This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. Read my profile of Virginia Del. Lee Carter here.
KELLEN SQUIRE: Delegate Carter, thank you for taking the time to answer some questions, considering I think you have a brand new addition to your family, a—what, four-day-old?
DEL. LEE CARTER: Yeah, she's four days old.
KS: Sounds exhausting, especially coming off session.
LC: Yeah. The last two weeks, then a lot trying to finish up the session and then lost my grandfather. And then the baby came a little bit earlier than expected. So full term, but very early in that window and a lot. But Charlie is doing great. And she eats a lot! She wants to eat every hour and a half. So, lots of coffee, lots and lots of coffee, and maybe some more coffee.
KS: I saw you asked the other day on Twitter if anybody had ever had an infant in the governor's mansion before. Did you get an answer to that?
LC: No, I didn't. Someone suggested that maybe former Governor George Allen might have, but I don't remember him having kids that little while he was governor. Of course, that was a while back- my memory could be real foggy about that. But yeah, so far as I can tell, it's, it's definitely been a while since there's been little little kids in the governor's mansion.
KS: So you might just be the first.
LC: That's right!
KS: Lee, the conventional wisdom says you're the Bernie candidate, the DSA candidate, a self-styled democratic socialist. Some people say that with reverence, and others as a slur.
What are your thoughts on that, for better or worse … and if that doesn’t define you, what does?
LC: Well, conventional wisdom says that I never should be in the House of Delegates to begin with. Because unfortunately, the conventional wisdom says that you don't have a chance in Virginia politics unless you're a doctor, or a lawyer, or someone way wealthy. But I got hurt at work in the summer of 2015, and it was my experience with the worker's comp system that made me realize that something had to change.
So I started talking to folks who worked in Virginia politics and asked them what they were going to do about workers comp, and nobody had an answer. So a very Mr. Smith Goes to Washington kind of thing. I should have realized, of course, that Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was a cautionary tale. But I decided to run against a guy the Democratic Party said couldn't be beat. He was a member of Republican Party leadership back when the Republicans were one seat away from having a supermajority. And I built a multiracial working class coalition and got across that finish line.
And so for the last four years, I've been fighting tooth and nail to make sure that working people can live and work, and not have to worry about how they're going to put food on the table. Not have to worry about how we're going to make the rent, pay for a doctor, put their kids through college, or whether or not they're going to be discriminated against based on who they are, who they love, or who they were born to be. And so getting into the governor's race was the same sort of thing. I was fighting for policies that live up to this moment, where we're in crisis after crisis after crisis. And I wasn't hearing it from the rest of the field.
So that's why I decided to go ahead and jump in the race- and we're working on building that coalition, and getting people out to vote on June 8, or ideally vote by mail a little bit before that. So that we can get people who have never voted in these gubernatorial primaries to come out and vote and say “We want something different.”
KS: Your re-election campaign in 2019 surprised a lot of people.
LC: Yeah. Despite having a primary challenge from a former Republican, and then having a general election challenge from a current Republican. And again, the conventional wisdom said that wasn't gonna happen. It was always, “Oh, Lee Carter doesn't have a chance of winning in 2017.” And then I did. And then it was "taken out in the primary." And then that failed. And then it was, "Oh, well, the Republicans are just going to take the seat back," and then they didn't, of course. So the conventional wisdom has always had a hard time figuring out how people are going to react to the things that I'm talking about.
KS: In the space of three years, your district went from “unwinnable Republican district” to
“double digit-margin Democratic district.” Why?
LC: I think it speaks to the message that big business should not be controlling our lives. Virginia has, for the last several decades, spent tens of millions, hundreds of millions of dollars, every year on these big business incentives, trying to get massive corporations like Amazon, IKEA, all of them, to come in and pretty please give us some jobs. Not only do they have a very mixed track record of actually doing that, a lot of companies have taken the money and then not lived up to their promise at all.
But even in the cases where these companies have met the, quote, “job creation requirements,” it ended up making the problems worse. Northern Virginia does not have a joblessness crisis. Northern Virginia has a crisis of people being squeezed out by the rent. So when the government pays Amazon $1.8 billion to bring 30,000 more people in Northern Virginia, that doesn't fix the problem that we have, it makes the problem that we have worse.
But it's a good headline for the people that voted for it, which is why they did it. But people realize, people know that something is wrong with the way things have been going, and that something is fundamentally wrong, especially with the things that both major parties agree on, when it comes to our economy.
So they hear somebody talking about a different way, talking about putting that power, putting that money, putting that ownership into the hands of working Virginians, who go to work everyday and actually drive our economy. Yeah, it's obviously a very, very attractive proposition for folks. Because when you say, do you want to give $1.8 billion to Jeff Bezos so he can make 30,000 jobs? Or do you want to give $1.8 billion to the people of Virginia, so they can create their own businesses, and be in charge of the economy? Of course, people are going to take the option of having control over the economy. Why wouldn't we?
KS: In your time in office, what's the most consequential piece of legislation you passed or worked on, and how does that inform your priorities as the next governor?
LC: There are three categories of successes that I've had since I've been in the House. The first are the things that happened because Democrats took control, which we were a part of—making sure Democrats took control of the legislature. That includes Medicaid expansion, which was tremendously important. 400,000 Virginians have health insurance today who didn't have it four years ago. And that is massive. But there are still 400,000 Virginians with no health insurance whatsoever, and upwards of a million Virginians who have health insurance, but are underinsured or can't afford to use it.
So, where the rest of my Democratic colleagues sort of wash their hands with transformational healthcare policy, I’m still out there talking about what needs to be done to make sure that everyone can see a doctor. Not “access,” not “affordability.” But just the strict, “If you need to see a doctor, you should be able to see a doctor, guaranteed.” That's the goal that I'm fighting for.
Then you've got the second category, which are bills that I put in before just about anybody else, that have now worked their way into law—usually under other people's names. So we've got things like cannabis legalization, which is almost across the finish line, but the next governor is going to need to make a lot of decisions about how that gets implemented.
Two years ago, I put in a bill to fully legalize cannabis. And everybody thought I had lost my mind. It was me and (Delegate) Steve Heretick putting our bills in on the same day. But before that, nobody had put in cannabis legalization bills, ever. And I had other Democrats asking me, “hey, why are you doing this? Why are you doing this in an election year?” But it was the right thing to do. And here we are, two years later, and we're steps away from the finish line.
Abolishing the death penalty is in that category as well. I put in a bill last year to abolish the death penalty, that didn't get a hearing. It just died, with no presentation, no nothing. And this year, I'm chief bill patron on the bill that actually did it. And that's going to the governor, that's going to be signed (Editor's note: signed into law March 24th, 2021). Virginia, the state that has executed more of its people than any other, will no longer execute- period. If you had told me four years ago that I would be the chief bill patron on the bill ending the death penalty in Virginia, I would’ve called you a liar.
The third category of success, which are the things that I introduced and I got passed, that have been a massive success, is the bill that caps insulin copays. The $50 a month for people with Virginia-regulated insurance policies? That is a massive success! That's going to help thousands and thousands of people to not have to ration their insulin.
I think the most understated thing that's in that category, though, is a bill to create worker cooperatives as a type of business. Because that's really going to help people have control over the economy, like having that ownership structure where the people who go to work every day are the ones who own the workplace, are the ones who make the decisions about what to do with the money, who has what hours, what the benefits are. And in times of crisis who tightens their belt. That sort of thing should be decided by the people that are impacted by that decision. And now, because worker cooperatives are a legally recognized type of business, Virginians actually have the option to set up a business that way.
So there's been a lot of success in all three of those categories. And it's so hard to pick just one or two things to talk about. Because I've been able to accomplish so much in my four years in the General Assembly.
KS: So what's the biggest challenge facing the Commonwealth right now?
LC: The biggest challenge facing the Commonwealth right now is that our political leadership is very disconnected from the lives of regular people. We've got a campaign finance system with absolutely no limits on contributions whatsoever. So if a company wants to come in and cut a single check for a million dollars, they can just fund a House of Delegates race. By themselves! They can just buy themselves a member of the House of Delegates. And that system leads to some incredibly perverse outcomes.
And it's not this Hollywood idea of corruption. Everybody thinks of corruption as the lobbyist with the greasy hair putting an envelope full of cash under the desk and saying, “If you want to be a good friend to us, you’ll vote this way.” But that's not how it works. It's more of an environment of selection. So instead of paying these politicians to change their votes, they pay to make sure that politicians who would already vote their way are the ones who win.
So it gives the members of the General Assembly, it gives Virginia governors an opportunity to say, “Oh, I've never changed my vote because of the campaign contribution.” And they're probably right! But it distracts from the fact that our campaign finance system picks the kinds of people that are okay with corporations running our lives. They think it's a good thing to give nearly $2 billion to Jeff Bezos. They don't see a problem with housing prices going up.
And it picks for these people that are completely out of touch, who think of people's lives like a business, instead of like actual people. And it gives us these outcomes that are just not cutting it for the overwhelming majority of the people who call Virginia home.
KS: What's the most important event in the past 10 years, that impacts Virginia—whether here in Virginia, nationally, globally—or what small thing was much more pivotal than anybody realized?
LC: I think the most important event of the last 10 years that nobody really thinks about was a floor vote on an amendment for the Grid Transformation and Security Act of 2018. That was a big electric utility regulation bill, the language of which had been written by the utility themselves. And they weren't even trying to hide it! There was a line at the top of the page that said “NOT DRAFTED BY LEGISLATIVE SERVICES!” So it very clearly came from the power company. And at this time, the Republicans are still in charge of the House, at a 51-49 majority.
And this bill was just an absolute disaster for the people of Virginia. Because it was gonna allow Dominion Energy, in particular, to just pile on project after project after project that they didn't really need to do, and price gouge the customers to reimburse themselves. That's their business model. They get paid whatever their projects cost, plus a percentage. So their incentive is to make those projects as expensive as possible, and to make that percentage as high as possible.
I'm gonna give tremendous credit here to the man who was our minority leader at the time, Del. David Toscano. Because even with Republicans in control, he saw an opportunity with a small handful of Republicans that are generally skeptical of monopolies, to put in a floor amendment and make sure that Dominion wasn't able to do what we call “double dip.”
The way that Dominion had written the bill was they could use money that they were never supposed to have had, that they had already overcharged people for, they could use that money to pay for the project, and then get reimbursement for the project through people's power bills. And Leader Toscano put an amendment in to say that they couldn't do that. That they had to use new money. And that money they'd overcharged people in the past had to go back to people. And we won! We got that amendment in the bill.
Now, I wish we'd been able to kill the whole bill. But we gave Dominion Energy a big, high profile loss on the floor of the House of Delegates for the first time in 50 years. The big bully on the block, the company that has run Virginia politics for longer than I've been alive, got its first bloody nose, with everybody watching who actually knew what to look for. Now, that was huge. That showed that we can beat these assholes, we can actually fight back, we can make sure that we're looking out for the people of Virginia, not for the big corporate interests. And all it takes is the political will to do it. We don't always win. But before that moment, we had always lost. And now it's not a guarantee.
So we've got to keep moving in that direction. We've got to keep fighting against these corporate interests, we've got to keep putting more people in the House of Delegates, putting more people in the state Senate, putting someone in the governor's mansion, who's motivated solely by looking out for the little guy. If we do that, then we can completely shift that paradigm on its head and make sure that the people of Virginia are the ones that win, not the corporations that write the checks to politicians. But before that one moment, talking about winning at all, was seen as unrealistic. And now it's not so huge.
KS: As you know, I'm an emergency department nurse, and though I work in Charlottesville, I live in a holler in Barboursville. Rural Virginia—what some people would call ROVA, or the Rest of Virginia—and the issues out here are something I am passionate about, but that seem to often get put by the wayside. How are you going to work for all of Virginia as one Commonwealth, united?
LC: I think a lot of people forget that I represent Manassas and Prince William County now, but I'm from a small town. I grew up in Pasquotank County, North Carolina. And if you can find Pasquotank County, North Carolina on a map, good for you. So this is something that's very near and dear to me. I've seen firsthand what happens to the economy in small towns.
And it happened in North Carolina, it's happened in Virginia, it's still happening in Virginia, which is Walmart, Family Dollar, payday lenders, they come into town, and they usually get some kind of government subsidies to do it. Because they come in promising. Oh, we're going to create 130 jobs in this town of 3000 people, isn't that great?! And the government gives them money to get them to do it.
And they come in, and they drive out all the mom and pops that people have been relying on for their entire lives. And the jobs they’re left with are Walmart jobs or Dollar Store jobs. They're $7, $8, $9 an hour, which doesn't keep a roof over anybody's head, even in the cheapest parts of this Commonwealth. And it just absolutely decimated the economy in these places.
And that's on top of family farms being driven out of business, being squeezed out between the big factory farms, on one hand, competing against them. And the big agricultural distributors, on the other hand, being the only buyer in a lot of cases, and saying “I don't care what you want to grow, you're gonna plant soy, or you're gonna plant corn, or you're gonna plant whatever.” And this is the price that you're gonna get. And I don't care if your margin on it is enough to keep your family farm open. It's the price I'm paying. And if you don't like it, I'll go to this big factory farm. And they'll sell. And they won't complain about it.
So the economy of rural Virginia, on the consumer side, and on the agricultural side, people are being squeezed out by big business. I don't think any of the other candidates actually realize that.
Democrats in Virginia just ignore rural areas. They have very few people who understand rural issues; their policies towards economic development in rural areas either comes from the Chamber of Commerce, or the Farm Bureau. And those suggestions just make the underlying problems worse.
The Republicans, on the other hand, just don't care. They know that they've got rural votes locked up. They don't feel like they have to change anything, because they're benefiting politically, from the way things are going. They're winning elections now, even under the way things are in rural areas. So why would the Republicans ever want to change it?
So both major parties are completely ignoring rural Virginia. But we've got millions of people that live in rural Virginia, that are just being completely forgotten about. And we need someone who's willing to actually look at what's destroying the economy in these places, and do the hard work of fixing. And I certainly hope that rural voters will look at the entire field and look at what their economic plans are and make the decision that is best for their own bottom line.
Because that's me.
KS: All right. Make the case: Why is now the time for Lee Carter?
LC: Going forward, the people of Virginia should be looking at this gubernatorial election as their chance to decide who their governor is going to fight for. In the Democratic primary, there are three lawyers, a multimillionaire, and Lee Carter. There are four candidates who have taken money from fossil fuel corporations in the past, and then there's Lee Carter. There are four candidates who have taken money from big banks in the past, and then there's Lee Carter. There are four candidates who have taken money from the State Police Association, and then there's Lee Carter.
So if Virginians want a governor who's going to fight back against these special interests, who's going to really fight to make sure that we get to zero carbon in our economy in a time frame that's fast enough to save the planet, if we want a governor who's going to fight to make sure that Virginia is no longer a leader in evictions and homelessness, while we have more houses than homeless people, if we want a governor who's going to actually take the problem of police violence seriously, and not just say that you should pass legislation instead of protesting—and then give the cops a pay raise and a bonus, if we want someone who's actually going to do the hard work of rooting out all of these special interests, of actually tackling the problem, the people of Virginia, in my opinion, have only one choice in this Democratic primary. And that's the person who's never taken money from any interest on the other side of those issues.
And as Virginians, we need to understand that people outside of Virginia are looking at this race, because there's a very big reason for them to care as well. It doesn't directly impact their lives, because of course, Virginia's governor can't do anything for someone in Iowa. But this is the first election of the post-Trump era. This is the first opportunity to define what the Democratic Party stands for. For years, the Democratic Party has been solely defined by who and what it opposes. But we have an opportunity now to say, “We are a party that stands for something.”
So I think that this election, the 2021 gubernatorial election, is very much like the election in 1940. I'm a huge history nerd, so I love talking about this stuff. But the election in 1940, when the DNC tried to replace FDR, his running mate was a man named Henry Wallace. And they were trying to replace him with somebody who was more popular with the party insiders, who was more friendly to big business interests.
So FDR, a tremendously popular president, incumbent running for re-election, sent a letter to the DNC, essentially saying “we can't straddle the fence anymore. The Democratic Party can't pretend to be a friend to working people and a friend to big business at the same time anymore. The Democratic Party has only ever succeeded when it stood 100% on the side of the poor, on the side of people who are working to keep a roof over their heads on the side of people who do not have any other voice in government. That's the only time the Democratic Party has ever been truly successful. So if you try to split this ticket, and give me a corporate vice president, I just won't be your nominee. I won't run for re-election. I won't run on a ticket for a Democratic Party that doesn't stand for anything you've got to pick right now. Do you want to be the party for working people, or do you want to lose?”
And that's the kind of moment that the Democratic Party is in right now. We can either be the party of, by, and for working people. Or we can be a party of Wall Street money that's a permanent minority. That's why people outside of Virginia are going to care about this primary. Because that's the decision that we're making. This is the first step down whichever road we're going to go down: the road of continuing to be friendly with special interests, and continuing to try to compromise between the richest people who have ever lived, and people who are just trying to feed their kids. Or we can go down a new road and say, “we fight for the underdogs, period, end of story.” And I'm giving Virginians the chance to vote for a governor who will fight for the rest of us.