Virginia Democrats send message to statehouse candidates

Virginia Democrats send message to statehouse candidates
Image via Screengrab.

One of the likeliest pickup districts in Virginia this cycle is Virginia Beach's 84th District, where the Republican incumbent won by just 500 votes in 2019. Now that the incumbent is running for higher office, the seat is wide open. Luckily, Democrats have a solid candidate in Tracie Liguid, a Filipino American who is also a very popular Democratic activist and educator, well-known within the area's large immigrant community.

Liguid is up against a woman named Kim Melnyk in the Democratic primary. While there's nothing wrong with a little competition—except for the fact that, in the words of the Virginia GOP, Melnyk is "one of the region's most prominent Republican women." Yet when faced with a choice between supporting a progressive woman of color or a longtime Republican, Democratic leaders are backing the longtime Republican. Liguid says that the president of a teachers' union even pressured her to drop out in order to give Melnyk—vice chair on the Virginia Beach school board—a clear path. She allegedly offered Liguid a spot on the union board in exchange, which Liguid declined.

Elsewhere in the Commonwealth, three progressive Black candidates seeking to primary long-term incumbents in very deep blue districts were just blocked from the ballot. Further, there's evidence that the more "establishment" candidates were given preferential help.

This stacking of the deck is not just a slap in the face to the thousands of diverse progressives responsible for the recent Democratic waves in Virginia; it's also a losing strategy. Virginia Democratic officials seem more concerned about protecting their incumbents than giving their constituents a voice. One can always expect Republicans to disenfranchise voters, but it's a whole other situation when it comes from our own leadership.

The Virginia Department of Elections, led by Democratic Chair Robert Brink, disqualified three progressive House of Delegates candidates this cycle: Dr. Michael Jones, Matt Rogers, and Cydny Neville. All three are people of color, and each one was running against a long-term incumbent in a deep blue district. The state board has routinely granted candidates extensions to solve paperwork issues during a 10-day grace period allowed under Virginia law. Just last year, in fact, Brink allowed several candidates to fix their paperwork—including two Republicans.

One of those Republicans, Nick Frietas, made the same mistake two years in a row. Another GOP candidate, insurrection supporter Bob Good, missed the filing deadline completely. Yet way back in 2020, Brink argued that not granting an extension to these men would be expensive and "draconian."

"Doing that would run counter to my personal belief that, as much as possible, we ought to permit access to the ballot and let the voters decide," he said.

This year, however, three primary candidates' ballot access were cancelled without any open deliberation or a vote by the three-member panel. As a result, the career incumbents in these Democratic districts—each serving over 10 years—get a free ride to the general election. So much for letting the voters decide.

I should point out that five Caucasian candidates were also disqualified for errors; however, each of those candidates will be able to appear on the ballot this cycle. How? In Virginia, if a person is the only candidate filed for their state party in a district, they become the candidate by acclamation, regardless of when they finish their paperwork. As you can imagine, this is a big boon for incumbents who don't have primary challengers. Only Black candidates were disqualified this cycle.

Several Democratic candidates running this cycle, including Idris O'Connor, Jennifer Adeli, and Tara Orlando, all formally called on the Department of Elections to reverse their decision and treat all candidates equally.

Election paperwork in Virginia, by the way, is needlessly complicated, and seemingly designed to make running for office as hard as possible. There are no fewer than three statement of candidacy forms required; each essentially just states a person wants to run for office. One form's set of instructions advise the would-be candidate to send it to Richmond, yet doesn't give an address.

One denied primary candidate, Neville, wanted to run in HD-52 in Prince William County. She says officials called her on March 26 to confirm she was on the ballot. On April 6, after the filing deadline had passed, Neville, a town councilwoman, was informed that she would not be on the ballot. She found it particularly maddening because an extension was granted to a candidate who ran in a January special election in nearby HD-02. In fact, the state board called an emergency meeting to consider that candidate's request for an extension in that election.

Another candidate who was denied ballot access, Rogers, was running for HD-47 in Arlington County. Rogers told Daily Kos he was disqualified because the state board claimed they never received two forms: the Statement of Economic Interest (SOEI) and the Certificate of Candidate Qualification (CCQ). Rogers, a legislative aide who is very familiar with the paperwork required, firmly asserts that he did submit those forms, although he said he might have filed them too far ahead—months in advance of the deadline.

Meanwhile, a FOIA request confirmed that rumors of certain candidates getting preferential treatment had merit. In one FOIA document, Shyam Raman, political director of the Virginia Dems, asked Elections Supervisor Paul Sanders to send regularly updated lists, tracking which Democratic candidates had submitted their SOEI and CCQ forms.

Yet certain candidates did miss out.

The FOIA request also uncovered spreadsheets tracking each candidate's compliance specifically for the forms at the heart of Rogers' disqualification. Party officials told The Nation's Joan Walsh that they weren't tracking them.

I was told there was no such operation; Democratic Party staffers had merely helped with internal party business, including verifying nominating petitions, but not with whether candidates had filed their state-mandated Certificate of Candidate Qualifications (CCQ) or Statement of Economic Interest (SOEI), also known as an ethics statement.

The Democratic Party was indeed tracking this information, but word never came down to the Rogers campaign. State board officials told Rogers they couldn't inform him because they didn't have his email. This struck Rogers as quite odd since all filings must include email, phone number, and address. Rogers goes into more detail in his own post on Daily Kos, but suffice to say he won't be on the ballot this cycle.

Another FOIA request by the NAACP turned up how many times extensions were granted in the past.

Meanwhile, back in Virginia Beach, progressive Liguid announced her candidacy. Soon afterwards, she had a surprising challenger.

Virginia does not ask its citizens to register to vote by party affiliation, but Melnyk was, by all accounts, an active, hardcore Republican. She voted exclusively in GOP primaries from 1996 to 2020. Public finance records also show that she donated to a Republican political action committee as recently as 2018; there is no record of her donating anything to any Democratic PAC or candidate. In fact, Liguid is accusing her of funding her current campaign with money raised from GOP donors.

Melnyk and her husband do have a solid record of financially supporting Republican candidates, though. Jason Miyares, a right-wing Trumpist vying for the Republican nomination for attorney general, proudly listed Melnyk as a supporter.

Melnyk also supported the candidacy of far right-winger and birther Ben Loyola, who thankfully lost to the Democratic candidate last June. Loyola openly questioned Obama's citizenship, called healthcare coverage "socialism," and wanted to eliminate the Department of Education. Yet Melnyk was listed on his campaign website as having endorsed him.

Melnyk was also recognized by the Republican Party of Virginia Beach as one of their top "women leaders."

Kim Melnyk being recognized as a Republican Women's Leader in Virginia Beach.

Melnyk may be running in a Democratic primary, but she doesn't sound much like a Democrat. For example, any Democrat should know that the deceptively named "right-to-work" laws attack worker protections, decrease job safety, increase income inequality, and weaken the voice of the worker. That's why corporate interests fight so hard for them.

Yet during a debate, after uncomfortable questions were asked about her strong ties to the Virginia GOP, Melnyk dodged easy questions like this one:

No, the correct answer is, "I will vote to repeal."

To be fair, Melnyk says she is now a Democrat, who agrees with Democratic values. That's well and good—welcome to the left!—but it seems odd that the state party would back a newcomer over the more progressive Liguid, who has actually worked hard to elect Democrats.

Virginia Beach progressives are not happy. Gary McCollum, a member of the Virginia Beach Interdenominational Ministers Conference and a former state senate candidate, put it bluntly: "The days of telling Black folks, people of color, and other marginalized communities who will be their leaders are over. A rushed endorsement of Ms. Melnyk is not only a relic of the old Virginia, it is also an injustice to the voters of the 84th district."

McCollum has pointed out that progressive candidates of color have traditionally not been supported by what he calls the "so-called moderate or establishment elements of the Virginia Democratic Party," and lists examples. The current governor, Ralph Northam, is a former Virginia Beach state senator who supported the Republican incumbent for sheriff over his progressive Black challenger. In 2017, a Black candidate in Virginia Beach received no money from the House Democratic caucus, but came within 742 votes of winning. The following election, when a Caucasian candidate was vying for the same seat, she received significant funding.

Even though Liguid is an educator, she claims the president of the Virginia Beach Education Association, Kelly Walker, degraded her and tried to persuade her to drop out of the race to give a clear path for Melnyk, who is vice chair on the Virginia Beach school board. Liquid refused, and Walker offered Liguid a position on the union board, which she promptly declined. The offer is discussed in emails reviewed by Daily Kos.

Progressive activists are not the enemy, and we don't have radical ideas. We believe in a living wage, the right to organize in unions, having the wealthy pay their fair share, investment in infrastructure, access to health care, and treating everyone equally and with dignity. There is nothing radical about this, and our policies are popular.

The GOP is a powerful enough foe, so there's no need to make enemies out of our own voters, much less the people brave enough to run for office. That's a recipe for ruin. One needs to look no further than the Democratic Party of Florida to see where that strategy leads you. My state party tries to run an incumbent protection racket of its own: Our leaders sabotage primary challenges as well. Heck, they even sabotage progressives who run for seats held by Republicans. As a result, our state party is in disarray; even though our state has more Democrats than Republicans, we have a legislature that is more right-wing than Alabama's.

It wasn't always this way. Florida politics were long dominated by Democrats up through the 1990s until they lost control with infighting, which led to apathy among our voters. Republicans pounced, and once they had control, spent their time consolidating their power through gerrymanders, assaults on voting rights, and stacking the courts. I never thought I'd see Florida so red, but then again, I never thought I'd see Virginia so blue.

Progressive organizations and candidates have delivered in Virginia, so I urge the state Democratic leaders to work with them instead of fighting them. Let Florida's mistakes be a warning that must be heeded.


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