How Chesterfield Became a Blue County

Kim Drew Wright

This is how Liberal Women of Chesterfield County & Beyond helped turned our county blue in a gubernatorial race for the first time since 1961. Now, this past year I conquered my fear of public speaking through a compulsion that the message is larger than myself, or any one of us. In just the two weeks prior to the Hanover speech, I introduced the former Vice Presidential candidate, Tim Kaine, to a crowd of about 200, went head-to-head with Trump supporters on CNN New Day, and shouted “We’re coming for your seats” to Virginia House Delegates at the close of a Privileges & Elections Committee where they refused to vote on the Equal Rights Amendment bills. That’s a drastic transition, and, yet, when I took the stage in a room at Ashland Coffee and Tea that Saturday morning, I became flustered and nervous. I had jotted down notes beforehand, had conversations with myself about strategies we’d used during election season…but the fact is, that even though I’ve lived 24/7 the grassroots efforts of 2017 – there is still no easy answer.

The magic equation is not just a summation of number of doors knocked and dollars raised, but more of an algebraic formula of structure and attitude that equals a shift in culture from “this is a chore we’ve got to get people to do” to “this is who I am.” And, even that abstract is not abstract enough because there is so much more, psychologically, working behind the scenes. It’s a shift from no longer searching for volunteers during election season to canvass and work the polls, to growing a base of folks for whom politics has become interwoven in their daily lives. We’re collecting a community whose members are proud to be a part of the effort to move forward in our county, in our state, and in our nation. We are changing from a slogan of “Proud Democrat” to a gut reaction of “Damn straight I’m a Democrat. Why the hell aren’t you one?” That cannot be calculated in numbers, but more in layers.So, how are we harnessing this cultural shift in Chesterfield?

First, let’s look at STRUCTURE. Liberal Women of Chesterfield County & Beyond was never meant to be solely an online presence. At its core it was meant for face-to-face interaction and likeminded support during a time of extreme stress for many Democrats, especially women who saw a misogynistic narcissist steal the presidency out of the hands of a highly qualified woman. What many thought would be an historic first for the advancement of women in both politics and leadership roles, became a trigger of past hurts and harms. We were devastated, but we rapidly funneled our anger into action. We are an overall group of thousands; however, we have smaller meet-up groups structured by location or advocacy.

Our neighborhood groups are based on elementary school districts, as most people are familiar with their school district but, perhaps, not their voting districts. We have found that it’s an organic way to organize. We, also, have advocacy groups based on specific interests, such as, LGBTQ rights, environmental concerns, religious tolerance, immigration laws, and women rights. Overall, we currently have 25 smaller meet-up groups, which MULTLIPLIES our efforts in the following ways.  I’m going to speak mostly to the neighborhood groups in this section. Some hold standing weekly coffees, others have monthly dinners, and some go on field trips. They invite educational speakers, initiate volunteer projects, and advance our LWCC name into the community. So instead of one group pushing our efforts, we have multiplied it by 25 to reach likeminded voters and project a positive image into our communities.

Candidates often participate in these meet-ups, which gives our members a chance to learn more about their positions and, also, benefits the candidates through the opportunity to practice speaking and answering questions while engaging with possible campaign volunteers. This helps members feel like they know their candidate. The frequent meetings and project efforts help form a BOND between members and bring in new members who see the groups in local coffee shops, restaurants, and libraries. This mix of social and action seems to be a winning combination.These groups sponsor a lot of our LWCC community project efforts. An example of this is our High School food pantry project. When our Education Advocacy group collected money to payoff lunch debt at a local high school, we learned through the cafeteria manager that their food pantry for needy teens did not get the attention of younger kids’ programs and often needed replenishing.

We encourage our leaders to think beyond the band aide fix, to the larger picture. Is there legislation that needs to be written? Is there a larger initiative to begin? One of our neighborhood leaders started a collection of food items for their pantry, and once it was filled, decided this was something we could easily connect and achieve for all the high schools in our county. This is a great benefit for our children, and, at the same time, puts a positive narrative out there connected with “liberal.” Which leads us to our next layer, COMMUNICATION. I had a hard time deciding between VISIBILITY and communication for this section. One of the goals for LWCC is to change the negative connotation that is often associated with the term “liberal.” I think the way to do this is to own the term and create a positive narrative through a multiple of ways. Early on we designed a logo and added our tagline, which came from our first meeting in November 2016 – Each of our causes is all of our causes. We put our logo on car magnets and t-shirts. We wore them in parades and smiled. I joked that it was the first time “liberal” and “Chesterfield” had ever been put together. I’m sure at first it was a shock to neighbors, but eventually, like all things seen often, people grow accustomed to it and it seems less strange.

We went to Board of Supervisor meetings, held events, volunteered at schools and food banks, and were involved in our local politics visibly enough that the local paper, The Chesterfield Observer, long dominated by conservative articles, began to take notice and write articles with quotes from our members. There was a battle for turf back-and-forth in the letter to the editor section. We were becoming part of the fabric of Chesterfield County in a way staunch conservatives could no longer ignore. LWCC held larger events that our members were interested in, like an environmental or candidate forum. We teamed up with already existing groups like the Chesterfield County Democratic Committee or a local branch of NAACP to co-sponsor events. We created a team to register voters, which continuously looks for ways to gain more voters throughout the year. We spotlight our candidates through Money Bombs that feature them as community members and suggests direct contributions to their campaigns. We write articles for Democrat blogs like Daily Kos, which is a good platform for Democrats around the nation to gain interest and knowledge about our local races. Our ATTITUDE in early 2017 changed from, “Do we have a candidate running?” to “Who is going to run? Because if you’re not going to, then I will.” We were no longer thinking that this is someone else’s job and we could slide by without worrying or even noticing that there are races every year in Virginia.

For the first time in the history of the current eight House Districts that comprise Chesterfield County, we ran a candidate. At least one of the Republican incumbents had not had a challenger in two decades. We were no longer waiting for permission, either. LWCC worked with a local print shop to print 50,000 GOTV cards that listed the positions up for election, the voting date, and how critical it was for you to go vote. We held educational workshops on how to canvass. We pushed our neighborhood groups to canvass with our GOTV cards. We tried to let people know that it is okay not to know everything about how local government works and that we are all learning together so folks don’t feel intimidated. We found that while many Democrats might not even be interested in talking about candidates or positions, they were, usually, intrigued by our new group and would stop and chat about being a part of it.  This became a good inroad for a larger conversation about our candidates and overall efforts.We were FLEXIBLE. We encouraged members to volunteer with individual campaigns, the coordinated campaigns, and our own LWCC efforts. We held a canvassing contest between groups and members. We thought of new ways of doing tasks. For the sign up to work the polls on Election Day, we created a Sign Up Genius, which many mothers of school-aged children are familiar with since it is often used through volunteer efforts in the schools. Folks picked their polling place and time slots. The link could be easily shared for more volunteers to access.

We had, at least partial, coverage at all the 72 polling places in Chesterfield County for the first time. LWCC is NOT JUST ABOUT ELECTIONS, but rather, about all aspects of how politics affect our lives. After the elections, when many folks were gearing down, we were gearing up by teaching members how to advocate for specific issues through communication with their legislators. We held our first LWCC Lobby Day on the second day of the General Assembly. We congratulated our new legislators and introduced ourselves to the incumbents. We encouraged members to attend and witness government sessions from local committee meetings to the state level. We want members to be aware of how our government is functioning, and to consider running for these seats. Our REACH has grown and grown. We are determined to get our message of moving forward to those in Chesterfield and beyond. Our members have written tens of thousands of postcards for different races and causes. Many of these have been accomplished during the smaller group meet-ups. I am in talks with Postcards for Virginia to see about how we can, possibly, team up to reach potential voters across the entire state for GOTV. We believe in CONNECTING with likeminded groups and working together where it makes sense. There is no need to reinvent the wheel, but that doesn’t mean the wheel couldn’t use some improvement. Liberal Women of Chesterfield County & Beyond now has an umbrella name of Liberal Women United that is focused on developing branches around the United States.

We, currently, have 13 applicants, with our first official branch being Liberal Women of Central Wisconsin.  I hope that if you’ve read this far, you will agree, that while this is a somewhat abstract list of how to accomplish our goals, it is, also, a solid springboard for advancing our causes throughout whichever community you call home. Early on, I heard the phrase, “I thought I was the only liberal in Chesterfield,” over and over from people. While we have learned many things this past year, perhaps the most empowering is that we are not alone, and with that knowledge, we have grown unafraid. We don’t have to be quiet anymore, because we have a community of likeminded folks willing to speak up with us.