Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman (D) talks about the county's vaccine rollout and making the tax code more progressive. And D.C. Councilmember Vincent Gray (D-Ward 7) talks about disparities in the District's vaccinations and how the pandemic has affected plans to bring a hospital east of the Anacostia River.
Few states in the U.S. undergo political shifts the way Virginia does. Twenty years ago, Republicans controlled the state government. Today, the state government is solidly blue. And in this presidential election, Virginia’s status as a swing state has come into question.
What are Virginians thinking about the upcoming election? What issues matter to them? And is the political divisiveness we’re seeing at the national level also present in the commonwealth? Kojo sits down with the chairs of the state’s Democratic and Republican parties to talk about the past, present and future of Virginia politics.
Produced by Cydney Grannan
KOJO NNAMDIWhen people think of politics at America right now they think of deeply divided electorates, Republicans versus Democrats, red versus blue. Many Americans are wondering is the political divide too wide to bridge? That's what we're talking about today with two key political leaders in Virginia. Some describe Virginia as two states, Northern Virginia and urban centers like Richmond and Charlottesville are now solidly blue while the rest of the state remains red, but like the rest of us the picture may be more nuanced than that. So is there common ground to be found, and how are party leaders thinking about the future of Virginia politics? Joining me to discuss this is Susan Swecker, the Chairwoman Democratic Party of Virginia. Susan Swecker, thank you for joining us.
SUSAN SWECKERThanks for having me today.
NNAMDIAlso with us is Rich Anderson. He is the Chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia. Rich Anderson, thank you for joining us.
RICH ANDERSONThanks for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIRich Anderson, previously you served in Virginia's House of Delegates representing parts of Prince William County until 2018. You've been the Chair of the Republican Party of Virginia for only two months now, but what drew you to that position and how is it going so far?
ANDERSONWell, I can tell you, Kojo, it's not a position that I aspired to or ever envisioned that I would occupy. After eight years in the General Assembly, though, I was approached by others who encouraged me to run for state party chair. We have a number of challenges there that I'm sure you want to explore today.
ANDERSONAnd so it took about two months, but our congressional delegation appealed to me as well as our grassroots folks across the state and our local Republican units and I finally decided that if there is a contribution that I can make there with my party then so be it. And so in January I began running and was elected as you say two months ago.
NNAMDIVirginia Republicans have had a tough few years losing control of the State Senate and House of Delegates in 2019. In your view, what was the cause of those loses? What was behind those loses?
ANDERSONWell, the -- I think it's a very complex question, but a number of reasons in 2019. I think, number one the Republican Party of Virginia in partnership with the House and Senate Republican caucuses in our 126 local units did not play a leading role in recruiting, training and fielding competitive candidates onto the political battlefield. That was a mistake. I don't think you should leave anything on the battlefield. The party must engage in order to succeed. And in some three dozen cases were there were not Republican candidates for House or Senate of Virginia seats that resulted obviously in an automatic win for the other party. I think it's crucial that we field candidates in literally every race so that even in the most bluest areas of Virginia, simply because voters I think deserve a choice.
ANDERSONAnd so we will do that in 2021. And so I think that was a leading major difficulty. The other was we were not as competitive in the area of fundraising and therefore did not have the resources to do the necessary things to run competitive campaigns.
NNAMDISusan Swecker, meet Rich Anderson. Would you say hi?
SWECKERYes. And congratulations, Chairman Anderson. I'm sorry we haven't had a chance to personally or virtually meet yet, but congratulations on your two months so far. Mark Warner, our U.S. Senator, often says there's a special place in heaven for people who serve as party chairs and I think that goes for Republicans and Democrats.
ANDERSONOkay. Thank you, Susan. I look forward to meeting you in person some time.
NNAMDISusan Swecker, you have been Chairperson of the Democratic Party for over five years. But you've been involved with the Democratic Party in Virginia your entire life and you remember when Democrats first lost their majority. What was the political landscape like then and was it like being part of --what was it like being part of Democratic Party at that time?
SWECKEROh, golly, for sure. You know, I've been involved in some way or another since I was 22 year old when I became Chairmen of the smallest committee in Virginia, Holland County Democratic Committee, which is where I'm from, grew up. And, you know, I've had volunteer paid roles always in Virginia politics.
SWECKERAnd, of course, when I started out Democrats were in control, but, you know, the General Assembly looked a different than it does now. It was a lot less diverse. And then, you know, little over 20 years ago when we lost the majority -- both the majority in the Houses, I never quite frankly thought that I would live long enough to see it flip back. And so very proud of where we have come and what we have accomplished. Some of those I think we can say are demographic changes, the changing look of Virginia, new voters, folks moving in, the rich tapestry of a more diverse Virginia.
SWECKERBut also it's also the issues that we ran on last year. I mean, it's more than recruiting candidates. It's actually -- Democrats last year campaigned on the issues of passing the ERA, healthcare, common sense gun reform and criminal justice reform and much more. And so we were where the voters were. And election law reform, which has been critical to the pandemic and in this election cycle.
SWECKERSo we recruited good candidates. I will say -- one thing I will agree with Chairman Anderson on is that we should run candidates everywhere. I think for too long that my party didn't run candidates in places where they felt like, you know, they didn't have a chance. Well, if you don't do that, your party and your committee atrophies. And so we -- yeah.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back we'll continue this conversation with Rich Anderson, the Chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia and Susan Swecker, the Chairwoman of the Democratic Party. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with the chairpersons of both the Republican and the Democratic Party of Virginia, Rich Anderson and Susan Swecker. When people think of the political map of Virginia, they probably think that the urban areas and some suburbs are blue and that the ex-surbs and rural parts of the state are red. And, Susan, you talked earlier about trying to run people in all parts of the state. And this question is addressed to both of you, but I'll start with you, Susan Swecker, how do you think about the political geography of the state now?
SWECKERWell, being a rural girl at heart and watching, you know, my locality go from, maybe slight red to, you know, real red, you know that pains me a lot. And I don't think we should let any nook and cranny of the Commonwealth go without a candidate and giving people something to build on. And particularly since it was Democrats who passed Medicaid expansion in Virginia, which is now giving healthcare to over 450,000 Virginians, and a lot of those are, you know, my folks out my way. And I think that we didn't lose rural Virginia overnight. We're not going to gain it back overnight. But we certainly have to keep trying to communicate.
SWECKERIn the end when the votes are tallied -- when this election is over when they are tallied for Mark Warner and Joe Biden, a vote is a vote. It doesn't matter whether it comes from Buckhannon County or Fairfax County. And to my -- I feel very strongly that we as a party need to leave no, you know, no voter unturned -- no rock unturned here. We go after every voter no matter where they are. And that that is what will bring us together more than anything.
SWECKERWe should admittedly, hey, we've got a partisan divide everywhere in this country and some of that isn't going to change between now and the next 14 days. But do you know what gives me hope in my heart? Hope in my heart is that when Joe Biden is elected President of the United States that he will bridge and bring us together, because he's a listener. He listens. He doesn't just talk and tweet. He listens.
NNAMDIRich Anderson, what do you think about the political geography of the Commonwealth of Virginia today?
ANDERSONWell, the political geography of the Commonwealth is obviously diverse. And it's incumbent on both parties to have the broadest possible appeal to the people of Virginia in order to be successful. I began running for chairman of the state party in January of this year. Immediately got on the road traveling from one end to the other, because with 126 local units there are a lot of opportunities to sit and talk with likeminded Republican citizens in the Commonwealth. And I have found as I've visited these local units that there was rich diversity within these local Republicans, too, and I also see it within these units.
ANDERSONNow that diversity is largely concentrated into our urban areas and principally the urban crescent. But it is absolutely crucial that we reach out to all Virginians and I speak of this as the Republican Party and appeal to them. I have found a large of number, more so than any time that I have been in public life, which is since 2009. For instance an increasing number of African Americans, Indian Americans, Asian Americans who have gravitated toward the Republican Party.
ANDERSONI attended a Vietnamese American event in Falls Church about a month ago and was surprised that over 500 people turned out for that. So I'm heartened by that and we need to have some invigorated programs that are not outreach programs, but are inclusion programs where we bring in people who have been non-traditional Republican voters in the past and give them leadership positions in a party. Run them for office and support them once they're elected.
NNAMDIWell, there are several callers who have questions that deal with a variety of issues. One of which I was planning to bring up, which is the whole issue of gerrymandering. But here is Rachel in Falls Church, Virginia. Rachel, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RACHELHi. So as you know, question one in Virginia deals with a new way of redistricting. And I've seen signs that say, "Say no to gerrymandering. Vote Yes on question one." And signs right next to it saying, "Say no gerrymandering. Vote yes on question one." So I was wondering if it's possible that both sides are arguing in good faith or is one just trying to mislead us.
NNAMDISusan Swecker, I'll start with you. Democratic Virginia lawmakers championed a bipartisan redistricting plan in an effort to end gerrymandering. But now many Democrats are doing like a 180 on the plan saying it won't truly end gerrymandering. What's your view?
SWECKERHappy to talk about that. But do you mind if I could just address the diversity piece in the Republican Party -- and I do say this kind of tongue and cheek to Rich is like "Good luck with that." I mean, as long as you have Donald Trump as the Commander in Chief, who is the biggest divisive divider, biggest hypocrite ever elected and you have Amanda Chase as your top candidate here, Senator Amanda Chase running for governor, I don't see where you are going to -- you know, your inclusion attempts albeit probably very sincere on your part are going to come to any fruition. And I will just say, we'll see what the results show election night.
SWECKERBut when your president, you know, puts babies in cages, makes fun of the disabled people, continues to attack even Governor Northam and Governor Whitmer, who were part of a kidnap plot and double down in Michigan last week this past weekend. And said, "Well, I guess she was," and then they chant "Lock her up." I am not -- the Republican Party that I knew growing party is a very different party than it is today. And it is not one of a inclusion.
NNAMDIAnd I'm sure Rich Anderson will be happy to respond to that, but first, get to gerrymandering. Then I'll get to Rich Anderson.
SWECKERAll right. I'd be happy to address that. And yes, it is confusion. In fact, we have a difference of opinion within our party on it. But the Democratic Party of Virginia came down on the side of this. We support truly nonpartisan gerrymandering. What is on the ballot this November is not nonpartisan. It still puts legislators at the table, which was not what the original idea was supposed to do. And any two legislators can object to the commission's maps. And then it kicks it to the Supreme Court.
SWECKERAnd just remember who's been in control of the General Assembly for the last 20 years. So your judges are by and large Republican judges who would then draw the maps. Even minority leader, Todd Gilbert in the House of Delegates said, "This is our path back to power." So we support truly nonpartisan gerrymandering. This is not it.
NNAMDIAnd, Rich Anderson, clearly President Trump is the center and focus of the Democratic Party's campaigns throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia as Susan Swecker was just pointing out. She feels that's a great liability for the Republican Party. But I'm sure you'd be happy to respond to her both on that issue and on the issue of gerrymandering. So go ahead, please.
ANDERSONSure thing, Kojo. Thanks very much. The allegations that President Trump is racist are just absolutely not true. I have talked to people who have worked with him intimately over the last couple of decades and he is anything but. This is a weaponization of simply politics between the two parties. He has done more for these other demographic groups that have been left behind in previous administrations including the Obama-Biden administration. And he has made great gains for them.
ANDERSONAnd the polling data seems to indicate -- and I'm very dubious about modern day polling, because it seems to me like they are not a very reliable predictor. But nonetheless that he is making gains in a large number of areas, because of the rock solid results that he has simply produced over the last three years. He's done more in 47 months as we like to say than Vice President Biden has in 47 years. It is time to let these ideas that have worked to continue.
ANDERSONThe concept of baby cages were actually implemented and used during the Obama administration and it's merely a metaphor for if you have to detain parents, you, obviously, cannot have children in those facilities with them. And then lastly, the situation -- or the reference to Northam and Whitmer, the president doesn't own that problem. He did not create that. That was a group of crazies, who hopefully were interdicted -- were thankfully interdicted. All that said, let me turn to the issue of --
ANDERSONYes. Gerrymandering is a -- it's a cancer on our Commonwealth. And I think for the first time in literally a couple of centuries we have the opportunity to address and largely resolve the problem of gerrymandering so that citizens select their representatives and the representatives don't select their citizens. This plan is not absolutely perfect. The old saying that perfect is the enemy of good. This is a good plan. It should be passed. It has been passed in other states. Every other state where it's been introduced, it is valid. There is a large number of independents that are for it as well as Republicans.
ANDERSONBut it is absolutely crucial that we do it because it has a number of protected provisions in there that I happen to find very, very compelling. It creates what is a bipartisan redistricting commission, which is lightyears better than the partisan process we have now.
ANDERSONIt established clear rules. It prohibits the legislature and the governor from changing the commission's map. It requires a super majority to approve. So I just think it is best and it makes for a better way ahead for our Commonwealth.
NNAMDILet me go to another listener. Izzy in Arlington, Virginia. Izzy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
IZZYHi. Thanks for letting me call. I wanted to ask why Republican candidates are holding events across Virginia without masks or social distancing like Governor Northam has ordered.
NNAMDIThat would be for you to answer, Rich Anderson.
ANDERSONThat would be for Rich Anderson to answer. I have attended events from one end of Virginia to another. And the vast majority of events that I attend I see people wearing masks and social distancing. This last weekend I was at a half dozen activities across Virginia and I saw a large number of them wearing them. However, there are people who decide not to wear them. I do not believe that a mask, though, is the be all to end all with this coronavirus situation.
NNAMDIWell, allow me to interrupt for a second, because most of the medical experts seem to make the point that based on the science and their understanding that masks are in fact if not the be all and end all a significant, a significant preventer of spreading coronavirus. Why are you skeptical about that?
ANDERSONWhat I'm trying to say is the science seems like it continually changes. If you will remember in the very recent past the Centers for Disease Control or WHO, it was one or the other. I can't recall which, said that a mask was not effective. Now, I see Republicans wear masks at events all the time. So I think the allegation that Republicans are not wearing masks is simply not true. I know that I wear a mask when I am in a congested environment simply, because I feel as a state party leader I ought to set the example for public safety.
NNAMDIAnd back to you, Susan Swecker. You mentioned this earlier. Some of the men charged in a plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer allegedly named Virginia Governor Ralph Northam as another target. Governor Northam and other Democrats have pointed to President Trump as partly to blame saying that Trump's criticism on Northam encouraged or emboldened these threats. You heard Rich Anderson say those were just a bunch of crazy people. How do you respond to that and the criticism of President Trump and his supporters that his rhetoric can be dangerous?
SWECKERWell, Donald Trump has done nothing except ramped up this rhetoric. And, you know, we can go back even to Charlottesville when he said there were good people on both sides. You can look at the recent presidential debate when he encouraged the Proud Boys, who are now like have endorsed him. And he continues to -- you know, not really be that Commander in Chief and encouraged these groups to -- eggs them on. And it puts everybody in a really dangerous position and a dangerous place.
SWECKERI mean, last year right before the gun rights rally here in the beginning of the General Assembly session, thanks to law enforcement and working together we preempted white supremacists that were trying to come in and, you know, bomb the Capitol. I mean, words have meaning especially when they're coming from the President of the United States. Whether it is rhetoric that is very dangerous and could put elected officials or people at risk for bodily harm like that or whether it is dismissing Dr. Fauci as a disaster and other science experts as idiots and, you know, not taking the coronavirus seriously.
SWECKERI mean, look at his events that he is having being a super spreader. Joe Biden has said he believes as Governor Northam, which is why we have done as well as we have in Virginia with these challenging times, wear a mask. Who are you going to trust? I trust the doctor, Dr. Northam. Wear a mask. Listen to the experts, which is what Joe Biden will do as president.
NNAMDIHere now is Kris in Falls Church. Kris, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KRISHi. I wanted to thank Chair Swecker and I just wanted to let people know that there is security and a number of the early voting satellite locations in Fairfax County are co-located with police stations. I know we had news on September 18 that -- or rather September 19 that there was a rally that intimidated some voters out at the Fairfax County Government Center.
KRISSo I voted there in person early on September 23rd. There is security there. There was no problems. If you are worried about your security and, you know, that's okay. I encourage you to vote early. If you live in Falls Church City, you can go to City Hall and vote at the registrar's office there and the police stations there so you're safe. If you live in Fairfax County, it's the one time you don't have to vote in your home precinct. You can go to any satellite location or the main government center for Fairfax County, whatever is most convenient for you.
KRISSpecifically, the Mason District Government Center, the McLain Government Center, the police stations are onsite with those facilities. So if you're worried about security you can go to those locations to vote. And also on Election Day, if you're voting Election Day, every Fairfax County Public School is a gun free zone. And the reason I'm saying this, here in Virginia it is open carry of firearms by any citizen is legal. If your precinct on Election Day is in a church, is in another facility that is not -- is outside a Fairfax County public school, someone can legally wear a gun in a holster and go in and vote.
KRISIf that distresses you, vote early. Thank you.
NNAMDIAny comments on that, Rich Anderson.
ANDERSONWell, I would -- yeah. Let me make one comment. She referred to a demonstration that members of the Fairfax County Republican Committee hosted at a voting location north of me. I'm in Prince William County. And during that -- they simply were waving signs and they were off to the side where they won't interfering with any entrance way or any access or any avenue of approach to the voting location. And they were outside the 40 foot line of demarcation.
ANDERSONPolice were called and I have in hand -- I don't have it right here in front of me. But I have in hand a police report in which they reach the conclusion -- law enforcement authorities in Fairfax reached the conclusion that there was no inhibition of voters. There was no attempt to quell one's right to vote. And it was simply an expression of first amendment rights. In fact, a day or two later, Former Governor Terry McAuliffe and others gathered on that very same piece of concrete and had a press conference, and they didn't impede any of the operations.
NNAMDIAttorneys General in Washington D.C., Maryland and Virginia have issued guidance on how to stop voter intimidation. But, Susan Swecker, is voter intimidation in Virginia a concern of yours and the Democratic Party?
SWECKERI would say somewhat. But I think this is the one thing that is -- I want to say is why elections matter, because we have the trifecta in Virginia, we were able to enact into legislation real election reform so that people can vote early. I mean, it warmed my heart to see those lines. And those lines were long those early days in Fairfax County. But people were happy to be out and vote. I think people are actually happy just to be out somewhere.
SWECKERAnd, you know, by and large it went, I would say, overall -- there was that incident there. But by and large across the Commonwealth it has gone really smooth. You know, to request an absentee ballot. It's no excuse. If you request an absentee ballot, it's prepaid postage on it. You get that back. You have an absentee cure process. If something is missing, you're getting called to say, hey do you want to change it? You know, no photo ID. You do have to have ID. It's just not the onerous photo ID that many older Americans particularly African Americans don't have.
SWECKERSo those changes have really been like they were long coming, but particularly needed in this challenging pandemic era. But what I would ask Chairman Anderson is to join with me as we go through these next couple of weeks and lets work together to make sure that we tamp down any rhetoric, any intimidation. You know, I'll work with you. You work with me, because in the end we want everyone to be able to vote and feel safe and secure in that voting.
SWECKERVote early if that makes you feel better. But also no voter should have to go to the polls on Election Day and feel threatened or intimidated. So I would just say, Chairman Anderson, let's work together on that.
NNAMDIAnd your response, Chairman Anderson?
ANDERSONWell, my response, I agree with Chairman Swecker that, number one there has not been a great deal of voter intimidation that I have seen on either side. And nor would I tolerate that as to the best of my ability among Republicans, simply because that is not the American way.
ANDERSONI am concerned, though, about some of the election reform laws that were passed by this year's General Assembly such as the deletion of the requirement for witnesses on absentee ballots, the implementation of drop boxes. And while that is good in some locations that are secure such as registrar's offices, some of them are located in non-secure areas that are not monitored continuously. I agree with Susan about the no excuse voting. I was an advocate of that during the eight years I was in the General Assembly. I always thought it was cumbersome and just simply had no use whatsoever.
ANDERSONI like the idea of prepaid envelopes to encourage return of ballots. But I am concerned about the discussion about postmarks on absentee ballots. If they're missing that will not be disqualifying. I am concerned about that. And the absence of photo ID, because just about everybody in American of majority age possesses an identification card of some kind. And registrars of voters will even bring those to the home for those that are housebound.
NNAMDII'm afraid we're almost out of time, but conversations about certain topics can get heated and personal very quickly. It's one thing for lawmakers and political leaders like yourselves to navigate those conversations, but it's another for the average citizen to do it. What do you think individual Virginians can do to bridge the political divide in their own lives? First you, Susan Swecker?
SWECKERTalk to your neighbors and friends even if you don't see eye to eye and have a congenial conversation. And can I just put this last one plug in.
NNAMDIWe only got about 20 seconds.
SWECKERIf you have questions about voting go to iwillvote.com and we have a hotline 844-4VA-VOTE. If anybody runs into any problems, we're here to help.
NNAMDINow your 20 seconds, Rich Anderson.
ANDERSONLast 20 seconds, Susan is absolutely right. There is nothing like talking among people even those who disagree. I would invite people, too, to engage in the civic life of their community and try to understand other positions. And that comes from a guy who over eight years was chairman of the Virginia Commission on Civics Education.
NNAMDIOkay. Rich Anderson, Susan Swecker, thank you both for joining us. Today's show on the upcoming local elections was produced by Cydney Grannan.
NNAMDIComing up tomorrow, last week we heard from the Washington Teachers Union about concerns over plans for a limited return to in-person learning. Tomorrow D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Lewis Ferebee joins us to discuss those plans in more detail. Plus a new book says excess salt in your diet can be dangerous. Yet most of the food we eat is heavily salted. Michael Jacobson, the Author of "Salt Wars" joins us to talk about how to reduce our salt intake. That all starts tomorrow at noon. Until then, thank you for listening and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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