Followers of politics may be focused on the 2020 Presidential election, but here in Virginia there’s still 2019. In one month all 140 state lawmakers are up for election and party control of the state house is at stake.
You’d be forgiven for not recognizing Virginia’s most powerful Republican. He was wearing plastic gloves and handing out Little Caesar’s pizza.
“Cheese or pepperoni?” Kirk Cox asked a young boy during a pizza and movie night his campaign hosted at the ballpark in downtown Colonial Heights.
Cox has been the delegate for this area for three decades. This event is one of several used to meet voters as he runs for re-election. Sitting in the crowd, one area resident described him as a “wonderful home-town boy.”
Before “The Sandlot” played on the big screen, Cox took the microphone. He was introduced as “our delegate.”
And while he may be “our delegate” to this community, to Virginia at-large he’s Speaker of the House. He’s the leader who compromised in order to pass Medicaid expansion, who raised teacher pay in the most recent budget, and who shut down a special legislative session on gun control.
Now he’s fighting to keep this seat in one of the only competitive races he’s run since he was first elected in 1989.
“My first race I was a heavy underdog,” recalled Cox. “I was a young school teacher the first time I ran, given almost no chance to win.
Adding to the challenge this year is a new district. A judge ruled the seat was racially gerrymandered and ordered new lines. By one estimate, the district is now a third more Democratic.
“I see it as a challenge to really, in the new district, to get to know people and to serve them,” Cox said. “That’s what we’re here for. We’re public servants.”
Because Virginia has off-year elections, political pundits watch the state to gauge how national politics may play out the following year. For instance a blue wave in 2017 decimated the Republican's super-majority in the General Assembly. The GOP held the majority 51-49. They won one seat by random drawing.
Then in 2018 Democrats took back control of the House of Representatives, a similar blue wave at the federal level.
And if Virginia is a bellwether for the country, come election night this race may be a bellwether for the state.
Democrat Sheila Bynum-Coleman is running against Cox. During a recent visit to Union Branch Baptist Church she told the congregation she could be the first black woman to unseat a sitting Speaker of the House.
The pastor had her stand before him.
“Today is a good day just to surround one sister in belief... for her and with her,” he said. He called on every woman in the sanctuary to stand with her. They encircled her, heads bowed.
For Bynum-Coleman it was an emotional moment.
“I could just feel the energy of everyone around me. People holding my hand and hugging me,” she said in an interview after.
She says she's felt the same energy knocking doors.
“All of this lack of action on issues that are important to the people and the community is creating so much excitement, so much positive energy,” she said.
Bynum-Coleman has never held elected office, she’s a small business owner and resident of Chesterfield. If elected, she says she’ll support the equal rights amendment, criminal justice reform, and gun control.
“We are starting to change as a country. We’re starting to look different. We’re starting to feel different,” Bynum-Coleman said. “And we’re starting to see things happen that we’ve never seen before.”
Charry Brown is a Democrat and member of Union Branch Baptist. She knows a lot is at stake this November. She was one of the women who came to stand before the pastor.
“It felt as if we were a part, are a part, of a shift... a movement,” Brown said. “It felt like a very powerful prayer.”
The next test for Bynum-Coleman will be turning those prayers into votes. Historically, turnout in Virginia’s off year elections is low, around 30-percent. That’s favored incumbent Republicans.