• Caitlin Coakley

No district is “impossible”

When I tell people that I decided to run for office, they’re excited for me - until they see what my district looks like.

The truth is, the incumbent has never gotten less than 63 percent of the vote. Geographically, the district bunches a corner of suburban Chesterfield County - which has been getting more liberal each election cycle - with solidly-red Powhatan and Goochland.

I’m a progressive Democrat. I believe in workers’ rights, social justice, and equal opportunity for all communities. Putting myself out there in a district like this one is intimidating, and winning it in my first election cycle does sometimes feel, well, impossible.

But I see it differently. The bleak outlook for this district offers me a tremendous opportunity to make people’s lives better simply by showing up.

See, to me, running for office is not a power play or an opportunity to further my career or boost my ego. It’s an opportunity to build a coalition and show people the power that they have to make a difference. So as far as I’m concerned, if I host a roundtable discussion that helps people make some connections and learn more about racial justice, then I’ve made the district better. If I start a conversation about the need for more investment in rural school infrastructure, I’ve made the district better. And if I can persuade people to expect more from their elected officials, then I have made the district better.

And as a side effect, it’s entirely possible that the 65th can flip.

My opponent has held this seat for 23 years. For the first 10 years of that period, he had a pretty easy time of it, winning by more than 40 percentage points or running entirely unopposed. But the past few election cycles have shown a shift in the electorate. In 2013, William Quarles was the first Democrat to get more than 25 percent of the vote (he ultimately got slightly over 32%). In the two most recent elections, the Democrat candidate got 35 and 36 percent of the vote.

The winds are changing and Democrats are gaining ground. At the same time, more than half the registered voters in the district don’t usually turn out to vote at all.

This is where a background as an organizer and activist is an advantage: I know how to build coalitions, I know how to connect with people from diverse backgrounds, and I know how to listen to the lived experiences of marginalized communities.

I can’t say for certain why most voters in this district don’t vote, but data from FiveThirtyEight suggests generally that people stay home on election day for a few reasons. Some of them are happy with the current leadership, and since their preferred candidate already has power, they don’t think they need to show up. Some just don’t like their choice of candidates. And most of them just don’t feel like their voice can make a difference.

My job, then, is to give them an opportunity to prove themselves wrong. I have to win their respect as a candidate that they can trust to have their best interests in mind. I have to point to all the recent victories around workers’ rights, public safety, education, and more that were made possible by the people showing up to lobby their elected officials. And I have to convince them that even if they may not agree with me on every issue, that I will not ignore or dismiss their positions when the time comes to cast a vote. In short, I get to run a campaign doing all the things I love: Talking to people, facilitating conversations, getting to know my potential constituents’ life stories and how their lived experience has shaped their belief systems. I’m no Pollyanna - I realize that it’s likely that I’ll lose this election. But in the words of the civil rights hero Fannie Lou Hamer, “If I fall, I'll fall five feet four inches forward in the fight for freedom. I'm not backing off.”

Neither am I. Because we have better ideas, we have more at stake, and there are more change-makers and believers in justice than old-guard establishment politicians here in Virginia.

If you want to help me in my fight to build a movement in the 65th and beyond, please donate to my campaign here:

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