The reliably Democratic 57th District rarely makes for an exciting horse race. Once a delegate, always a delegate, as David Toscano and Mitch Van Yahres before him proved, each easily holding on to the seat representing Charlottesville and the Albemarle urban ring as long as he chose.
Not this year.
Newcomer Sally Hudson upended the tradition of politely waiting until the incumbent decides not to seek reelection, and jumped into the race before House Minority Leader Toscano announced in February he was retiring after this term.
And she brought a $100,000 donation from philanthropist Sonjia Smith into the race with her.
City Councilor Kathy Galvin, after serving two terms on council, decided she’d make a run for Richmond as well.
For the first time in the district, two women want to take the reins on a state level.
Center for Politics pundit Larry Sabato lives in the 57th District, but says he hasn’t followed the race because “Donald Trump and his tweets and bizarre presidency absorb my days.” He does offer this:
“In an era when someone like Donald Trump, with zero governmental and military experience, could get elected president, the old traditions don’t even exist anymore.”
In 2017, Virginia held the first state election after Trump was elected, and saw a surge of women running for office. Democrats took 15 seats in the House of Delegates and Republicans watched their 66-34 majority in the House whittled down to an almost even split. (The GOP narrowly held on to its majority after a Republican’s name was drawn out of a bowl in the tied 94th District race, to make it 51-49.)
This election pits Hudson, 30, an economist who moved here from Boston three years ago, against Galvin, 63, an architect who has lived in Charlottesville 35 years.
Hudson teaches at UVA’s Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy and advises public and nonprofit agencies statewide. Galvin is an adjunct professor at UVA and served on the school board before her election to City Council.
“I think it’s going to be very close,” says former mayor Dave Norris. “You’ve got two strong female candidates.” Galvin is running on her government experience, and Hudson on her policy experience and passion for structural change, he says.
“It comes down to whether voters want to stay with one they know or go with a fresh face,” says Norris. “The question is whether people want to move in a new direction.”
Former councilor Dede Smith served with Galvin, but supports Hudson, whom she sees as part of a new wave of female leaders emerging across the country. As a baby boomer, Smith says it’s time for her generation to move aside and let millennials handle what’s going to be their future. “We’re seeing this incredibly capable group of people stepping forward,” she says.
Former mayor Bitsy Waters is a Galvin supporter. “I’m supporting Kathy because of her number of years of local service and her familiarity with local issues,” she says. “A lot of political jobs are not entry level. They come with a lot of responsibility, and experience has great value.”
Hudson’s announcement “was a political surprise,” says Waters, who thought Toscano would be delegate for another term. She sees Hudson’s run as part of a national trend of “young people stepping forward and thinking it’s their time.”
The $100,000 donation Hudson received is large for the 57th District, and “has the potential to change the dynamic,” says Waters. “I’m a campaign reform person. I don’t like the idea people can buy elections.”
Dede Smith puts the Sonjia Smith contribution in another light. “I know it was shocking. But David Toscano has a war chest of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Sonjia Smith is not a corporation. She doesn’t ask for stuff.”
Sonjia Smith has a history of supporting progressive candidates. Her husband, Michael Bills, started Clean Virginia, a PAC that contributes to candidates who eschew Dominion donations, which both Hudson and Galvin have done.
Observes Norris, “That was a pretty powerful signal people involved in clean energy are tired of the status quo.” Dominion has the capacity to invest in campaigns, he says. “I think [Smith and Bills] were pretty displeased with Delegate Toscano and wanted to shake up Dominion’s political influence.
The flip side, he says, “Does it raise questions about a candidate when she has so much cash from one source?”
No Republicans have announced a run for the seat, so whoever wins the June 11 primary is pretty much headed to Richmond.
On May 16, Toscano came out for Galvin, citing her experience and long local ties to the community. But he added, “I will give my wholehearted support to whoever wins the Democratic primary.”
The outcome depends on who shows up at the polls, and primaries traditionally have lower turnout—although that’s changed some since the 2016 election.
“Longer-term residents tend to vote in the election,” says Norris. “That could favor Kathy.”
Adds Norris, “A lot of people are still upset about what happened in 2017. That could hurt her. There hasn’t been acknowledgment of mistakes made by City Council.”
“Millennials are finally waking up to the fact they need to vote,” says Smith, which she thinks will be a factor in turnout for Hudson.
Galvin-supporter Waters would like to believe name recognition and experience will benefit her candidate, but says, “I’ve felt a lot of what I knew about politics thrown up in the air the past couple of years.”
Sally Hudson, an assistant professor of economics at UVA’s Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, admits, “I was not plugged into politics three years ago. Then 2016 happened.”
She knocked on doors for Tom Perriello, another beneficiary of Sonjia Smith’s largess, during his 2017 primary run for governor, and then continued to help get Ralph Northam elected. “I kind of fell into this sideways,” she says.
If elected, the first issue she’d tackle would be comprehensive election reform, including automatic registration, ranked choice voting, and independent redistricting. In 2015, every incumbent in the General Assembly kept their seats, she says. “That’s a real threat to democracy.”
Her opponent has called for a $10,000 cap on donations, and said she won’t accept money from Dominion. How does limiting donations square with Hudson’s $100,000 cash bonanza from Smith?
“It’s something I struggled with initially,” concedes Hudson. “I didn’t get into the race because of that. No one knows how they’ll act until someone opens that door.”
She describes Smith as a mentor and as someone who invests in leaders. “I know her,” says Hudson. “There’s no way in a million years she’d come knocking on my door and ask for something.”
Hudson has used her war chest to invest in a heavy field operation. “If what we were doing was buying attack ads, that would be different,” she says. “That donation brought a lot of noise. It was like dropping a rock in a pond.”
She also addresses stepping on Toscano’s seniority when she announced her candidacy for his seat. “It wasn’t any disrespect for David’s service,” she says. “It wasn’t about him. It was about now.”
A common thread she’s seen among many of the progressive candidates is what is the right thing for right now, she says. Her race is about the “moment we’re in now.”
The daughter of a minister, Hudson originally came from Iowa, and lived in Arizona, Nebraska, and Connecticut growing up, then in Palo Alto when she studied at Stanford, and in Boston while at MIT. “Charlottesville is a great hybrid of a lot of places I’ve lived before,” she says, with its small community feel and urban walkability.
She considers moving around a lot growing up an asset when trying to solve problems, bringing a new perspective on how other states have done things.
While Galvin and Hudson will both say they’re on the same side on a number of issues, the biggest difference between them, Hudson says, is “where and how we focus.”
“Kathy has a long history of serving local government,” she says. “I am the candidate more focused on state government. I’m an economist and most of the work I do is advising state agencies.”
At forums, Hudson notes that she’s spent more time in Richmond, and she stresses her econ background and her love of getting into the weeds of government and economic inequity.
Hudson has gotten endorsements from four current members of the House of Delegates who’ve worked with her.
And she believes it’s really important to send a strong progressive from a safe Dem district to push issues that others, in more competitive districts,“don’t have as much latitude to stick their necks out” on.
Hudson’s also gotten endorsements from city councilors who have served with Galvin: Smith, Heather Hill, Kristin Szakos, and Mayor Nikuyah Walker.
“I think it’s telling most of [Galvin’s] endorsers have served quite some time ago,” she says. “I’m incredibly grateful for the support, particularly from female mayors like Nancy O’Brien and Kay Slaughter.”
Hudson thinks it’s time for a generational change in elected office, and she points out that millennials aren’t kids anymore and that designation means an adult under 40.
She describes herself as the Columbine generation, one whose first major media moment was that school shooting when she was 10 years old. Twenty years later, she and her peers are still waiting for change—while school shootings have become a regular part of the American landscape.
“I think our generation has watched the current leadership fail to make progress on the really acute crises that we’ve been facing,” she says. “When people say, be patient and wait your turn, we think, we have been waiting.”
Sally Hudson has stopped waiting.
When Kathy Galvin first ran for City Council in 2011, the big issue was the construction of the Ragged Mountain Reservoir megadam and the still-unbuilt nine-mile pipeline from South Fork Rivanna. The issue so roiled the community that Galvin called a press conference to decry “the tone of our local political debate.”
Flash forward to the post-August 2017 era. The water controversy seems benign after what Galvin describes as the “watershed moment” of August 2017, but “interestingly enough, the water supply has been a wonderful investment,” she says.
Galvin has been in the thick of the past several contentious years on City Council, starting with the call to remove Confederate statues in 2016. She declined to vote in favor of getting rid of the statue of General Robert E. Lee until after August 12, when she and fellow councilor Mike Signer joined the others and said aye to removing both Lee and Stonewall Jackson.
In early 2018, Galvin lost a bid for mayor when her councilor colleagues voted 4-1 for Nikuyah Walker, with Galvin the sole no vote.
And in April, C-VILLE opinion columnist Molly Conger targeted Galvin with a piece called “Working the system: Galvin has a history of supporting the status quo.” Conger recalled a memo Galvin wrote in 2005, in which Galvin criticized a 2004 outside audit of the school system as “bent on finding evidence of institutional racism” and wrote, “Black parents…expect the schools to look after their needs and tell them what needs to be done.”
Galvin declines an opportunity to respond to the column. “I don’t want to pretend to know anyone’s motivation,” she says. “It doesn’t warrant my response. My record stands on its own.”
The Unite the Right rally and the growing white nationalist movement that’s “a matter of domestic terrorism,” along with the shooting down of post-rally legislation to allow Charlottesville to control its own monuments are part of her reasons for wanting to go to Richmond, “to give local governments authority to deal with their own issues,” she says.
During her 35 years in Charlottesville, Galvin has learned about the gaps between state and local government in Dillon Rule Virginia, where localities only have the authority that’s been granted them by the General Assembly.
“Instead of being a local elected official where you’re having to ask permission,” says Galvin, “I want to be able to be that ready partner in Richmond to unleash the talent that’s here locally so city and county governments can solve their own problems for the people they serve.”
The Massachusetts native graduated from Boston University with a B.A. in geography and economics, and says she didn’t become an architect until after she’d worked managing public housing and met “citizen architects driven by community issues.”
She acknowledges that in terms of positions—clean energy, affordable housing, education, and gun safety—she and Hudson are not very different. “In terms of our understanding of the area and our experience in the area, we’re very different.” Galvin went to grad school here, raised a family, served on the PTO, and as a working mother, saw her paycheck go to pay for childcare.
“I’ve seen firsthand the stark racial and class divides between our neighborhoods, and that’s why our school compositions are so different,” she says. “That led me to work on the school board.” She thinks it’s that experience in the community and in elected office that sets her apart from Hudson.
When asked about Hudson’s large cash infusion, Galvin says, “Putting a cap on contributions allows more people to have an equal voice.” She adds, “Not addressing the influence of big money on political campaigns is not seeing the elephant in the room.”
Galvin has learned the difference between running for City Council and running for the House of Delegates: “The amount of money I have to raise, given the imbalance we’ve seen, is staggering.”
As of March 31, Galvin had reported raising just under $28,000 compared to Hudson’s $155,000.
At her campaign launch, Councilor Wes Bellamy was on hand, and Galvin said he’d given her a lot of insight on inequity and racism. She also thanked her colleagues on City Council for alerting her to bias in the criminal justice system with the automatic suspension of driver’s licenses for nonpayment of fines, regardless of one’s ability to pay, and mass incarceration.
Galvin has made criminal justice reform one of her campaign issues, and says it’s time to legalize pot. But in 2012, she voted against a resolution that came before council to ask the General Assembly to revisit marijuana laws and consider decriminalization. She defends that vote now, as well as her opposition to the part of the resolution that would have instructed police to make reefer possession arrests a low priority.
“It wasn’t allowed by state law,” she says. “I’m [now] in the position of facing a million-dollar lawsuit because we voted against something that wasn’t allowed by state law,” she says, referring to council’s vote to remove the Confederate statues.
As a legislator, she says she’d be in a better position to legalize, and she also notes that with at least 10 other states working to legalize pot, there are more examples to learn from. Legal marijuana would be a cash crop for Virginia farmers.
Galvin touts her ability to work with Albemarle County over the years on regional issues, and to get people together in a conversation. “The lessons I’ve learned are a reason to run,” she says.
And she’s enjoyed knocking on doors in the county, and getting to meet “people who don’t come to City Council.”
It’s been pretty rough for anyone sitting on council the past couple of years, where councilors are publicly berated on a regular basis by the citizenry.
She says, “Clearly it has not deterred me from running for the House of Delegates.”