COUNCIL — There weren’t many people gathered at the auto body shop to see Sam Rasoul.
Southwest Virginia is deep red, and so it’s rare these days to see Democrats elected to higher offices venturing out this way. The people who showed up figured this would probably be the only time a Democrat running for statewide office would make an appearance in Buchanan County.
“They tell me there aren’t a ton of votes out here, but they are strong votes,” said Rasoul, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor.
The war veterans and retired workers seated in the chairs are lifelong Democrats — for heaven’s sake, one man in the audience was named Franklin Delano Sykes — and they have felt largely abandoned by the party that has focused its energy on turning out votes in populous areas running from Northern Virginia to Richmond and Hampton Roads.
“I don’t know of any other statewide candidates who will bother to come see us down here,” Vern Presley, who owns the shop, told the group. “Sam’s committed to Southwest Virginia. Tell people he bothered to come to Buchanan County.”
Visiting people in far Southwest Virginia wasn’t a gimmick for Rasoul. He’s been showing up for awhile now because he’s been deliberate about listening to people who don’t feel like they matter. Being one of just a handful of Democrats in the General Assembly who lives in Western Virginia, he’s felt a duty to step up and spread the party’s values in the rural parts.
“We need to show up and take care of every part of Virginia,” Rasoul, 39, told a man who said he feels like Richmond has left Southwest Virginia behind.
These days, when people think about Democrats making an effort in rural America, they think of politicians like Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a moderate who can be a needle in the side of his fellow Democrats, or Jon Tester, a Montana farmer missing three fingers focused on lunch-pail politics.
They probably don’t think of a brown-skinned Muslim guy with progressive political views and championing a Green New Deal. His supporters across Virginia are endeared by his authenticity and idealism, like getting money out of politics and empowering people, everyone getting a fair shot to succeed, and pushing back against large companies taking advantage of people.
Rasoul, the only Democratic candidate for statewide office who resides west of Richmond, has been leading the pack in fundraising in the six-way lieutenant governor race for the party nod, but he’s not getting the backing of the party establishment. Since he joined the House of Delegates in 2014 as the first Muslim member of the legislature, Rasoul hasn’t been shy about challenging his own party when he perceives it’s lost sight of rural Virginia or allowed special interest money to dictate policy.
“I love being a team player, but sometimes it’s not about Republican or Democrat, sometimes it’s about doing what is right,” Rasoul told the group. “I’m pretty progressive in a lot of ways, but I’m also one of the most independent voters in the General Assembly. Why? Because I always ask myself one basic question: am I on the right side of history with this vote?”
Before he spoke to people from the stumps, Rasoul learned how to talk to people while standing on a milk crate behind the checkout counter of his parents’ convenience store in Hurt Park. He started working at the store when he was around 5 years old.
“Working there helped me relate to people and talk to people, and that’s where I feel like I learned any kind of politics and how to build relationships,” Rasoul said.
Rasoul’s family emigrated to the United States from the Palestinian territories in the 1970s. Rasoul is the oldest of four children, and he was born in Ohio.
His parents moved to Roanoke when he was 3, and they lived in a one-bedroom apartment in downtown Roanoke.
The children learned the importance of compassion and generosity from working in the store. Sue Rasoul, the third-oldest of the siblings, said her father would give people bread and milk if they needed it but didn’t have the money right away to pay for it.
“My dad always taught us to do the right thing,” she said. “Our parents told us: what can you do to do the right thing to help somebody?”
Rasoul’s parents were spiritual but not necessarily structured in their religion. They would fast during Ramadan or, since there was no mosque when they first moved to Roanoke, they would pray at home. Sue Rasoul said that she and her siblings knew when they were younger that they were Muslim and children of immigrants, but their parents didn’t want them to feel any different from anyone else.
“My parents felt that we live here, and we’re going to be a part of this community in every way possible, and I think that made us well-rounded and feel empathy for others,” she said.
Sue Rasoul said it was sometimes tough growing up being different and not realizing it. There were bullies. Marylen Harmon, Rasoul’s third-grade teacher at Glen Cove Elementary School, noticed how he was able to overcome that.
“He wanted to be accepted, and he wanted others to be accepted, too,” Harmon said. “He was able to identify situations that he didn’t think were fair, and he wanted to know why and how to change that.”
Rasoul loved working, so by the time he turned 16, he got two jobs, working at Food Lion and waiting tables at restaurants. Sometimes he’d give his parents a paycheck to contribute to home expenses.
In Palestinian culture, it’s custom for the eldest son to take care of the family, and Sue Rasoul said that her brother exceled in that role.
“It’s a lot of pressure, but he’s always been the person in our family to solve problems and bring people together,” she said.
After graduating from high school, Rasoul went to Roanoke College and then got an MBA at Hawaii Pacific University. He returned to the Roanoke Valley and opened some video stores and got married. These days, he works for a consulting firm to help businesses with change and challenging hurdles.
He made a failed run for Congress and Roanoke mayor before winning a 2014 special election to the General Assembly, a position that takes up most of his time.
‘I do not like bullies’
Rasoul stood on a gravel road looking up a steep, wooded slope. Chain saws made it hard to hear what he was telling people on the live video he posted to Facebook in March.
“This is the kind of backyard stuff that really needs to be pushed back against,” Rasoul said.
Law enforcement was in the process of removing two people who were posted up in the trees in Montgomery County for more than 900 days in an effort to block the path of the Mountain Valley Pipeline.
“I do not like bullies, and I’m going to stand up to them,” Rasoul said in an interview. “I’m a sucker for a David vs. Goliath fight, and so if someone is struggling and doesn’t feel like there is anybody there for them, I’m going to be there to help those Virginians.”
Rasoul has been a vocal opponent of the recently canceled Atlantic Coast Pipeline and ongoing Mountain Valley Pipeline out of concern for environmental risks and private companies taking people’s land. He stood with residents in the historic African-American community of Union Hill in Buckingham County in their fight to stop the construction of a natural gas pumping station.
Sometimes he’ll take a stand when there are few to stand with him. In his first term in office, he tried to get the attention of his colleagues about a bill he thought was bad because it would allow Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power Co. to keep millions in excess earnings.
“I got crickets,” Rasoul said.
Last year, he opposed the Virginia Clean Economy Act, which had near-unanimous support among Democrats in the General Assembly. Democrats pledged that the law would lower electricity bills while also phasing out carbon-based energy. But Dominion Energy succeeded in convincing lawmakers to write the law in a way that shifted risk from the company’s shareholders to its ratepayers, and hindered the ability of state regulators to control costs of the project, now estimated at nearly $8 billion.
“I’ve learned that there are a lot of powerful forces in Richmond that don’t necessarily have the interests of the people in mind,” Rasoul said.
He says that the private cable companies are “not our friends” and aren’t doing everything they can to get everyone broadband.
“They’re trying to maximize the profit off of each mile of cable they lay, and to us that’s not sustainable and it doesn’t work in rural Virginia,” he said.
He faced resistance from his own party for patroning a measure to create a bipartisan commission to draw new political maps rather than leave that responsibility in the hands of the legislature and allow the majority party to tilt political power.
In 2016, he stepped down from his leadership position in the caucus to protest what he felt like was his party’s demonization of Donald Trump voters and abandonment of rural Virginia. Democratic leaders took offense to this, especially after Hillary Clinton won Virginia in the presidential election. Rasoul launched the Impact Center, which is focused on helping first-time candidates and especially those competing in red districts and don’t get much assistance from the state party.
Rasoul says colleagues on his side of the aisle could still use some reminding of the wide-ranging needs in Virginia. While campaigning, he’ll reference a comment a Northern Virginia delegate made about how some of the rural, poor localities get the most state funding for schools, and yet those school divisions are still asking for more to meet their basic expenses.
“I don’t know why they can’t make better use of it,” Del. Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax, said during the General Assembly session this year. “I don’t see why people can’t take initiative, even in rural and small town Virginia, to solve their own problems.”
“I thought it was a completely tone-deaf statement,” Rasoul said in a roundtable with rural educators.
Rural educators acknowledged the state can’t solve all of their problems, but like many people who live in less populated, less affluent areas, they think the people making decisions in Richmond are out of touch with the needs of residents all across Virginia.
“I invite that person to come to Dickenson County,” said Phyllis Mullins, who has been a teacher in Dickenson for more than three decades. “He needs to drive down the streets of Clintwood, let’s look and see what he’ll find. I love my hometown, but you’re not going to find a major department store, you’re not going to find a Walmart. You’re going to find a couple of Dollar Stores, one major grocery store, two Red Lots. You’re not going to find one inch of four-lane. We don’t have major industries like Amazon or some bigger companies. They don’t come here.”
People nod their heads when Rasoul talks to them about equity in areas like education and health care. He recently was able to secure funding to bring UVa’s family nurse practitioner program to Wise County.
Gary Hancock, an attorney in Pulaski and the former mayor, said Rasoul’s bill that expanded pharmacists’ scope of practice has been helpful to the community to improve access to health care services.
“He really does know what communities need, and he wants fairness and opportunity for everyone,” he said.
Rasoul’s office has a strict rule. When people call asking for help, staffers aren’t supposed to ask where they live. He’s willing to help anyone, regardless of where they reside.
This is all part of his effort to rebuild goodwill among people who have felt neglected by the government and politicians. He formed the “Democratic Promise” in 2017 with the idea being that rather than immediately launching into talking points about candidates and asking people for their support, people knocking on doors or calling potential voters should start with asking if anyone needs help with something. It can be anything from connecting a veteran to resources to mowing the lawn for an elderly person.
“There are people who are feeling vulnerable and looking for answers,” Rasoul said. “As someone who believes institutions play an important role in our lives, I want to build trust in those institutions. And so I hope this can become a standard way of approaching politics, that it’s not just about raising a lot of money and buying ads, but really checking in with and spending time with people.”
It’s a bit of an unusual strategy, for sure. It’s time-consuming to spend so much time talking to a handful of people in a remote area, like he was doing one weekend in Clinchco. Rasoul is hoping that the groundwork he’s been laying for years, showing up and being willing to fight for anyone, will resonate with voters.
“As a child of immigrants, the flag represents a promise to all of us, and sometimes we don’t keep that promise as well as we should, but it sure as hell is worth fighting for,” Rasoul said. “And I love to be able to fight for it.”
Maybe it’ll work in the short term for Rasoul — and in the long term for the party if it wants to regain the trust of people in rural areas.
There are lots of yard signs for Rasoul posted around blue cities. But if you drive around Southwest Virginia, through Honaker and Haysi, there are signs there for him, too.
“I want to prove that even this brown kid from the foothills of Appalachia can get elected and prove that we can all have a seat at the table no matter what our background is,” Rasoul said.