Editor’s note: This is the first installment of a series profiling candidates running in competitive Virginia state legislature elections.
When Sheila Bynum-Coleman lost her second consecutive bid for the Virginia House of Delegates in 2017, she thought to herself: “Hell no, I’m not doing this again.”
Her urge to quit was fleeting. Today, she’s a candidate for the 66th House District in Virginia, right in the middle of one of the most hotly contested races in the 2019 General Assembly elections.
Her new opponent, Republican House Speaker Kirk Cox, presents the most formidable challenge yet for Democratic candidate Bynum-Coleman. But as she sees it, the higher the risk, the greater the reward.
Assuming risk is nothing new for Bynum-Coleman. For most of her life, the stakes were high and the odds were stacked against her. She’s a black woman who, as a single mother of three, worked her way through undergraduate school. In the wake of the U.S. housing market collapse, she spent nights and weekends bootstrapping a successful real estate business while working as a substitute teacher by day.
All the while, Bynum-Coleman cared for her daughter, who has a rare lung disease, and her son, who has a rare heart disease. “That’s a lot to have to deal with in-and-of-itself,” she said. “And then my second oldest, she was shot.”
Her husband, she said, has been racially profiled and strip-searched. And the state’s special education program failed her son, who also has a learning disability.
From gun violence to the medical system to racial equity to education, politics is personal for Bynum-Coleman.
“There are lots of things that deeply bothered me that made me feel like I had to do something,” or nothing would change, she said.
“I’m going to run against you.”
In 2015, she decided to act. She called her delegate, Riley Ingram, and requested a 15-minute meeting to discuss improvements to the curriculum for children with learning disabilities. Ingram, she said, declined the meeting.
Bynum-Coleman’s frustrations reached a boiling point. In her words, it was “unacceptable to have someone who represents women, who has sworn to represent me, to not want to take a 15-minute meeting. I didn’t say an hour. I said 15 minutes.”
Never deterred, she said to the Republican delegate, “I’m going to run against you.”
That summer she mounted a campaign to unseat Ingram, but with a late start and no name recognition, she lost the race by a 20% margin.
I knew in my gut that I didn’t want to give up, but I didn’t know how I would be able to get it done.
“In ’15 when it was over … I knew in my gut that I didn’t want to give up, but I didn’t know how I would be able to get it done.”
Ingram, 74-years-old at the time, had just won handily to secure a 13th term in the House. Few, if any, believed the district could flip blue.
Round 2: The 2017 election
Still motivated by her sentiment that elected representatives were ignoring the people, Bynum-Coleman doubled her efforts in the 2017 House of Delegates election. She knocked on as many doors as her time and stamina allowed. Lightning, literally, was the only thing that would keep her inside.
“What is so powerful and important to me is hearing from the voters,” she said. “I feel strongly that being a representative of a district is to represent the people of the district.”
This time around, she had read more about the issues and, through thousands of conversations with voters, developed a more in-depth understanding of their concerns. Her policy platform came into focus, and her campaign picked up steam. Democrats, organizers, and donors across the state began to take notice. But the timing was off, according to Bynum-Coleman. “When people started to pay attention and get in, it was too late.”
Bynum-Coleman lost that race by about 800 votes — just a few percentage points. It was a massive gain from her 2015 bid, but a loss nonetheless.
Time for a vacation?
That fall, Bynum-Coleman began to doubt herself. She said she’ll never forget the day her husband asked her if she was going to run again.
She told him, plainly, “no.” He responded, “‘But if you don’t do it, who is going to?'”
“I was like, ‘I don’t know’ and I said, ‘look, I’m gonna go on vacation.'”
Her husband made one final push. “He said if you don’t help fix the problems, they’re going to always be there and nothing’s going to change, and then he just walked out.”
It was the support she needed. Bynum-Coleman never went on that vacation. She got to work campaigning, instead.
This time around, the electoral maps have been redrawn, so she’s up against Cox in the 66th District. In some ways, the 2019 race looks like Bynum-Coleman’s prior contests: a black female Democrat who has never held public office versus a white male Republican incumbent.
But to Bynum-Coleman, Cox is a bigger target than Ingram, which she thinks works to her favor.
How to beat a Republican leader
Bynum-Coleman said both Ingram and Cox are disliked, but Cox inspires far more passion and anger from voters, due to his leadership position in the Republican party.
In other words, Ingram wasn’t an exciting opponent, so it was hard to motivate people to unseat him. Beating Cox, on the other hand, is a challenge with much broader fanfare.
Cox is revered among Republicans for his pro-business policies and leadership on this year’s tax conformity bill. But his far-right stances on issues like gay rights and gun violence have earned him many enemies over his 19 years in the House.
As House speaker, Cox controls the flow of legislation through the chamber, and he has come under fire for not allowing full floor votes on bills he does not personally support, like measures aimed at extending anti-discrimination protections to members of the LGBTQ community.
Recently, during a special session of the General Assembly on gun control, Cox played a leading role in sending lawmakers home after just 90 minutes without allowing for a single vote on bills like universal background checks. He called the session an “election-year stunt.”
For Bynum-Coleman, that’s just the latest example of political leaders obstructing debate on essential issues that matter to their constituents. “My daughter getting shot was not an election-year stunt,” she said on Twitter.
“If you’re going to lead, then you should lead. But leadership to me doesn’t look like political interference, and that’s what he’s doing.”
Bynum-Coleman suggested that Cox blocks bills from full floor votes to shield his Republican colleagues from going on-the-record on issues that might split his caucus. “It is disrespectful to the process and to the people,” she said.
If elected, Bynum-Coleman would be the first woman and first black person to represent the 66th. The historical significance of that feat is not lost on her.
“As a woman, you get the question what makes you qualified, and as a black woman, you get that even more,” she said. “I’m critiqued at every level in every space in everything that I do.”
She said she’s constantly being told, “I’m not doing this right. I don’t wear the right things. I don’t say the right things. … I’m not the polished born-and-bred politician that some people expect from a black woman,” she said.
But what’s more important than appeasing critics, she said, is to keep doing what she’s always done: “Hold my head up and fight through the week.”
The thousands of conversations (by her count) she has with voters per week don’t lend her much time to fuss over gossip, anyway. “I talk about the things that are going on in my district. I talk about the things that people tell me, I talk about the real-life. And so to me, that’s more important than what critics would say about what makes a qualified candidate.”
On the issues
Bynum-Coleman got into politics out of a desire to improve Virginia’s education system. With two and a half races under her belt, her platform has branched out, but reforming Virginia’s public school system remains her signature objective. She sees education as a public safety issue. “When children aren’t getting an adequate education, it becomes a public safety problem.”
Criminal justice reform is also high on her list. She wants to reduce the disparities in sentencing between African Americans and whites and find new ways to productively reintegrate inmates into society.
Bynum-Coleman also supports passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. “Equal means equal,” she said, and the ERA would “protect our most vulnerable communities.”
On the environment, she’s a staunch opponent to offshore oil drilling and sees climate change as an existential threat. She also sounds the alarm over reports that seventeen schools in Chesterfield county have dangerous levels of lead in their drinking water.
Now in her third race against incumbents who have held onto their seats for decades, Bynum-Coleman supports term limits for state legislators, too.