Down in the southern part of Chesterfield County, just north of the Appomattox River, Sheila Bynum-Coleman is likely to find some of the voters she’ll need to cross the threshold on Election Day in her bid to unseat House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights.
Door-knocking there on a recent Saturday, Bynum-Coleman left door tags at the homes of “low-turnout Democrats” — people her campaign thinks are likely to support her if enthusiasm or duty ushers them to the polls.
At one door, 78-year-old Shirley Barksdale stepped out, waving her arms enthusiastically. The candidate had recently spoken at her church. She asked for a quick hug and promised Bynum-Coleman her vote.
This stretch of Chesterfield — which includes the majority-black community of Ettrick and Virginia State University — shifted into the 66th House District this year after federal judges imposed a new map in Virginia’s long-running racial gerrymandering case.
Out went rural areas flanking the eastern and western parts of the district. In came parts of northern Chesterfield, from just south of state Route 288 up to the Richmond line.
The moves tilted the 66th in Democrats’ favor, making vulnerable its 30-year incumbent and giving Democrats an opening — one that left-leaning groups nationwide have sought to quickly seize.
Cox became speaker of the House in January 2018, succeeding Bill Howell, R-Stafford, who retired after 15 years as speaker, the second-longest tenure in the post in Virginia history. A speaker controls the House and shapes its policies by assigning legislators and bills to particular committees.
With redrawn boundaries making the 66th and a handful of other GOP-held seats more competitive for Democrats, Cox is at risk of having one of the shortest tenures as speaker in modern Virginia history, along with Republican Vance Wilkins, speaker from 2000 to 2002, and Democrat Edwin P. Cox, who held the post from 1914 to 1916.
To date, Cox’s signature move as speaker might be his decision to support Medicaid expansion after opposing it for almost five years. The move came after Democrats picked up 15 seats in the 2017 House elections. Cox pushed for conservative Medicaid reforms, including a work requirement that may now have hit a snag with the federal government balking at paying for services to help people find jobs.
Since winning the House seat in a close race in 1989, Cox faced a Democratic opponent just three times between 1991 and 2017. None of those rivals topped 40 percent.
But the new 66th is now 53% Democratic, a redistricting swing to the left of 32 percentage points, the largest move toward Democrats of any district in the new map, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. The nonprofit estimates 32,000 people shifted into the 66th from other districts, including Bynum-Coleman, who previously twice ran against Del. Riley Ingram, R-Hopewell, in the 62nd District.
Despite the changes, Cox says he feels at home in the district as he did in its previous configuration. He says that over his three decades as a delegate in Chesterfield, and a few decades before that as a teacher and local resident, he’s had broad interaction with people in the area.
One morning while canvassing, Cox says, a man who had come in and out the 66th over the years reminded him: “You knocked on my door 20 years ago.”
Among Cox’s main campaign messages is that he is a longtime local, one with the know-how and influence to address the local and even personal issues his constituents face. His ads have sought to paint him as a youth baseball coach, another neighbor.
At a recent campaign oyster roast, a local woman who volunteers for Cox described her work in his office like this: She combs through the local newspapers for articles about people in Cox’s district. She cuts them out of the pages and shuffles them to Cox for a personalized note and signature.
“Most of the time they are not related to politics, mostly youth sports, somebody’s got a new business,” said Jane Dunn, a longtime Republican who was shifted out of Cox’s district during redistricting. “He signs it, writes a note, and I mail it.”
A graduate of Monacan High School in Midlothian, Bynum-Coleman is a homegrown local, too. But at the center of her message is what she describes as an urgent fight against “corporations and special interests,” which she says control the Republican establishment Cox leads.
During a recent candidate forum, where she argued in favor of raising the state’s $7.25-an-hour minimum wage, Bynum-Coleman said that celebrations of Virginia being ranked “No. 1 for business” should come with demands for it to be a great state for workers, too.
“We can’t be in a place where businesses are thriving but the people are not,” Bynum-Coleman said.
If his role as House speaker isn’t front-and-center for Cox, it is for Bynum-Coleman. She is quick to remind people that Cox led Republicans in the fight against the legal challenge to the districts that took effect in 2011, taking the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In June, the Supreme Court dismissed the GOP appeal, ruling that one legislative chamber couldn’t continue to challenge a court decision the state’s attorney general had accepted.
Her message against Republicans also focuses on gun control legislation, on the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, on sexual orientation anti-discrimination laws, on abortion access, and again, the raising of the minimum wage.
Republicans hold a 51-48 edge in the House and a 20-19 edge in the Senate, with one vacancy in each chamber. If Virginia Democrats take the House and the Senate, they would have complete control of state government for the first time in 26 years.
It’s an enticing proposition for liberal and progressive groups, which have poured money into Virginia’s legislative races. Four states are holding legislative elections this year — Virginia, New Jersey, Louisiana and Mississippi — but Virginia is the only state where party control of a statehouse is up for grabs.
An analysis by VPAP found that out-of-state contributions for Democrats have tripled compared with 2015, the last time all General Assembly seats were up for election. Democrats’ fundraising generally has seen a boost, with in-state fundraising excluding corporate and special-interest contributions nearly doubling.
Out-of-state fundraising by Republicans, which was higher than that for Democrats in 2015, has also increased, but not as much. Through Aug. 31, Democrats’ out-of-state dollars add up to $3.4 million, or 15 percent of what the party has raised. Republicans’ add up to $2.4 million, or 12 percent of what they have raised.
It has helped make the race for the 66th House District one of the most expensive races this cycle. Cox raised $390,453 in July and August — the last reporting period — compared with Bynum-Coleman’s haul of $330,347.
Cox held the advantage in cash on hand, with $590,172 to Bynum-Coleman’s $341,463.
“We’ve raised the money we need,” Cox said in an interview. “But [Democrats] have so much out-of-state money; that’s not just Sheila. It’s a TV ad, mail piece, social media race. It’s going to be a really expensive race.”
Bynum-Coleman has received contributions from national groups like the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence; the National Democratic Redistricting Committee run by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder; Emily’s List; the environmental group Green Advocacy Project; and others.
She has received contributions from individuals like Oscar-winning actress Patricia Arquette, who lives in Hollywood, Calif., and Tom Steyer, the billionaire and 2020 Democratic presidential long shot.
Aside from direct contributions to Bynum-Coleman, groups like the Human Rights Campaign have pledged on-the-ground support, and so have unions like 1199SEIU, which represents health care workers but has no units in Virginia.
“There’s a lot of excitement coming from across the nation, all over Virginia,” Bynum-Coleman said in an interview. “So many people are excited and know about it. They want to see something done.”
The two candidates both have promised to work toward raising teacher salaries to the national average, and both have said they support freezing college tuition.
During a candidate forum Wednesday — Cox’s first in decades — the two candidates parted ways on the minimum wage.
Cox said he did not support raising the state’s minimum wage or repealing its right-to-work law (which says participation in a union may not be a condition for employment), arguing that both stances attract business to Virginia and grow its economy. “When the economy is good, obviously people are much better off,” he said at the ChamberRVA event.
Bynum-Coleman said the current minimum wage is too low and contributes to low wages across the board.
“The current minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, and no one can take care of a family with $7.25 an hour,” Bynum-Coleman said. “A rising tide lifts all boats. … Raising the minimum wage will allow people to be in a better position to pay their rent and power bill.”
Bynum-Coleman said she does not agree with the state’s right-to-work law and thinks the state should have a commission take a look at the issue.
On gun control, an issue on which the Virginia elections could serve as a bellwether nationally, Cox and Bynum-Coleman also parted.
A recent Washington Post-Schar School poll found that 3 out of 4 voters find gun policy a “very important” election issue and that majorities support Democrat-backed proposals like limits on gun purchases and a ban on bump stocks.
“I’ve talked to thousands of people, Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians … who said they support universal background checks,” said Bynum-Coleman, adding she supports giving localities a say but that the state needs to legislate in the area.
Cox said that a lot of bills he and other Republicans supported in past sessions to combat gun violence led to more school resource officers in schools. “A lot of bills fell into the mental health piece,” he said.
In an earlier interview, Cox said he “gets tired” of criticism levied toward Republicans over the 90-minute special session on guns July 9 that saw no votes on legislation.
“I think gun violence is a serious problem, but the rights of lawful gun owners are important,” Cox said. He said that referring bills to the state’s crime commission for study and planning to reconvene Nov. 18 was a good way forward. “We’ll come back and look at it after the elections.”