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Virginia candidates say racism and sexism played a role in Democratic losses

People gathered behind lectern
In this Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019, photo, state Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond), front, speaks to supporters as she is joined by Del. Lamont Bagby (D-Henrico), left, and other members of the Legislative Black Caucus at a Democratic victory party in Richmond. The caucus made significant gains in the wake of Gov. Ralph Northam's Blackface scandal. Del. Charniele Herring (D-Alexandria), not pictured, would soon be elected majority leader by House Democrats. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Statewide candidates who ran in Virginia this year say prejudice both outside but especially within the Democratic Party played a prominent role in Republican victories.

Del. Sam Rasoul, who ran for lieutenant governor in the Democratic primary, said, “This is not a win by Republicans. I think that this is a loss by our party.”

Overt racism, sexism, and Islamophobia

There were several instances of overt racially motivated bias that candidates say demonstrate the impact of prejudice on their campaigns, but one of the most public happened to Rasoul on the debate stage.

During the only debate between lieutenant governor candidates this year, a moderator asked Rasoul an Islamophobic question. ABC7 anchor Dave Lucas asked Rasoul if, because he’s accepted donations from out-of-state Muslim donors, he can “assure Virginians, if you’re elected, that you’ll represent all of them regardless of faith or beliefs?”

Person speaking
In this Thursday March 5, 2020 file photo, Del. Sam Rasoul (D-Roanoke) speaks during a debate on the floor of the House at the Capitol in Richmond. Rasoul ran unsuccessfully to be the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor.  (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

Rasoul says it was part of a broader attack on his campaign.

“It wasn’t just a moderator. Questions were scanned by a whole team at the station and approved in advance,” Rasoul said. “Part of the rules were that you'd have to ask questions that could be posed to everyone on stage, and that clearly violated that rule. It was a targeted hit.”

A similar accusation was made toward state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, who ran in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. This time, the attack came not from the media but another candidate for governor.

Both before and after she lost the nomination to Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin, state Sen. Amanda Chase commented publicly that she believes McClellan wouldn’t represent all Virginians by pointing to her leadership of the Black caucus.

In a 2020 tweet, Chase wrote “One thing you can be sure of - she is NOT for ALL Virginians.” She repeated that sentiment in a video posted in March.

McClellan said she hasn’t seen anything that overt in her more than 14 years as a legislator.

“[It was] the first example of sort of straight-up racism I’ve faced,” McClellan said.

Princess Blanding, a candidate for the Liberation Party, says the racism and sexism she experienced came from within the Democratic Party. Although she appeared on the ballot this year alongside former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Republican candidate Youngkin,  she was never invited to appear on the debate stage with her competitors. That exclusion, Blanding says, is rooted in a racially motivated suppression of her campaign.

“The entire election cycle, it was made about Glenn Youngkin and Terry McAuliffe with the intentional exclusion of the only candidate that was actually fighting for the people and fighting for the very things that community members across the commonwealth have been begging for,” Blanding said.

Blanding was invited to one of the gubernatorial debates as an audience member, where she protested her exclusion from the stage. She interrupted the televised debate, and that’s when she says she was assaulted by another member of the audience.

“I just kept telling him, ‘You are assaulting me. Get off me. Stop pushing me.’ And nobody did anything,” Blanding said. “Your silence is violence.”

Afterwards the debate’s moderator, Chuck Todd, instructed security to remove her from the building.

But that wasn’t the only time Blanding says she was assaulted by supporters of the two major-party candidates.

In October, Blanding attended a McAuliffe rally in Norfolk featuring Georgia politician and national figure Stacey Abrams. She came to silently protest Abrams’ endorsement of McAuliffe and stood in the audience holding a sign for her campaign above her head. That’s when she says an older white woman aggressively bumped into her. A little later, she says the woman returned and hit her in the back.

“I felt somebody hit me hard on my shoulder blade on the right side, and I turned right around immediately, and it was that lady. And I said, ‘Why did you just hit me?’ and she said, ‘Whatever’ and then had the audacity to walk up and stand right next to me,” Blanding said.

Blanding started recording the encounter, at which point the woman started laughing at her.

“She didn't say anything, she just started laughing at that point,” Blanding said. “If you listen carefully you can hear her laughing.”

A little later, Blanding said she heard someone in front of her, a Black woman, say to the white woman, “Somebody needs to knock her to the ground.’”

“If I was to have done the same thing that that man did, or that this woman did, I would have been brutalized and then incarcerated, if I was that lucky,” Blanding said. “Had I responded out of immediate emotions, as I'm sure they would have loved to happen, it wouldn't have been about what they did, but it would have been about how I responded. Even though I was the one in both situations that was being physically hit by two other people.”

Often, racism and sexism are subtle and systemic

All the candidates who VPM spoke to for this story said most of the prejudice they face is more subtle and systemic than overt. Rich Meagher, a Randolph-Macon College professor of political science, says that’s common.

“There's no smoking gun, or at least there's no obvious smoking gun,” Meagher said. “It's more the kinds of questions about their candidacy that get raised, questions about experience, questions about legitimacy, questions about their authority and moral authority. And it just does seem to be the case that women of color, particularly in politics, face more of these questions.”

Meagher says there were plenty of examples of subtle racism and sexism in this year’s gubernatorial and lieutenant gubernatorial election. Most of that bias, he says, is unconscious.

“It's a kind of background noise or like a whisper campaign that suggests that they're not qualified, or ‘there's something I don't quite like about that candidate,’ or ‘I prefer this other candidate who seems like a better fit’ for the role,’” Meagher said.

The sexist notion that women are less suited for leadership roles is less common after recent electoral wins by women throughout the country. But a significant portion of the population still  holds those beliefs. A 2019 study by Georgetown University’s School for Public Policy found that about 13% of Americans surveyed still think women are less suited for politics than men. In 1975, 37% of the population believed that women couldn’t hold leadership positions in politics.

Data show women of color are even less likely to hold office than white women. According to a study by the Center for American Women and Politics, despite making up 7.8% of the nation’s population, Black women represent less than 5% of office holders elected to statewide executive offices, Congress and state legislatures. Fewer than 17 Black women have ever held statewide elected executive office in the U.S., and a Black woman has never been elected to the governorship of any state.

Both male and female candidates of color for statewide office in Virginia this year said the unconscious racist idea that people of color aren’t electable impeded their ability to be taken seriously as statewide candidates. Sean Perryman ran for lieutenant governor this year, and said it’s a sentiment he’s heard throughout the campaign.

“The experiences I had over and over again was people were very worried that we'd have an all-Black ticket. As if that were a recipe for losing. And, of course, we've had all-white tickets, many, many, many, many times throughout Virginia history,” Sean Perryman said.

This strategy of voting for people voters perceive as ‘electable’ is rooted in racism and sexism, according to him.

“Electability is completely made up. It's something that's used as a way to keep people out,” Perryman said. “The Democratic Party of Virginia will communicate with donors who they think are electable … it becomes this thing of, they're electable because I think they're electable, therefore they will get the money that will make them electable. It’s this kind of vicious cycle.”

A 2019 study by the Reflective Democracy Campaign, a project of the Women Donors Network, supports Perryman’s perspective. It found that white men dominate American politics and hold 62% of elected local, state and federal offices. But while white men run for elected office in much greater numbers than any other demographic, the study found that when they are on the ballot, women of all races and men of color win elections at the same rates as white men. As a result, the study concluded, “white men’s electability advantage is a myth.”

Rasoul agrees with Perryman that the Democratic party views only white, male, cisgender, party centrists as likely to win statewide elections.

“It’s clear that that is a common thread throughout the Democratic establishment,” Rasoul said.

The myth of electability is something canvassers for women of color heard over and over this year. Joseph Papa, who knocked doors for McClellan, said McClellan wasn’t taken seriously as an electable candidate despite over a decade of public service.

“Nobody that I talked to was saying that they thought Terry would be a better governor,” Papa said. “Where I was canvassing and talking to voters, the sentiment was just, ‘he can win, and that's what we need to do.’ And especially given the results … that's all the more frustrating to sort of reflect on.”

That electability myth permeates American politics, according to Meagher, but he says that prejudice doesn’t necessarily extend to the second highest ranking positions in elected offices, like the roles of Vice President Kamala Harris, Democratic lieutenant governor nominee Hala Ayala, and Lt. Gov.-elect Winsome Sears. That’s because their roles are largely seen as powerless, according to Meagher.

“It's kind of a spot where it's seen as less threatening if a candidate of color or a woman is elected, because it is a largely symbolic role,” Meagher said.

For McClellan, the subtle forms of racism that she’s faced include the media and the electorate lumping her in with her competitor, Jennifer Carroll Foy.

“We're very different people with very different experiences, very different views, very different styles, very different personalities. Yes, we're both Black women. Yes, we're both named Jennifer. And yes, we were born in Petersburg. But we were constantly lumped together or viewed as interchangeable. And I think that is because again, we were not being compared to each other, we were being compared to a white male candidate.” McClellan said. “I think Black women candidates need to be looked at as individuals and not as a demographic.”

Perryman also points to campaign ads by both McAuliffe and Youngkin which he said presented voters with white savior messaging by including Black people only in the context of receiving aid from the candidates.

“The narrative was very much of a white savior. Even if you look at Terry McAuliffe, his own words, that, you know, the Black community chose him because he was the only one that can save the day was kind of this white savior narrative throughout the entire primary,” Perryman said.

On the Republican side, racist messaging in the gubernatorial and lieutenant gubernatorial races were centered on the debate about critical race theory. Critical race theory is a decades-old academic framework for looking at the effects of racism, but Youngkin’s campaign conflated it with equity efforts and claimed it was being taught to children in K-12 public schools. This is a myth. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t effective. According to Meagher, critical race theory was used to signal to voters that candidates would not support efforts to increase equity and fight white supremacy in Virginia.

“It's an effective ploy. And it was a good wedge issue that enabled Youngkin and others in the Republican Party to reach out to their base who maybe flirt with or are supportive of white nationalist ideas. And to also reach out to more moderate folks who were frustrated with what was going on in schools more generally,” Meagher said, invoking COVID-19 lockdowns and other stressors parents have experienced during the pandemic.

McClellan agrees and says the Republicans’ success in this year’s election in both the House of Delegates and the executive branch is also part of the conservative backlash against the movement for Black liberation that took hold in Richmond last year.

“It is a backlash to the reckoning with racial injustice we had in in response to the murder of George Floyd,” McClellan said. “They're uncomfortable talking about it. But we have to talk about it because if we don't talk about it, we'll never fully be able to recognize and resolve sort of the great racial tension that we've had in this country from the beginning.”

Hostility has increased since 2016

McClellan and activists working around the election told VPM that the hostility they faced this year is the greatest they’ve ever experienced, and that it’s part of a trend that began in 2016 with the election of President Donald Trump.

“I think there has always been racism and sexism. It became less prevalent and less mainstream over time. And I think with the election of Donald Trump, it got a little bit more in the mainstream,” McClellan said.

Maya Castillo is the political director of New Virginia Majority, a nonprofit committed to racial and economic justice that endorsed McClellan in the primary and campaigned for both her and McAuliffe once he secured the nomination. She says animosity against her canvassers both over the phone and in-person has been growing.

“In Alexandria, a Black woman, a volunteer, literally got chased. I mean, I'm not exaggerating. She was a first-time volunteer, first-time canvasser and knocked on someone's door and she got chased away from their house,” Castillo said. “This man was screaming at her as she ran to her car for safety. So this happens. It happens a lot. I've had my own incidents out while canvassing. It's pretty hard, and it only seems to be getting harder over time.”

But Castillo says the determining factor for these interactions isn’t the race or politics of the people they’re canvassing for, but the race of the canvassers.

“There are voters who will take an incredible amount of offense to even just presenting an idea or trying to have a conversation,” Castillo said. “It does happen a lot more with our Black canvassers than with anyone else, and our canvassers who are people of color. They have the hardest conversations for sure.”

Canvassers, activists and candidates who spoke with VPM said they hope the 2021 election serves as a lesson to the Democratic Party and voters in general to embrace people of color and women running for office.

“Just like we had a reckoning in 2016, this is one of those moments that we have to be able to rise above,” Rasoul said.

VPM News did not receive a response from Lt. Gov.-elect Winsome Sears.