Voting in Virginia

People vote at Robious Elementary School on Nov. 7 in Midlothian, Virginia, against a backdrop of a mural that art educator Andrew R. Woodward designed and students created for Veterans Day. Among those elected to the House of Delegates was Lee Carter, a democratic socialist who defeated a GOP incumbent. PHOTO BY ASSOCIATED PRESS

Alexa Welch Edlund

When Lee Carter realized that he had defeated an entrenched Republican incumbent and been elected to the Virginia House of Delegates on the Nov. 7 election night that saw Democrats surge in that state and others across the country, the 30-year-old Marine veteran claimed his upset victory. Then he did something that’s uncommon in contemporary American politics.

“There’s a song that comes to mind,” announced the man who had just grabbed a suburban Virginia legislative district away from the Republican Party’s very conservative House majority whip. “Those of you that know, join in!”

Full-throated and enthusiastic, the newly elected legislator began (to the tune of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic"):

"When the union's inspiration through the workers' blood shall run,

"There can be no power greater anywhere beneath the sun;

"Yet what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one,

"For the union makes us strong.

"Solidarity forever, solidarity forever, solidarity forever

"For the union makes us strong."

The crowd did join in, raising their voices in a celebratory rendering of the workers’ anthem in a show of enthusiasm for a new politics.

And for an old politics that is coming back.

Carter is a democratic socialist who ran with strong support from Democratic Socialists of America.

The Virginian was one of many candidates who was inspired by the 2016 presidential campaign of another democratic socialist, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who celebrated Carter’s victory by declaring: “Lee Carter's victory in the Virginia House of Delegates — where he unseated the incumbent Republican majority whip — shows beyond doubt that the American people are ready for change. Carter ran on the issues that our political revolution cares the most about — Medicare for all, eliminating the influence of corporate money in politics, building a grass-roots progressive movement, and fighting back against the reactionary GOP agenda. This is our path forward. Real change will come from the bottom up.”

Carter’s unapologetically socialist and passionately populist candidacy unsettled establishment Democrats in Virginia, to such an extent that Richmond Times Dispatch political writer Patrick Wilson reported in late October that the challenger had been “abandoned” by the party brass.

“Carter, 30, a former Marine who grew up in Elizabeth City, N.C., is the kind of rogue candidate that gives an apparatus like the Democratic Party of Virginia a fit as the party makes an offensive against Republican House of Delegates incumbents across Northern Virginia and in a few other parts of the state,” explained the late-October report on the abandonment.

That explanation had a lot to do with corporate power, and its influence on both major parties.

“The (Virginia) Democratic Party establishment is aligned with Dominion Energy, a regulated monopoly, and supportive of Dominion’s desire to build the Atlantic Coast natural gas pipeline across Virginia. Like their GOP counterparts, the Democrats are recipients of the cash Virginia’s top corporate political contributor pumps into the system, and the Democratic Party of Virginia received $125,000 in 2016, according to the Virginia Public Access Project,” explained Wilson. “Carter opposes its plan for a natural gas pipeline and opposed its plan for a high-voltage transmission line that was to go through residential neighborhoods in Prince William County; the plan has stalled under local resistance. Environmentalists oppose the pipeline plan, with some questioning whether Atlantic Coast is necessary for Virginia’s power needs.”

Carter said of the party establishment: “I’m to the left of them on economic policy. I am unabashedly pro-union, pro-worker. I’m openly fighting against the large corporate interests. That’s something that you don’t see a lot of politicians in either party do very much of.”

It’s a good thing Carter kept the faith. His victory was critical for Democrats, who picked up enough seats to position themselves on the verge of taking charge of the House of Delegates for the first time in almost two decades.

Carter recognized something that elite Democrats did not. Voters are far readier for a politics that pushes to the left on economic and social policy. And they are not particularly bothered by the word “socialist.” Carter’s Republican opponent sent voters a pre-election mailer juxtaposing the Marine veteran’s image with those of Soviet leaders such as Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Lenin and China’s Mao Tse-Tung. The word “Socialism” was splashed across the front of the red leaflet.

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The attack fell flat. Carter won with ease. And he was not alone. After the Nov. 7 election, Democratic Socialists of America announced that its membership “now includes 15 new elected officials. This is in addition to 20 elected already in offices around the United States.”

From Peekskill, New York, to Moorhead, Minnesota, to Pleasant Hill, Iowa, to Knoxville, Tennessee, and Billings, Montana, DSA members won. The list of democratic socialist victories was striking — the longest in decades. But it was not unprecedented.

While Carter’s critics attacked his candidacy by comparing him with foreign dictators, democratic socialism has deep roots in the United States in general and Wisconsin in particular. A century ago, candidates of the Socialist Party of Eugene Victor Debs and Norman Thomas regularly swept local elections in cities such as Milwaukee, which elected the first big-city Socialist mayor, Emil Seidel, in 1910, and later elected Socialist Mayors Dan Hoan and Frank Zeidler. In cities such as Manitowoc, Racine, Wausau and West Allis, as well as Milwaukee, Socialists served as mayors, city attorneys, city council members, county supervisors, sheriffs and judges.

Wisconsin sent the first Socialist Party member to the U.S. Congress, Victor Berger, and from the 1910s through the 1930s, Socialists were frequently better represented in the Wisconsin Legislature than Democrats.

Now, a democratic socialist will serve in the Virginia legislature.

If this year’s surge in the numbers of elected socialists serves as a signal, the elections of 2018 could fill legislative seats in other states with a good many more champions of a democratic socialist tradition, which has its deepest roots in Wisconsin.

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com and @NicholsUprising

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Associate Editor of the Cap Times