Fighting for the 5th: Can Democrats retake Virginia’s largest district?

Republican 5th District U.S. Representative Robert Hurt (left) debates Democratic challenger General John douglass in Warrenton October 15. Photo: Adam Goings/Fauquier Times-Democrat Republican 5th District U.S. Representative Robert Hurt (left) debates Democratic challenger General John douglass in Warrenton October 15. Photo: Adam Goings/Fauquier Times-Democrat

Hear audio of our discussion of this story on Soundboard, our weekly radio show on WTJU 91.1, here.

Analysts say the contest for Virginia’s 5th District will probably go to Republican incumbent Robert Hurt, and with a number of factors working against the challenger, newcomer General John Douglass, it’s hard to believe any but the most ardent Democrats disagree.

But it’s a close race in a split and newly gerrymandered district that runs from Danville to Warrenton, home to broken down mill towns, tony horse farms, and NoVA commuter villages. You don’t need to go far to hear about Virginia’s critical role as a swing state. Could the 5th hold the secret to Virginia’s influence?

The general
John Douglass tends to talk in military terms. He tells anecdotes about his stints overseas, his time as a White House advisor, his work overseeing the development of stealth bombers. It surfaces in talk on policy and on personal moral character—he wants to see more support for veterans, and he often wonders aloud how someone who’s never served can call ardently for war.

The 71-year-old Miami native ascended to the rank of brigadier general before he left the Air Force in 1992, but his career still defines him in many ways. He also says it’s a big part of why he chose to run for office.

“There are parts of our society that are so essential to the efficient and orderly operation of life that are becoming less and less represented in Congress,” he said during a one-on-one meeting this month at the joint Democratic campaign headquarters above a fabric store on Route 29. “One of them is veterans.” He’s the only senior officer running for a seat this year, he pointed out. And for the first time, there are none on the House Armed Services Committee.

Douglass is selective about the pieces of his unusual life story he trots out. He was orphaned as a kid, lived out of his car as a homeless teenager, and was eventually taken in by a foster family. He was ROTC during his undergraduate years at the University of Florida, where he studied science and engineering, and was commissioned as an Air Force officer after graduating, kicking off a long military career.

He did not see combat in Vietnam—he’s quick to point that out—but he spent time overseas in the Philippines. Not long after he returned home from overseas, he and his wife divorced, and he was left to care for his two young children alone.* He’s developed a sense of humor about those years. “I really liked women’s magazines,” he said. “I really got into plants and decor and things. How to make a nourishing meal for $1.29 in 20 minutes.”

Douglass considered leaving the military once he came home, largely due to deep disappointment in leadership. “I thought the generals at the Pentagon had failed us in Vietnam,” he said, through poor decisionmaking and a lack of transparency. “But it came to me that if I leave, who will fix the system from the inside out?”

So he stayed, and he climbed. He oversaw procurement and contracts at a string of bases around the country, and in the early ’80s, went to work for Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Defense. He served on the National Security Council, and as a NATO officer in Belgium. After retirement, he was a staff member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, then at the Pentagon. He later secured the top spot at the Aerospace Industries Association, a massive defense spending lobbying organization. He was briefly registered as a lobbyist there—a fact his opponent has used to paint him as a Washington insider.

Douglass said there’s a reason he stands alone. Other former ranking officers are too turned off by the system to run. “They all say, ‘Are you crazy, John? You’d subject yourself to the kind of things they say about you?’”

But just as he decided to try to change the military from within the ranks—“the institution is healthy, and always boiling from within,” he said—he believes he can bring change to government by getting elected.

At the center of his platform is his “Help Virginia Families Plan,” which corrals a wide range of goals for job creation, expanded access to education, and support for veterans and the elderly: Yes to more loans for small businesses, more low-interest college loans, and faster access to care for soldiers returning home; no to a Medicare voucher system.

He’s also spent a lot of time setting himself firmly opposite Robert Hurt—and Mitt Romney—on a few highly politicized issues important to Virginia: abortion and alternative energy. Douglass has spoken scornfully of Republicans’ efforts to restrict access to abortions in the Commonwealth, and has attacked Hurt for his support of a proposed uranium mine in Pittsylvania County, pushing instead for green energy incentives for farmers.

And Douglass has painted himself as a Democrat unafraid of challenging party rhetoric. He says he’ll support Second Amendment rights, and wants to “beef up” border security and the use of special operations to combat terror, but he’s also called for an end to “stupid wars” and said he’d pull all troops out of Afghanistan overseas today if he could.

He said he doesn’t care if being outspoken doesn’t endear him to the party establishment. At his age, he’s not looking for a long career in politics. “I have a vision of what the 5th should be,” he said. “I want to fix my district.”

And if he doesn’t carry it in November, so be it. Campaigning has been a tough slog, he said. “It’s not what I thought it would be. It’s much harder in every way—in terms of the commitments you have to make, the degradation of your quality of life, the time it takes, the money it takes, the number of negative things said about you that you have to work through.” He’d consider a win a wonderful capstone to a life of public service. But it would also mean he wouldn’t see much of his high school-age boys—children of his marriage to his second wife, Susan—or their Fauquier County farm.

But he plans to fight and fundraise to the end. He knows he’s an underdog, and he’s O.K. with that.

“People used to say to me when I was a captain, ‘You’re never going to be a major. You’re too outspoken,’” Douglass said. “Then I get to be a major, and it’s ‘You’ll never be a colonel.’ Every time I got a promotion, everybody would say, ‘Wow, how did he do that?’ I think a lot of the same is true here. People say ‘You’ll never get to be a Congressman.’ We’ll see on November 6.”

The country lawyer
Robert Hurt squinted into the sun in a shopping center parking lot off Route 29 one recent October afternoon, answering a TV reporter’s questions before accepting the official nod of the state chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business.

The endorsement—coming from a firmly anti-tax, anti-regulation lobbying organization that skews strongly Republican—was a natural fit for the 5th District representative, who is aiming to return to Congress for a second term.

“When you look at the state of our economy and the jobs picture in this country and in the 5th District, I think everyone would agree we need to do more to make it easier for small businesses to succeed,” he told the camera. “We need to do more to make it easier for our farming families to succeed.”

Hurt, 43, towers over most of those around him, and he’s got a powerful grip of a handshake and a booming voice to match his stature. And though he went to Episcopal High School, a posh all-boys Alexandria boarding school, and the famously exclusive Hampden-Sydney College, which issues a handbook to all incoming freshmen titled To Manner Born, To Manners Bred: A Hip-pocket Guide to Etiquette, Hurt’s down-home accent and straightforward manner is more in line with the southern Virginia farmers who helped elect him to the House in 2010.

And indeed, Hurt—married with three sons—has lived a good deal of his life in the district he now represents. His family moved to Chatham when he was a kid, college brought him back to Prince Edward County, and after graduating from Mississippi College School of Law, he landed back in Pittsylvania County as a prosecutor in the office of the county Commonwealth’s attorney.

He entered private practice at a Main Street law firm in Chatham a few years later, and soon was on a familiar step-stone path through Virginia politics. He spent a year on the Chatham Town Council, and three terms in the House of Delegates, where he cultivated a record as a tax cutter. In 2007, he had a successful state Senate run, securing three-quarters of the vote in the Pittsylvania-centered 19th District. Two years later, he was challenging Tom Perriello for the 5th District.

If Douglass has spent a good deal of time being the un-Hurt and the un-Romney, Hurt has spent easily as much time running against Barack Obama. And despite disclaiming fidelity to the Republican party, Hurt’s main talking points square nicely with the GOP’s. His arguments against four more years of an Obama White House mirror those of other Congressional Republicans, and his priorities lean toward Tea Party territory: Cut taxes and dial back regulations as a way to speed economic growth and reduce unemployment.

Forget cap and trade and let energy companies drill at will. Reform Medicare somehow, but keep the system intact for those 55 and older. He’s pro-life and pro-gun—if his A+ rating from the NRA doesn’t convince you of that, the blaze orange “Sportsmen for Hurt” signs up and down Route 29 will.

But above all, he says, he wants to shrink the federal government. Hurt is a vocal proponent of amending the Constitution to force a balanced budget—he’s co-sponsored an effort to do so—and champions his efforts to beat back earmark spending.

He said he’s been consistent, and that’s won him respect among his constituents. “I ran on certain things in 2010,” he said. “I said if I won, I’d do them, and I did.”

Running as a challenger is different than running as an incumbent, he said, but it’s still exhausting—hard on candidates, hard on cars.

“How many miles are we up to this week, Pace?” he asked a young staffer. The response came immediately: 1,427. (That was Friday; it would be above 2,000 by the time Sunday rolled around.)
It doesn’t end on election day, either, Hurt said. The drive home from Washington, D.C. takes four and a half hours. And he said he makes every effort to get out in the district as much as possible.

“I take my position as a representative for the people very, very seriously,” he said. “It’s not easy, but I signed up for it.”

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