By Morgan Edwards
A network of county and local Democratic party organizations, known as Central Virginia Democrats, is preparing to host a series of virtual candidate town halls beginning next Wednesday. The three events will be broadcast via Zoom and are scheduled for 7 p.m. on the first three Wednesdays in April (7, 14, 21). The Central Virginia Democrats are made up of the Orange, Spotsylvania, Fauquier, Culpeper, Madison, Louisa and Rappahannock Democratic Committees, Lake of the Woods Democratic Club and the LGBTQ Caucus.
Joe and Elaine Freeland are the current co-chairs of the Orange County Democratic Committee and have been involved in setting up the events along with David Reuther, one of the vice chairs of the Culpeper County Democratic Committee.
“With so many candidates seeking the Democratic nominations for the three state level positions this year, it is impossible for local organizations to meet with each aspiring candidate,” Elaine Freeland said. “The town halls provide an opportunity for voters in our communities to virtually meet each of the candidates.”
Voters and interested citizens will hear from five candidates running for governor in 2021: Del. Lee Carter, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, former state delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy, former governor Terry McAuliffe and State Sen. Jennifer McClellan.
The week after, a packed field of Democratic candidates for lieutenant governor will make their case to the public. They include Del. Hala Ayala, former Virginia Democratic Party chairman Paul Goldman, Del. Elizabeth Guzman, Del. Mark Levine, Norfolk City Council member Andria McClellan, Fairfax County NAACP President Sean Perryman, Del. Sam Rasoul and businessman Xavier Warren.
On the final evening of town halls, the two Democratic candidates for Virginia’s next attorney general will speak. Current attorney general Mark Herring is seeking a third term against newcomer Del. Jerrauld “Jay” Jones.
“This is the first town hall hosted by this group of Democratic organizations to focus on primary candidates,” Freeland explained. “In each of the previous four years, the Orange County Dems have collaborated with other committees and clubs to sponsor a tri-county fundraiser for a Democratic nominee. Last year we had a virtual event to support Abigail Spanberger’s campaign. Events in the other three years took place at Lake of the Woods.”
Former Charlottesville School Board chair Amy Laufer will moderate all three events.
“Amy was chosen to moderate the town halls since she has broad knowledge of Virginia politics,” Freeland said. “She founded Virginia’s List in 2015 to support progressive women running for statewide office in the Commonwealth. Her eloquence and insight will be key in guiding the town halls. Voters in several of the localities got to know Amy in 2019 when she was the Democratic nominee for the General Assembly Senate seat in District 17.”
According to Ballotpedia, the online political encyclopedia nonprofit, Laufer lost her election in 2019 to Republican incumbent Bryce Reeves by only 2,318 votes.
Laufer said that since then she has stayed involved in Democratic politics in her community and has hosted four or five different town halls for local organizations. She is sanguine about the upcoming events since the last one went particularly well and is not intimidated by the Zoom format.
“I actually think using Zoom has been really great,” Laufer said. “The one [Virginia’s List] did two weeks ago had over 400 people on the call. You could never have done that before. It’s so much easier for candidates because they don’t have to worry about travel time.”
David Reuther seconded Laufer’s point about virtual town halls bringing both politicians and potential voters from distant locales together.
“The state is so large that they physically can’t go to every county and every Democratic committee’s monthly meeting,” Reuther said. “Instead this has given the candidates a ready-made forum to connect with voters in a relaxed and comfortable manner.”
The downside is that due to candidates being in high demand across the Commonwealth, they have limited time to attend each event they are invited to. Despite this constraint, Reuther said that Central Virginia Democrats have everything planned out.
“Because we have so many candidates attending, the campaigns have told me that they’re setting aside a specific time frame for their candidate to participate,” Reuther said. “Within five minutes they have to go to another Zoom event. We’re scheduling them and telling them to give their stump speeches. We’ll prompt them with some of the concerns or issues facing our six counties and let them speak to those things. But it’s not going to be a free-flowing event.”
Topics of discussion will vary, but Freeland anticipates candidates will try to take their positions and localize them.
“Our hope is that the candidates will focus on our priorities: schools (teacher pay, broadband access at school and home), broadband access for everyone, social justice, help for the farmers, improved access to health care, jobs, environment – to name a few,” she said.
Broadband access is an essential issue because of its economic and social impact and is also key to a functioning virtual town hall itself.
“Relying on the internet exposes the weak broadband infrastructure in the state of Virginia,” Reuther said. “Who can participate in this thing? Only people with a good internet connection.”
Freeland indicated that those without internet or a strong connection could participate by phone, but she acknowledged the limitations of that alternative.
Regardless, Freeland, Laufer and Reuther are enthusiastic about the possibilities for constructive debate and input that a town hall provides. Freeland said it helps that all of the organizers agree on some basic principles.
“We all firmly believe health care is a right, diversity is a strength, the economy should work for everyone, and facts and truth matter,” she said.
The 2021 Democratic primary will be held on June 8. The Republican Party of Virginia will be holding its “drive-in” convention on May 8 at 37 voting sites across the state. Convention delegates will select the party’s nominees for statewide offices.
The deadline to register to vote in the Democratic primary is May 17. Voters can register to vote in-person, by mail or online at www.vote.elections.virginia.gov.
To find out how to attend the town halls and learn more visit www.orangecountydems.org.