A Union Man Ponders the Democrats’ Collapse in the Virginia Elections

The following article was originally written in 2009 by Chris Townsend, Political Action Director of the United Electrical Workers Union. We share this article with permission in light of its extreme relevance to the most recent failures of the Democratic Party in the 2021 election.

The Democratic Party collapse in the 2009 Virginia statewide elections will come as a surprise only to those loyalists, true believers, and paid consultants and staffers who have chosen to ignore the increasingly dire situation facing working people in Virginia. As a union member who lives here, I’m not surprised one bit. The Democrats luck has run out.

The easy excuse will be for Democrats to assign blame for the loss of the Governor’s seat on their hapless gubernatorial candidate and state Senator Creigh Deeds. Given that Deeds was a product of their own primary process that might be a bit difficult, but it still won’t stop the highly paid party machinery from heaping the blame on Deeds. For whatever few strong points the Virginia Democrats may have, taking full responsibility for their own failures is not — in my experience — one of them. Their highly paid political operators who flood Virginia at election time to skim easy money for their services and advice are not prone to be self critical, either. They are in it for the money, period. Most of them don’t live here. And I’m completely sure than none of them live in my mediocre apartment complex.

Exactly one year ago the Obama-Biden momentum and optimism swept over this state, generating record numbers of enthusiastic voters all clamoring for “Change.” Obama won this state handily, with a campaign machine and message which in many ways set the standard. These dreams and hopes now lay shattered and scattered. How could this be? What are the reasons for one of the most phenomenal political collapses in recent U.S, history?

The reasons and explanations for this fiasco are many. As one union member who lives in Virginia, here are a few I’ll offer from my perspective:

  1. The Democratic Party election strategy in Virginia only works successfully when it can blame Virginia’s decaying communities and falling living standards on Republican rule. With no Republican boogeyman in office to blame this year it was no surprise that their usual routine never got off the ground. Facing Republican candidate — now Governor-elect Bob McDonnell — who is truly stone age in his views, the Democrats flailed away but none of it would stick. The Democrats had nothing to say this election about how they might defend working people from employer attacks, or advocate on their behalf. Nothing. Unemployment is much higher than it was at election time last year, and those working people still working are working (mostly) for less. The cost of living in many places in Virginia is akin to the northeast, while wages are comparable to the deep south. The heavy tax bite for workers includes the remnants of an indefensible annual property tax on automobiles, surely one of the most regressive and hated taxes on the books anywhere. And, once you get 25 miles south of Washington, D.C. — or away from the numerous military installations in Virginia –you’ll find a working class that is not just impoverished but acutely aware of their diminishing opportunities to escape it.
  2. When the Obama campaign turned out the lights and went home just a couple days after the election last year that was it. The campaign was over. When the paid campaign staff operatives threw the switch to try to turn it all back “on” this year nothing happened. The Obama strategy of relentlessly and fruitlessly trying to coax support for its timid agenda from the Republican Congressional minority has left the rank-and-file with nothing to do but complain in frustration. The activists were largely missing in action, and the newly energized voters stayed at home. It was as if last year never happened.
  3. Democratic politicians in Virginia — with few exceptions — are ambivalent at best about unions, excepting when it’s time for campaign contributions. A review of the tens of millions of dollars spent in Virginia politics by unions on behalf of Democrats will reveal one of the poorest “returns” for working people imaginable. Given that union density in Virginia is so small that it’s hard to measure, it’s no wonder that the bulk of the union campaign cash comes in from out-of-state. As for some reasons why unions are so small in this state, just read on…
  4. The current Democratic Governor Tim Kaine has spent his one and only term (one term is the limit for Gov’s in Virginia) doing absolutely nothing on behalf of working people. He tacitly defends the disgraceful right-to-work-for-less abomination — and will not work to overturn it — which has relegated the labor movement in this state to minuscule size and perpetual marginal status. Virginia’s poverty stricken, non-union status regularly helps bring the state accolades from the big business media community, which Governor Kaine readily accepts — and even takes credit for.
  5. Governor Kaine was promoted to head the Democratic National Committee (DNC) last year, despite the fact that he presides over a state which outright bans collective bargaining for its public sector workforce. Kaine — like his predecessor Mark Warner (now U.S. Senator) — never once lifted a finger to confront this monstrous and degraded anti-labor situation shared only by the State of North Carolina. Be clear about what this means;

No public sector worker in Virginia at the state, local, or county level is permitted by law to bargain a union contract with their employer. Those few who do pay dues to a union are forced to fight under atrocious conditions just to win a minimal measure of fairness on the job. The major unions who provide much of the funds to some of Virginia’s leading Democrats act as if this situation doesn’t exist. Well, it exists, it’s a disgrace, and by never even asking the Democrats to address it it has contributed to the election disaster now at hand.

  1. While most working people wouldn’t know the inner details of Gov. Kaine’s con-job when it comes to taking labor’s money and votes — and then delivering nothing in return — they do know full well how hard it is to make a living in this state as a result of that neglect. Adding insult to injury, one of Kaine’s largest contributors is the fanatically anti-union Sheila Johnson, who shifted her support during the current gubernatorial race to the fanatically anti-union Republican who has just won, Bob McDonnell. Not only has Gov. Kaine never repudiated Johnson’s despicable anti-union ravings, one of his major “contributions” to the Creigh Deeds campaign was to push Deeds to go hat-in-hand to Johnson seeking her support. She rejected Deeds as not anti-union enough, and promptly backed the Republican. Unions kept shoveling in the campaign cash to Deeds right up until the last minute despite his entreaties to Johnson. Were union members supposed to feel better about Deeds if Johnson had endorsed Deeds instead of McDonnell?

The situation facing working people in Virginia is somewhere between difficult and desperate, and getting worse. The newly energized Republican Party and its fresh crop of office holders will now make life even harder for working people. But that said, let’s get it on the record; that the Democratic Party and its elected leaders in Virginia — with few exceptions — have failed completely to respond to the needs of working people during the current crisis. The facts cannot be contested. Perhaps this is part of the explanation as to why large numbers of working people have failed to respond to the needs of the Democrats. And unless the Democrats can bring themselves to recognize that rebuilding the union movement in Virginia is a necessity, they are doomed to further losses. I have little hope that this Democratic Party will suddenly embark upon such a course. I do have some hope, however, that the labor movement will re-assess its relationship to the Democratic Party in this state in the wake of such abject failure as we have been witness to in this election of 2009.

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