For those of you for whom the 2020 presidential race isn’t sufficient fun, be advised that the 2021 Virginia governor’s race is now in progress — and it looks like a doozy.
The Democratic field is more formed than the Republican field, so that’s what we’ll focus on today. Republicans will get their due when they have more than one declared candidate, especially one who a senior Republican legislator says “doesn’t have a level of substance, maturity or seriousness that Virginians expect in a gubernatorial candidate.”
Democrats will have at least four — and maybe five or six — candidates. So far, there’s Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy of Prince William County, Attorney General Mark Herring and state Sen. Jennifer McClellan of Richmond, with former Gov. Terry McAuliffe contemplating a comeback and Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney also mentioned as a possible contender.
This is a historic lineup in some obvious and not-so-obvious ways.
1. We’ve never had so many candidates seek the Democratic nomination. In some years, there has only been one candidate — Mark Warner in 2001 and Tim Kaine in 2005. Usually the nominating contest, if there is one, has involved just two candidates. The record for the most number of candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for governor in Virginia is four. That was in 1949, when the Byrd Machine’s grip on power was starting to loosen. Even then, that four-way primary was mostly a two-candidate affair between organization favorite John Battle and an insurgent challenger, Francis Pickens Miller. Battle won.
There’s a reason, of course, why Democrats had only one candidate in 2001 and 2005 but now have a record number: The Democratic nomination has become much more valuable. Then, Virginia was a decidedly Republican state — that’s who won presidential elections, that’s who won most other statewide elections, that’s who controlled the General Assembly. Since then we’ve seen a lot of demographic change and political realignment. Republicans haven’t won a statewide election in Virginia in more than a decade — their 2009 sweep for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general. They’ve lost control of the General Assembly, and they’ve seen their congressional representation drop to just the four reddest districts.
If you’re a Democrat, it’s easy to think that winning the nomination is tantamount to winning the election — so there’s a lot more interest in winning that nomination. We’ll find out in November 2021 just how blue Virginia really is.
2. We’ve never had such a diverse field of candidates. The six listed above include four Black candidates — including two Black women. Virginians of a certain age remember just how terrified the Democratic establishment was in 1985 when Douglas Wilder sought his party’s nomination for lieutenant governor. Party leaders were convinced he’d lose, but were also afraid to challenge him. Now having Black candidates is a perfectly normal thing. Wilder went on to win two statewide elections in a much more challenging potential environment than Democrats face today.
Foy and McClellan are making a different kind of history and hope to make some more. They are the first Black women to seek their party’s nomination for governor. Virginia has only elected one woman to statewide office — Mary Sue Terry was elected attorney general in 1985 and re-elected in 1989 — but she lost her bid for the governorship in 1993. Thirty states have had women as governors, some multiple times. Virginia is not one of those 30. Should either Foy or McClellan be standing on the steps of the State Capitol in January 2022 to take the oath of office, she’d make another kind of history: No state has elected a Black woman as governor.
3. We’re seeing the avenues to the governorship broaden. The traditional route to the governorship has been through either the office of lieutenant governor or attorney general — and sometimes the U.S. House of Representatives. McAuliffe, Warner and Linwood Holton in 1969 were notable because they’d never held any elected office. The last candidate to jump from the state Senate to the governorship — something McClellan is trying — was Battle in 1949. The last candidate whose only previous experience was in the House of Delegates — something Foy is trying — was Phil McKinney in 1889. Even then, his service in the House had come 31 years before. He also ran for governor on a platform of unabashed white supremacy. We’ve never had someone go straight from a mayorship to the governor’s office as Stoney might try. A broader talent pool is a good thing.
4. We’re seeing some candidates talk about disparities in school funding in ways we haven’t before. This, of course, is an issue that hits close to home in rural Virginia as well as many central cities, both of which have lots of old buildings they can’t afford to modernize. Lt. Gov. Fairfax proposes to spend $30 billion over the next 10 years to modernize all schools 40 years or older. McClellan, in her announcement, referred to “the promise in our constitution to provide high quality education to all children.”
We welcome both to this long-overdue conversation, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t point out that both have passed up opportunities in the past to deliver on this. The past two years, state Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, has pushed for a statewide bond referendum for school construction. Fairfax and McClellan could have gotten behind that. They did not. Fairfax proposes $30 billion, Stanley proposed $3 billion. That’s a big difference, but to get to $30 billion you’ve got to go through $3 billion. Maybe a Gov. Fairfax in 2022 will be able to do that $30 billion funding, but we might have already modernized $3 billion worth of schools by then if he’d helped Stanley earlier.
Likewise, we’re glad to see McClellan reference Virginia’s constitution, but as a lawyer and well-known policy wonk, she also knows that the state Supreme Court has held that constitutional promise doesn’t mandate equal funding. Earlier this year, Stanley — yes, him again, a pesky Republican talking up school disparity — proposed a constitutional amendment to fix that. And McClellan was among those who voted it down. Curious, eh?
So let’s get this historic governor’s race started.
Who among these four, five, maybe six candidates will support writing equal funding for schools into the state constitution?