenue and at least one House of Delegates seat. Photo by JAMES HASKINS Chesterfield Democrats, pictured here at the Midlothian Day Parade in October, secured key victories in Tuesday’s election, winning the race for county commissioner of the revenue and at least one House of Delegates seat. Photo by JAMES HASKINS This story was updated to reflect a canvass of election returns in Fairfax, where Republican Del. Tim Hugo now appears to have a slight edge over Democrat Donte Tanner.

As the clock ticked toward midnight Tuesday and the wait staff of Wood and Iron Gameday Restaurant performed their assigned closing duties, seemingly oblivious to the election night reverie unfolding around them, the atmosphere inside the North Huguenot Road eatery remained one of utter jubilation for Chesterfield Democrats.

“What a difference a year makes!” exclaimed Kim Drew Wright, founder of a liberal grassroots activist group that has brought a jolt of new energy to the county’s Democratic establishment. “I can’t stop smiling.”

One year ago today, Democrats across the commonwealth were overcome with anger, confusion and despair following Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election.

They used that emotion as fuel for a political uprising that produced a second consecutive Democratic sweep of Virginia’s top three statewide offices and ended the Republicans’ stranglehold on the state House of Delegates.

Ralph Northam, Justin Fairfax and Mark Herring posted decisive victories in the races for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general, respectively.

Northam, a doctor and the state’s sitting lieutenant governor, won by 9 percentage points and nearly took Chesterfield in the process; Ed Gillespie held the historically Republican county by just 285 votes out of 116,889 cast, according to the unofficial tally by the State Board of Elections. 

“Tonight the people of Virginia led the way and turned out to support candidates who represent the very best of who we are. It is here in Virginia that we sent a powerful message to the nation that bigotry, racism and lies will never defeat love, fairness and truth,” Democratic Party of Virginia Chairwoman Susan Swecker said in a statement.

“Bigotry, racism and lies” are often cited by Democrats as hallmarks of Trumpian politics, and Swecker wasn’t the only Democrat suggesting that the 2017 election represents a clear repudiation of Trump’s presidency.

“I don’t want to give him that much credit, though,” added Elizabeth Hardin, chairwoman of the Chesterfield Democratic Committee. “We had excellent candidates.”

Party officials are touting the “historic” nature of several House races, noting that Virginia elected the first two Latina women to the General Assembly in Elizabeth Guzman and Hala Ayala; the first Asian-American woman in Kathy Tran; and the first openly transgender person to be elected to statewide office in Danica Roem.

Another LGBTQ candidate, nurse practitioner Dawn Adams, stunned Republican incumbent Manoli Loupassi, beating him in a close race in the 68th District, which includes part of Chesterfield.

Loupassi, a Richmond attorney, had held the seat since 2008. His defeat means the county’s eight House seats are now evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats.

“That’s huge,” said Hardin, who called Adams “incredibly intelligent, articulate and good at connecting with people.”

Adams will enter a House of Delegates that looks nothing like it did during the 2016 General Assembly session.

Democrats gained 15 seats on Tuesday, exceeding even their most optimistic projection and erasing the Republicans’ 66-34 advantage in one night. (Update: In Fairfax, Republican Delegate Tim Hugo picked up 100 votes in a canvass of election returns Wednesday morning, according to the Associated Press, giving Hugo a 32-vote edge over Democratic challenger Donte Tanner.)

Republicans currently have a slight edge over Democrats in the House, 51-49, but that could change pending the outcome of perhaps as many as four recounts in districts narrowly won by Republicans.

One of them could be Chesterfield’s 27th District, where incumbent Roxann Robinson went into Wednesday morning with a slim 124-vote lead over Democratic challenger Larry Barnett.

“We’ll just have to wait and see what happens,” said Barnett, who watched the returns with family andLarry Barnett, a Democrat vying for the 27th District seat in the House of Delegates, and Attorney General-elect Mark Herring visit a home in Midlothian while campaigning late last month. As of Wednesday morning, Barnett trailed incumbent Del. Roxann Robinson by just 124 votes. Photo by ASH DANIELLarry Barnett, a Democrat vying for the 27th District seat in the House of Delegates, and Attorney General-elect Mark Herring visit a home in Midlothian while campaigning late last month. As of Wednesday morning, Barnett trailed incumbent Del. Roxann Robinson by just 124 votes. Photo by ASH DANIEL friends at Wood and Iron, the restaurant off Huguenot Road. Provisional ballots are expected to be counted on Monday, according to Chesterfield Registrar Constance L. Tyler. And there’s the possibility of a recount once provisional votes are counted.

Should the Democrats flip a couple of House seat through the recount process, they will prevent Del. Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, from ascending to the top leadership post, a transition that seemed all-but guaranteed when the Republican caucus selected him as its speaker-designee earlier this year.

That would be a blow to Chesterfield, which is part of Cox’s district. County leaders have been waiting eagerly for Cox to succeed the retiring William Howell as speaker, confident his influence would help the county advance its legislative priorities.

Cox and two other GOP delegates who represent Chesterfield, Lee Ware and Riley Ingram, each secured re-election to another two-year term Tuesday. Those victories were rare bright spots for the Republican Party.

Barnett’s wife, Pat, said she was offered a sample ballot by a Republican volunteer outside the Monacan precinct when she went to vote Tuesday.

She declined, noting that her husband was running for the House as a Democrat.

“Oh, that’s too bad,” Pat Barnett recalled the volunteer saying, clearly implying that Larry Barnett stood no chance of unseating Robinson.

“I said, ‘No, actually, it hasn’t been at all,’” she noted, shaking her head at the volunteer’s hubris.

Standing in front of a big-screen TV near the front of the restaurant, Pat Barnett said Chesterfield Democrats no longer have to whisper about their political affiliation for fear of being scorned by their neighbors.      

“We’ve been whispering for years,” she added. “We’re yelling it now.”

After defeating incumbent Timothy McPeters in a special election to become the county’s next commissioner of the revenue, Democrat Jenefer Hughes acknowledged that liberals have a reputation for being good at protesting, but not necessarily running for office.

So when she decided to run, she threw everything she had into the campaign – including between $15,000 and $20,000 of her own money. She advertised on social media, in newspapers and even purchased space on billboards, building considerable name recognition across the county. 

“In politics, there is no second place. It’s winner take all,” Hughes said.

Hughes was one of the earliest members of the Liberal Women of Chesterfield County, the grassroots activist group Kim Drew Wright founded last November as an outlet for her disgust over Trump’s victory.              

Both women insisted Tuesday wasn’t a one-time event, but the earliest ripples of a wave of new Democratic influence in a rapidly changing Chesterfield.

“I think we got our message across tonight,” Drew Wright said. “We’re going to win everything.”  

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