Can Leslie Cockburn beat Tom Garrett in the red 5th District?

Leslie Cockburn will be nominated the Democratic challenger to Congressman Tom Garrett in Farmville May 5. Photo by Natalie Jacobsen Leslie Cockburn will be nominated the Democratic challenger to Congressman Tom Garrett in Farmville May 5. Photo by Natalie Jacobsen

She frequently wears a green quilted vest—and her campaign has high production values, perhaps fitting for a former “60 Minutes” producer. Two weeks before the 5th District Democratic convention May 5 in Farmville, and after 23 caucuses, Leslie Cockburn amassed the most delegates in a field of four candidates to be the presumptive nominee.

The question remains: Can she surf the blue wave, relate to rural voters and upset incumbent U.S. Congressman Tom Garrett in a district that was made for Republicans?

And can she unite fellow Democrats who were left feeling bruised from the caucuses?

Cockburn—pronounced “Coe-burn”—is nothing if not self-assured, and she says this year is very different from 2016, when former Albemarle supervisor Jane Dittmar tried to win the district that’s been in GOP hands since Tom Perriello fell in the 2010 midterm elections.

“We have a freshman Republican with a record,” she says. Garrett’s membership in the congressional Freedom Caucus has “alienated a lot of Republicans in the district.” And she says she has more committed Democrats in the district than Republicans do.

“If the switch is going to happen, this is the year it will,” she predicts.

Cockburn describes herself as part of the blue wave of women who woke up to find Donald Trump president. “I was really offended by him,” she says. “And I was alarmed as a journalist,” both at Trump singling out a disabled reporter and taking potshots at the Fourth Estate.

The Rappahannock resident says she was energized by the first Women’s March, and calls it “an amazing day.” A few months later at a Dem breakfast, two local party chairs asked her to run. She spent three months going around the district asking questions, “not as a candidate, but as a journalist,” and learned that health care was “by far the biggest issue for constituents.”

Many people at age 65 are considering slowing down rather than launching a yearlong, seven-day-a-week congressional race. Cockburn pooh-poohs the notion that age will be a factor and notes she was an investigative reporter for 35 years, has covered six wars—including three in Afghanistan—and won 10 awards. “I’m used to a fast pace,” she says.

She swims an hour a day, sails and is a “big hiker,” she says. “I’m a pretty spry 65.”

And she’ll need that energy to woo a congressional district that encompasses more than 10,000 square miles and is larger than New Jersey.

The strategy

In the 11 months that she’s been on the campaign trail, Cockburn has put 45,000 miles on her car. She has 700 volunteers and they’re in every county of the district. “We’ve created an army,” she says, comparing her strategy to that of Barack Obama in 2008.

And in the latest campaign filings, she’d raised more than $700,000, second in the field of four candidates. Roger Dean Huffstetler raised more than $1 million, Andrew Sneathern reports $260,000, and Ben Cullop, the only candidate who has officially withdrawn from the race, raised $288,000, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.

The remaining 5th District Democratic candidates: Leslie Cockburn, Roger Dean Huffstetler and Andrew Sneathern

Around 575 women are running for Congress or state legislatures this year, most of them first-timers. In an April 10 Vanity Fair article, Cockburn details her run for office in “Thank you, Mr. Trump: How the president drove me to run for office.”

When she met with Lisa Hystad, the former 5th District Democratic chair, Cockburn says Hystad told her she had to run as a progressive. The day before, a “seasoned political consultant” told her she had to stick to the middle, she writes in Vanity Fair.

When she introduces herself at the April 21 caucus in Charlottesville, she makes a nod to the conservative rural district: “I’m a farmer, I’m a conservationist, and I’m a woman with a past,” she says before segueing into her work at “60 Minutes,” “Frontline” and Vanity Fair.

She’s learned about the need for Medicaid, for school funding, for nursing homes, for transportation for those who “live in the hollows.” She’s learned about the “plague of opioids—I see it every day on the campaign trail.” And she points out that there are 2,500 open jobs in economically hard-hit Southside, but “people can’t pass a drug test.”

Every candidate will cite the need for jobs in the district, but Cockburn says she’s asked people what specifically can be done—and she will have a plan. For example, in the brewery-rich district, hops do well in certain areas like Madison County.

If elected, Cockburn says the first bill she’d support would be an expansion of Medicare for all. And the second would be an assault weapons ban. “I have a hunting background,” she says. “I have seen weapons of war. They should not be in the hands of an 18-year-old in Florida.”

Cockburn stresses her differences from Garrett, starting with her conservation background. “I’ve thought a lot about the environment,” she says. “He’s right there voting to dismantle the EPA brick by brick.” She cites a stream protection act Garrett helped repeal, and says coal ash in streams is a “big issue in Danville.”

The tax reform bill Garrett voted for will add $1.5 trillion to the deficit, she says. And he wants to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. And then there’s that March 2017 photo of Garrett with “white supremacist leader” Jason Kessler.

In talking to people throughout the district, Cockburn has made videos of the encounters and the issues they bring up.

Republican Congressman Tom Garrett wants a second term, and he has the advantage of a rural, GOP-leaning district. Photo by Eze Amos

She’s talked to veterans in Franklin County who suffer from PTSD.

She’s talked to African-American community members in Buckingham County, where Garrett lives, who are going to have a giant compressor station that “sounds like a locomotive” in a historic district. “Forty-five families are in the blast zone,” she says. “Those are people who desperately need representation.”

Says Cockburn of her opponent, “It’s as if he has no concern for the people in the 5th District.”

The controversies

Cockburn comes from a privileged background, and some wonder if her coastal elite creds will work with the rural voters in the 5th District.

She was born in high-end Hillsborough, California, the daughter of a shipping magnate. And her daughter, actress Olivia Wilde, and her fiance, Jason Sudeikis, bring a Hollywood connection that’s featured in a holiday photo on her website.

“I don’t live in Hollywood,” says Cockburn. “I do have a daughter who is a movie star. That doesn’t make me a movie star.” She points out that she also has a daughter who’s an attorney who focuses on criminal justice—a Harvard-educated attorney, according to her campaign website.

As for her wealth, Cockburn concedes, “I’m a little older than my rivals, so I have a little more assets.” In Congress, that would translate to the low-end of political wealth, she says.

“If anything, I’m land poor,” she continues. “I come from a well-to-do family, but that doesn’t mean they pay for everything.” She recounts that at age 24, she married a “poor Irish writer. My family was Republican and my father said, ‘You’re on your own.’ To call me rich is ridiculous. I have been the breadwinner in my family and I care about equal pay.”

Her husband, Andrew Cockburn, is Washington editor for Harper’s, and the couple have a Washington address, which had some questioning whether she even lives in the district.

The D.C. residence is her husband’s office, she says. They bought their Rappahannock farm 19 years ago, and 12 years ago made it their full-time home.

Andrew Cockburn raised some eyebrows when he tweeted after the first caucuses, “Leslie was defending the environment while others were defending rapists,” a remark that seemed directed at one of her opponents, criminal defense attorney Sneathern.

“I was saddened and disappointed by that,” says Sneathern. “He has apologized and I accepted his apology.”

“Attacking defense attorneys for doing their jobs isn’t something Democrats do—period,” wrote attorney Lloyd Snook on Facebook. He noted that the tweet came down more than 17 hours later.

The Democratic caucus in Charlottesville April 21 packed Burley Middle School. Photo by Natalie Jacobsen

And then there’s the public resignation of Greene County Democratic chair Elizabeth Alcorn, who, in a lengthy public letter, wrote she was resigning because “I have suffered harassment and intimidation from the Leslie Cockburn campaign for months over my insistence to keep the nomination fair and balanced for my voters.”

Alcorn, who served as a Madison County caucus official, took issue with Cockburn staff campaigning at the April 15 caucus, a big no-no, she says, and one of them was sent back to the observer section twice. The next day, she says Cockburn sent an email to the chair of the 5th District committee, Suzanne Long, accusing caucus officials of a “racist incident.”

“I cannot support such a person let alone encourage others in my community to support someone who exhibits behavior no different than politicians we wish to replace,” says Alcorn.

Alcorn says other committee chairs have been harassed by the Cockburn campaign. “I think it’s going to be hard to energize the base when you’ve done a scorched earth with committees,” says Alcorn.

Cockburn says her campaign staff has received praise for its professionalism from a majority of caucus chairs.

Caucus criticism

Many energized 5th District Democrats attended their first caucus in April to elect delegates to attend the May 5 convention in Farmville to choose a congressional candidate, and 23 caucuses were held across the district. A staggering 1,328 registered at Monticello High for Albemarle’s April 16 caucus, and that does not include those who gave up after not being able to find parking.

It turns out that a convention is pretty standard fare for the 5th District, but the ones in the past have not attracted the interest and number of participants as the post-2016 landscape (it’s up to the parties in each district to choose between a caucus and primary). That’s why the 5th District Democratic Committee upped the number of delegates from 2016 to 250 so local caucuses could send more people, says chair Suzanne Long.

The delegates are committed to their candidates for the first ballot, which means that with Leslie Cockburn holding more delegates than her two remaining rivals combined, Long doesn’t see any chance of an upset.

“With the energy in the country, it’s the worst possible way to choose a candidate,” says former Greene County Democratic chair Elizabeth Alcorn. “You don’t get millennials, you don’t get blue collar workers, you don’t get young families. They can’t take three hours off to do a caucus.”

Alcorn calls the process that of the “old guard,” and says Cockburn was nominated by “a very energized old Democratic base,” with most of her supporters “70 and above.”

Republicans will choose their candidates at a June 12 primary.

And a primary would have benefited Roger Dean Huffstetler, who raised over $1 million, says UVA’s Center for Politics Geoffrey Skelley.

For other candidates like Andrew Sneathern and Ben Cullop, who raised significantly less, a convention “levels the playing field,” observes Skelley.

Long believes the Democratic Party of Virginia is going to limit local jurisdictions like the 5th from using a convention in the future because of the time it takes and the potential to disenfranchise voters. “We want to let voters have as much opportunity as possible to participate in the democratic process.”

The Center for Politics agrees. With a 13-hour window to cast a vote, says Skelley, “We think a primary is the best for involving the most people.”

Official 5th District delegate results

Leslie Cockburn 140

Roger Dean Huffstetler 55

Andrew Sneathern 54

Earlysville resident Ben Cullop withdrew from the race after receiving zero delegates at the Albemarle caucus, One delegate is uncommitted.

Fifth District chair Long says she’s sorry to lose Alcorn, but adds, “I don’t think she had experience with the campaigns and caucuses. I’m not making excuses for Cockburn,” but all the candidates were campaigning at the caucuses, she says.

As for whether the inter-party contretemps will affect Cockburn’s challenge of Garrett, says Long, “That’s an excellent question and I wish I was a genie who could answer that.”

Geoffrey Skelley at UVA’s Center for Politics doesn’t think the infighting will be a problem in the general election—unless it continues. “If you’re going to have a kerfuffle, it’s better to have it now.”

And while Skelley and other political junkies were disappointed the convention won’t be contested, Long sees it as an opportunity to have “a unity convention to defeat Tom Garrett.”

The punditocracy

On April 18, the Cook Political Report moved the 5th District from “likely Republican” to “leans Republican.” Sabato’s Crystal Ball still rates the 5th District winner as likely Republican.

Skelley, who is a Crystal Ball associate editor, points out that although Hillary Clinton won Virginia by 5 points in 2016, Donald Trump won the district by 11 points. And in 2017, Democrat Ralph Northam won the governor’s race by 9 points statewide, but GOPer Ed Gillespie took the 5th by 9 points.

“That’s 18 points to the right” of the rest of the state, says Skelley, who adds that Gillespie was a stronger candidate than the current Republican Senate offerings of Corey Stewart and Delegate Nick Freitas.

“It’s not safe for Garrett by any means,” he says, but Cockburn needs several things to win: an environment that brings out an energized base, the top of the ticket—U.S. Senator Tim Kaine—to “totally dismantle the Republican candidate” and a lot of luck.

Garrett outperformed Trump in Albemarle in 2016, and “as an incumbent, could potentially outperform Republicans in the Senate race,” says Skelley.

“From her perspective, she’s got to talk to every Democrat in the district,” says Skelley. “For Cockburn to win, she needs it to be a disproportionate turnout.”

Overall, the environment for Democrats seems good, he says, “but how good is unclear.”

Cockburn seems up for the challenge. “To take on the 5th District is incredibly rewarding,” she says. “It’s in my backyard. I have done the work.”

The strange candidacy of Roger Dean Huffstetler

C-VILLE Weekly has covered a number of elections, and if there’s one thing we hold true, it’s that a candidate running for office always wants publicity.

That was not the case for Roger Dean “RD” Huffstetler, and we’re not just saying that because we were snubbed when he announced his campaign a year ago after barely living in Charlottesville a year, moving here in 2016 when his OB-GYN wife took a position at Sentara Martha Jefferson.

The former Marine and North Carolina native touts his rural roots and parents who struggled with addiction, a background that would resonate in the heavily rural, heavily addicted 5th District. His website notes that he was the first in his family to go to college and that he went to graduate school on the G.I. Bill—but omits that his two graduate degrees are from Harvard.

Huffstetler worked in Silicon Valley for five years, and it was a video from a 2013 Zillabyte launch that had WINA radio host Rob Schilling noticing Huffstetler then did not have the accent as an entrepreneur that he sports in a campaign video.

And then there was the borrow-a-farm blunder for that same campaign video, called “Best I Can.”

The campaign made cold calls to locals with farms to ask if they could use them for the ad shoot, according to the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative news website, which quotes landowner Richard Foxx as saying, “My initial thought was, ‘You’re running for Congress in the 5th District of Virginia and nobody on your staff or that you know is a person with a farm?’ If you get out of Charlottesville, the whole district is rural.”

For that same ad, Huffstetler’s campaign manager, Kevin Zeithaml, put out a call on Facebook to borrow an old Ford pickup for a few hours.

Maybe that’s why rival Andrew Sneathern told C-VILLE, “My F-150 truck is one of the heroes of this campaign.”

Not surprisingly, Huffstetler had not responded to multiple requests for comment from C-VILLE at press time.

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