This is the first in a series of interviews with Democratic candidates for governor of Virginia.
"This election, the 2021 gubernatorial election, is the first election of the post-Trump era," Virginia Del. Lee Carter intoned seriously. As one of five candidates running for the Democratic nomination for governor this year in Virginia, his response came without a moment’s hesitation when asked why 2021 was so important. "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.'”
I've known Del. Carter—a 33-year-old-former Marine and self-described Democratic Socialist—for four years now, since we both ran for the Virginia House of Delegates in 2017. One thing I've learned about Carter during that time is that, whatever else you might think of him, he doesn't think small. Half-measures and marginal effort aren't his thing. That’s a tough way to be in the current political environment in our country, which seems replete with folks who are willing to shrug meekly and accept the current state of affairs as "the best we can do."
That’s why I wasn't surprised to find out Carter had decided to run for governor of Virginia. I've seen firsthand the passion he's had in standing up for the people of his district, but the kind of systemic change Carter sees as necessary to solve the problems Virginia currently faces requires a bigger platform. As Carter told me when I sat down with him recently to ask him about his campaign, 2021 represents a seminal point in Virginian—and American—politics; it’s one that may never come again.
Saying that Carter, who grew up in a small town in North Carolina, has forged his own path during his legislative career is probably an understatement. He has a reputation for frequently butting heads with anyone he feels is in the way of what's best for the people in his district. This has led many to call him a "firebrand," although people's opinions on whether that's a good thing or a bad thing are largely subjective.
I have to say, I don't think Carter is wrong about the stakes here in the Commonwealth this fall, and it’s no exaggeration that what happens here in Virginia has national implications. Last fall, our country did a very unusual thing, something most countries are unable to do when they are where we were: We voted out an autocrat, who, had he won, would have ended the American experiment—permanently. Many people worry that win was nothing more than an anomaly; and that, without an enormous amount of work, it will end up being a mere reprieve for our democracy. The stakes here in Virginia, Carter told me, couldn’t be higher.
To illustrate those stakes, Carter told me that the election in 2021 is a lot like Franklin Delano Roosevelt's reelection in 1940. During that year’s Democratic National Convention, party bosses aggressively tried to replace FDR's running mate, Henry Wallace, with someone they felt was less liberal (and more popular with party insiders and big business interests). In response to this, FDR sent a letter to the DNC, telling them in no uncertain terms that the Democratic Party has only ever succeeded when it stood on the side of the poor, on the side of people who are working to keep a roof over their heads, and on the side of people who don't have any other voice in government.
And so Roosevelt declared that Democrats had a choice: If they wanted to replace Wallace, they'd have to replace FDR, too, as he would refuse to run. The DNC wisely capitulated, knowing they were likely to lose to the Republicans without him.
That, Carter says, is where we are now... which he considers a huge problem, because Virginia's political leadership, both Democratic and Republican, are "completely disconnected from the lives of regular people." As an example, Carter tells me that, while he is proud of the work he and Democrats have done on things like Medicaid expansion and affordable insulin costs—the latter thanks to a bill that Carter authored—he refuses to join his colleagues in “(washing) their hands of transformational healthcare policy.”
“I’m still out there talking about what needs to be done to make sure that everyone can see a doctor,” he told me seriously. “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.”
That’s not to discount the progress being made, Carter says. Hardly. In 2020, he put in a bill to abolish the death penalty that didn't even get a hearing. “It just died,” he sighed, “with no presentation, no nothing.” Not even a year later, and “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,” he said, chuckling at the magnitude of the implication, “I would’ve called you a liar.”
But there are problems affecting the Commonwealth to which people simply aren’t paying attention. Everyone loves to talk about jobs, Carter says, but that’s a crutch many politicians use to write campaign mailers, rather than doing anything substantive. “Northern Virginia,” he explained, isn’t like Southside and southwest Virginia; it “doesn’t have a joblessness crisis. Northern Virginia has a crisis of people being squeezed out by the rent.” Which is why, he said, he voted against the state government effectively paying Amazon $1.8 billion to bring 30,000 more people to Northern Virginia. “That doesn't fix the problem that we have. It makes the problem that we have worse!”
Contrasting that to rural Virginia, Carter doesn’t pull any punches. Democrats, he says, just ignore rural areas. Few Democrats understand rural issues, and rural candidates are only given token investment and support; what policies are put forward, in regards to economic development in rural areas, either come from the Chamber of Commerce or the Farm Bureau, and “just make the underlying problems worse.”
Republicans, on the other hand, simply don’t care; they will never change anything for the better in rural Virginia, Carter told me, because they’re currently benefiting politically from the suffering being endured by the people there. “They're winning elections now, even under the way things are in rural areas, so why would the Republicans ever want to change it?”
My conversation with Carter was a long one; you can read the full transcript here. I would suggest that any undecided Virginia voter give it a read. In particular, Carter had a fascinating story about a fight he helped take against the biggest political manipulator in Virginia, the energy monopoly Dominion Power (so big that, until 2017, every single state politician in Virginia had taken money from them at some point), and the part he helped play in giving them the first legislative bloody nose they’d had in half a century. You can’t help but cheer along at any effort to dismantle a bill that lobbyists don’t even bother to hide they’ve written themselves.
I’ll be completely honest: Carter and I are good friends, yet while I wasn’t surprised, I was skeptical when he announced his run for governor. At that point, we had two amazing candidates in Jennifer McClellan and Jennifer Caroll Foy—both amazing legislators, both women of color, who had already put in months of campaigning. Much like the last seven Governors we’ve had, Carter is a white dude in urban Virginia—so I couldn’t help but wonder, even as we began this very interview, why he would run.
Our conversation answered that question for me. Far from being the bombastic, belligerent caricature he is often portrayed as by both the Virginia and national GOP, I found Carter’s answers to my questions meticulously thought out and uncompromising in their vision for a better Virginia. I can understand where people find points of disagreement with Carter, but I think his candidacy occupies a very unique niche, and I found him to be utterly sincere about his desire to work for a better Virginia for all Virginians.
I have not decided who I am going to vote for in this year’s gubernatorial primary, but I am glad that Carter chose to run, and glad to have his voice added to the chorus of those looking to push Virginia forward.
Read the full, unexcerpted interview with Del. Lee Carter here.
Visit his campaign website here.