Cross-posted at Blue Virginia
The first statewide election of the Trump era arrives November 7th in Virginia, and Democrats have attracted a top-notch roster of candidates to flip the GOP-dominated House of Delegates. One of the ripest targets is Del. Tim Hugo (R-40), a long-entrenched incumbent thanks to the tons of money he gets from such questionable allies as the predatory lending industry and our power monopoly Dominion Energy.
Lined up to oppose him is Donte Tanner, a fresh-faced young African American Air Force veteran and small business owner who speaks with the straightforward common sense of a decent family man who’s never been a politician. I had the pleasure of interviewing Donte face to face on September 22nd.
Following is his story in his own words (edited for clarity & length). Please check him out – at least skim the pull-quotes! – and then find the ways you can help him prevail at dontetanner.com.
Who is Donte Tanner?
It’s the core values that mean the most to me: integrity first, service before self, and excellence in all we do.
I like to start at the beginning, with my parents. My parents are both police officers; before that, my Dad was in the Navy. When we talk about our life as a family, it was always about giving back to the community. So, in the sixth grade, I applied to the Air Force Academy. They told me no, please try again later on. But I stuck with it, called them every year, and in 2001, I graduated from the Air Force Academy and started my career in service.
People ask about the Academy itself – it’s the core values that mean the most to me: integrity first, service before self, and excellence in all we do. In this campaign, we’re actually focusing on the service before self piece. It’s what made me a great officer – I’d like to say I was a great officer, but I had great people working for me, and our job is take care of the people so they can take care of the mission.
I started my own business in 2014, mainly because I was tired of the ethical practices among some government contracting companies. We try to give as much back to our customers as we do our communities – integrity first with our customers too.
What Spurred Him to Run
In February, when I realized that no one else had stepped up to run, I remembered something my father said, which is: Don’t wait for somebody else to do something you can do yourself.
Honestly, it started with November 2016. Like most people, we saw what happens when we were apathetic to the process. Not just voting, but how we get out and knock doors, canvass, fund-raise for candidates. This is what happens – Trump happens. That's when I started really paying attention to our local elections, and following our Delegate, working to find out who’s going to run against him.
I didn’t set out to be a politician at the start of the year. But in February, when I realized that no one else had stepped up to run, I remembered something my father said, which is: Don’t wait for somebody else to do something you can do yourself.
So, I talked with my wife, tried to convince her it was a great idea with a newborn on the way. Actually, it was my wife that encouraged me the most, saying: You’ve talked for years about how you want to see more integrity in politics, now’s the chance to try to prove that.
I talked with my community, a lot of the Sully District, Springfield District and Prince William Democrats, to say: Hey, this is what I’m trying to do, do we have your support. And overwhelmingly, they said, yes, absolutely. It was a very positive start to our race, where, from the beginning, we just had an amazing support system. Together, we have a real shot at flipping the seat.
On His Opponent, Del. Tim Hugo
My main critique is of his voting record: the things he focuses on vs. the things this district cares about. When we start talking about some of the things like the bathroom bill, defunding Planned Parenthood, the trans-vaginal ultrasound, voting against women’s rights – that’s not what the district’s top issues are. Everything that our district cares about, even some transportation bills, he has voted against. These are very bipartisan issues.
So my biggest critique is that he is voting against the interests of the district. That's why I jumped into the race against him: If you’re going to represent us, don’t tell us one thing up here and have your voting record display something different. He tries to play the moderate inside the district, but people are catching on.
I encourage the voters of the 40th to look at where he’s getting his money from, like predatory lending and predatory towing companies – and his voting record has reflected that as well.
We’re a people powered campaign. We’ve had contributions from over 1400 individuals. I’m proud that we’re able to do that and outraise our opponent the last quarter, and that’s the message we want to send to our voters. That means more to me, that the people are speaking with their money.
Top Issues in the District
My opponent voted against Medicaid expansion in Virginia. 400,000 people could have access to healthcare, tens of thousands of jobs created – he voted against it. That’s the biggest thing that we hear when knocking on doors.
The first one is healthcare. My opponent voted against Medicaid expansion in Virginia. 400,000 people could have access to healthcare, tens of thousands of jobs created – he voted against it. That’s the biggest thing that we hear when knocking on doors.
The second thing we are hearing, surprisingly for what’s supposed to be a Republican district, is protecting women’s rights, especially as it’s tied to healthcare. We’ve addressed it head on because people in the district care about that.
Transportation – anyone who lives in Northern Virginia, if you’re talking to them at the doors, they will talk about transportation, and what other options do we have except expanding freeways. We have different ideas, and we’ve been pushing our ideas of teleworking, expanding out the public rail. I would love to see Metro expansion – I know that has it’s own sets of issues, but we’d shouldn’t give up on it just because it’s hard now, if it’s good for our infrastructure going forward.
And of course, every parent will talk to you about education, and making sure that remains a priority in Northern Virginia. For us, the issue is mostly overcrowded classrooms. But they’ve cut funding for Northern Virginians even though we’re experiencing a big population growth in classroom sizes. So I’d start there.
And like any other workforce, how do we protect our teachers? Our workforce is the driver behind our economic engine, and if we don’t take care of them, we’re going to see a problem both now and later. Virginia’s always been a leader, let’s be a leader in protecting our workforce as well.
On Dominion Energy: I am not taking any money from Dominion. There’s no reason why a company that has a monopoly should have free rein of what their regulations are going to be. It’s like having a kid grade his own test, it’s not right. When you start seeing as much money is poured into it, people initially assume that the politicians are voting to protect Dominion, and I can understand why they would believe that. So one of the things I pledge is not be influenced by outside money. What is right for the community, what works best for Virginia – that’s how I’m going to vote.
There’s no reason why a company that has a monopoly should have free rein of what their regulations are going to be. It’s like having a kid grade his own test, it’s not right.
On Jobs and Economic Development
I’m a small business owner, so I have a vested interest to make sure that small businesses are taken care of, as they are 90% of our economy. That’s what my main focus will be, taking the experiences I have learned as a small business owner – the hard lessons learned – to help promote and support small businesses.
Start off with raising the minimum wage to $15. It won’t be done overnight, but if you don’t start pushing for that and starting that process, you’re not addressing the problem that most people in the community have when it comes to economic growth. They want to make sure they're not being left behind.
The other thing is to make sure that you have the infrastructure that can support growth. It goes back to the transportation system, to education, and to being a place where you want to live – that's how you attract other businesses.
On automation: Instead of trying to fight automation, which also promotes economic growth, you start training your population on the jobs that are currently available. I think the job of the government is to really look where those programs are and start partnering with industry and say this is what we can do to create and promote job growth.
On green jobs: you’re only going to see an increase over the years, and that’s a fantastic opportunity for Virginia to lead the way. Retrain, let’s support you in that, it solves several problems at once.
That’s the primary lesson that I learned from Charlottesville – it’s not about the monuments, it’s about love and actually talking to our neighbors.
That’s a painful subject in a lot of different ways. When they talk about Charlottesville in particular, they try to make it about monuments, and that situation wasn’t about monuments. It was about a lot of hate-filled rhetoric being spread by the KKK and neo-Nazis that don’t represent the values of Virginia. One of the lessons to take away from that is that if we don’t stand up to hate, they have a safe haven to come spread that message. As leaders in our communities, we should make sure that hate has no home here.
I absolutely want to have a conversation as it relates to statues and monuments. I know how I feel about it; as an African American man in Virginia, I know what it means to me. But I actually have people from my neighborhoods where we’ve talked about it, and they see something completely different, and I didn’t know that's how they saw it, while they didn’t know how I perceived it.
Now we have a conversation where it’s coming from a place of love and understanding, and that is what was missing in Charlottesville. That’s the primary lesson that I learned from Charlottesville – it’s not about the monuments, it’s about love and actually talking to our neighbors. Start there and see what happens.
What He Would Say to Trump
I think I would pose a thought. While most of the country was probably disappointed as I was the day after the election, he did bring out something in all of us, where we were realizing how frustrated we were with politics the way it’s been conducted.
Honestly, I believe it’s about the character and values of the person sitting in the seat, not the experience. Don’t get me wrong, I voted for Hillary Clinton and wanted to see the first woman elected to the presidency, but experience wasn’t everything. People want to be heard. Right now, Donald Trump is doing the same thing he accused everybody else of – he’s not listening to everyone.
So the first thing I would say is, you have an opportunity to make a difference in the country. While some of us didn’t vote for you, you can win people over if only you focus your message on inclusiveness and bringing our country together.
On Campaign Finance Reform and Gerrymandering
It’s absolutely time for campaign finance reform in Virginia. When people from outside the state come here and call Virginia the Wild West, that’s a problem.
It’s absolutely time for campaign finance reform in Virginia. When people from outside the state come here and call Virginia the Wild West, that’s a problem. There should be a limit on how much an individual can donate to a campaign. There should be a limit to what candidates can spend their campaign finances on.
There are examples from all over the country, and we can find whatever’s best for Virginia. For people to regain trust in their government, we have to let them see that money is not influencing how we’re voting.
With regard to gerrymandering, that's one big issue that got me fired up at the start of this race as well, especially with the Census coming up soon. When it comes to our redistricting lines, the people should always choose their electeds, the elected officials should not choose their voter base. So one of the things I want to make sure of is that we establish an independent commission to determine what those lines are, based on formulas, criteria, etc. That’s what’s important for our district and our state.
Any time you have politicians determining their own district boundaries for the sake of staying in office, those races are less competitive, so then you have newer candidates less likely to step up and serve their community. It’s not the true representative democracy that we set out to create as Virginians.
On Democrats and the Campaign
Virginia is a bellwether – we win this one, we send a message to Trump. But if we don’t flip this House, we don’t take over these seats, we don't make the strongest push we said we were going to make, what message does that send to Donald Trump?
The key is to not neglect the areas that you feel a) aren’t going to vote for you or b) are a little tough to walk, canvass and reach out to. No – our goal in our campaign is to reach every neighborhood that we can – and go back through again to hit them twice. And listening, that’s the most important part. I know I’m running as a Democrat, but I can’t be afraid to talk to somebody who may have a different opinion than myself. We may disagree on a few points, but I find that we agree on a lot more.
In our district especially, it goes from rural to straight up urban, and we’re listening to everybody, knocking on all the doors in all the neighborhoods, doing everything we can to make sure they feel heard by our campaign.
One of the things that we’re seeing in Virginia is that Democrats are actually working with each other, across district lines and different races, to come together and have a unified effort.
When you start seeing that kind of unity, where we’re saying our goal is not just to turn over this seat in the 40th, our goal is to flip the House of Delegates this year, now, all of a sudden, you’re learning from what you’ve done in the past, you’re unifying your efforts, starting with each House race.
I want Virginia to be the example of what happens when the whole country gets involved with a race, to accomplish a big goal – let’s flip the House of Delegates, keep the statewide seats, and make sure that we follow the same model through every state, so next year, when elections come up, we’re supporting everyone across the country, not just those in our own districts.
So, find a Delegate candidate you like in Virginia, who shares your same values – hopefully I’m one of them – and please support our campaigns financially. 1000 seats since Obama was elected president that we lost, and I believe that now is time to take those back. We do that together.
We’ve actually had people from other states come and canvass with us. I had a friend of mine drive from Ohio, we’ve had people come down from New York, from Missouri, from Florida. People are coming from across the country to knock doors with us and canvass. And that sends a stronger message to voters, that you’re willing to come and work for this candidate even though you live a 12-hour drive away, it makes a huge difference.
The volunteers have been amazing. The more help we can get in all these aspects – phone banking, fundraisers, coming and knocking on doors – all these things help. So whatever way you’d like to get involved, please help us out.
Virginia is a bellwether – we win this one, we send a message to Trump. But if we don’t flip this House, we don’t take over these seats, we don't make the strongest push we said we were going to make, what message does that send to Donald Trump? That terrifies me more than anything – I don’t want to give him approval for his behavior. I want to send a strong message this year saying: No, we don’t approve, and we all got together to send that message.