‘Rural Progressive Is Not an Oxymoron,’ Democratic Organizers Say
By Ashley Spinks Dugan
November 2, 2020

Write-in campaign highlights shifting political landscape in Southwest Virginia

BLACKSBURG-Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem) will be re-elected on Nov. 3. The congressman, who represents Virginia’s deeply-red Ninth District, enjoys widespread support. He beat Democratic challenger Anthony Flaccavento by 30 points in 2018. And he’s currently running unopposed. 

Griffith is the only Congressional candidate in the state who will glide to victory without so much as a challenge this fall. The election result is a foregone conclusion. But some progressive organizers in Southwest Virginia refuse to surrender the seat for a sixth consecutive term without voicing dissent. Ann Fisher and Lynn Chipkin, who both volunteered with Flaccavento’s 2018 campaign, spearheaded a write-in campaign on social media over the past few months. They’re encouraging voters who want an alternative to Griffith to write-in Flaccavento’s name on their ballot. Local activist groups including Indivisible New River Valley, which has more than 1,300 followers on Facebook, supported the campaign. A Sept. 25 post from the group garnered 41 shares, reaching potentially thousands of people in the region.

Fisher said she asked Flaccavento’s permission before publicizing the write-in campaign.

“He was [okay with it], although understandably not optimistic about Ninth District politics,” Fisher said. 

Flaccavento put it even more bluntly.

“Expressing their desire for an alternative to [Griffith] is a good thing, as futile as it may be,” he said.

It prompts the question: What is the virtue of a write-in campaign that’s doomed to fail? And how do Democrats successfully organize in a district that’s so unfavorable to their politics?

The write-in campaign, Fisher said, keeps Democratic voters in the Ninth District engaged in the short-term, while organizers and activists persist with a longer-term strategy for reclaiming the seat. “I think people need someone to vote for and find it discouraging when no one is running in opposition,” she said. “I hope it keeps people engaged and helps local Democrats stay involved.”

The liberal tradition

The days when Democrats prevailed in rural, agricultural Southwest Virginia are not long past. A Democrat last held Rep. Griffith’s seat in 2010. Former Rep. Rick Boucher, a lawyer from Abingdon, represented the district for 14 consecutive terms, even winning his own unopposed race in 2008. 

Flaccavento said the region’s politics shifted because voters felt abandoned by Democrats, and because Republicans successfully redefined “what it means to be an American.”

The mining and logging industries are foundational to the district’s economy. Flaccavento cited a sustainable forestry project as one example of how Democrats could “create better opportunities for people” and make “practical improvements in people’s lives.” Democrats have failed to communicate such ideas effectively in the past.

Flaccavento is emphatic that his 2018 campaign was more than a principled demonstration. The Democrat, who also challenged Griffith in 2012, ran to win. 

Flaccavento has professional experience in community development and thought he could speak to the economic disenfranchisement his neighbors face. He figured his resumé, combined with efforts to rehabilitate the Democratic image in “Trump country,” might be enough to take the seat in Congress.

Meredith Dean, a Floyd County resident who staffed the campaign and now runs the group Appalachian Women of Action, saw a similar potential. “Anthony is from here, he’s plain-spoken. He had an economic message for everybody, and he came from a place of experience on that,” Dean said. 

Rehabilitating the party image

Flaccavento ran on issues such as infrastructure investment and creating jobs. He is a supporter of the Green New Deal and said there’s a “wealth of innovation” to be leveraged in rural Virginia. “Rural progressive is not an oxymoron,” his campaign materials read. His past supporters still recite the slogan.

Flaccavento also said there’s a deep distrust of Democratic politicians in the region. He blames Democrats. The party has a reputation for being full of urban elitists, he said, who are out-of-touch with rural concerns. Further, constant criticism of President Trump only undermines Democrats’ credibility with rural folks, who feel similarly disaffected and disdained. 

“The alternative we have, rather than constant moral outrage at Trump, is to look at how we’ve fostered this,” Flaccavento said. He said the key to garnering support for Democratic politicians is first, to put up candidates who can meet voters where they are. Secondly, he said, Appalachian Democrats can help build trust by wearing their party affiliation proudly. 

“There’s a lot of progressives that do really important work that is utterly nonpartisan in their communities. And people appreciate that, but there’s a disconnect,” Flaccavento said. Community servants need to do that work “with their Democratic hats on.”

Virginia House of Delegates member Sam Rasoul (D-Roanoke) had a similar idea. His campaign launched the “Democratic Promise” social work program in Southwest Virginia. The premise is that volunteers can “rebuild trust in the Democratic brand by actually helping people,” according to the website.

Dean said Appalachian Women of Action is more political than some other organizations which prioritize community service. The group’s long-term goal, she said, is to support Democratic women running for office. They also want to connect with the larger progressive network throughout the country. The group was not involved with the write-in campaign.

However, in recent months the progressive group has certainly provided public services. It published regular updates on the status of the coronavirus pandemic in Southwest Virginia. The group also shared photos of women in facemasks going to the polls, to normalize the public safety measure. It has worked to inform people about how and where to vote. 

Griffith will win tomorrow, but Democrats’ hope will endure.

“We look forward to the day when another person steps up to challenge [him], and we believe our beautiful part of the state will be given back to the people,” Chipkin said.

Ashley Spinks Dugan is a freelance reporter for Dogwood. You can reach her at [email protected].

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