Former “60 Minutes” and “Frontline” journalist Leslie Cockburn spent more than three decades covering wars and civil unrest in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Cambodia and Haiti and investigating, along the way, issues ranging from the origins of shadowy terrorist networks to the rise of the illicit narcotics trade.
In 2009, Cockburn and her husband, the writer and journalist Andrew Cockburn, directed and produced “American Casino,” a feature-length documentary about the subprime mortgage crisis that led to the Great Recession.
It was a reporting career, some might say, that would well prepare a future member of the U.S. Congress.
Cockburn doesn’t disagree. Since announcing her candidacy for the Democratic nomination for the 5th District House of Representatives seat July 13, Cockburn, 64, said she’s already learned enough about the central Virginia district to recognize parallels between the issues vexing area residents and those she explored as an investigative journalist.
As examples, Cockburn cites the commonwealth’s opioid-addiction crisis and low-income residents’ struggle to access even basic health-care services in a state that has so far refused to expand Medicaid.
Years spent covering the U.S. military revealed other truths, particularly that active-duty troops and veterans, of which Virginia has 725,000, too often get the short shrift despite the billions spent on the country’s defense.
“I’ve spent the last few months literally driving around this district,” Cockburn said in an interview Friday. “It’s as big as New Jersey, and each county has its different issues.”
Cockburn said running for office is just as compelling as her former career, “because you think, not only can I bring [these issues] to light, I can actually do something about it.”
Married for 40 years, the Cockburns have lived on a farm in the Castleton area of Rappahannock County since moving there from Washington, D.C., in 1999. The two have three children and four grandchildren. One of their daughters, Olivia Wilde, is a film and Broadway actress perhaps best known for playing Dr. Remy “Thirteen” Hadley on the TV medical drama, “House.” The couple have maintained active writing careers, Leslie as a novelist and Andrew as the Washington editor for Harper’s Bazaar.
Leslie Cockburn is originally from Hillsborough, California, outside San Francisco, and graduated from Yale University before pursuing a master’s degree from the University of London. Her journalism career began in London, with NBC news, where she once interviewed the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
But it was President Donald Trump’s election last November that sparked her interest in elected office.
“This happened because I, like everyone else, was affected very deeply from Trump winning,” Cockburn said. Noting her unease with what she saw as Trump’s attempts “to weaken our Democratic institutions,” Cockburn said she felt compelled to run for office or accept a kind of “eternal exile, when you feel forced to close the shades to stop looking at it.”
Cockburn joins an already crowded race to challenge one-term incumbent Rep. Tom Garrett, a Republican, in the 2018 election.
The four other candidates, all men, are residents of Charlottesville. They include U.S. Marine Corps veteran and former Silicon Valley entrepreneur Roger Dean Huffstetler, who was the first to announce his candidacy in April. Huffstetler was joined by attorney and former prosecutor Andrew Sneathern and Adam Slate, who works for the University of Virginia Health System, later this spring. Ben Cullop, a 2011 graduate of the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, joined the race a few weeks before Cockburn on July 2.
Although recently ranked “competitive” by the Cook Political Report, the 5th District is a longshot for a Democratic win. The district stretches from Fauquier County to the North Carolina line, comprising 21 counties and two cities, Charlottesville and Danville. Voters in the 5th District picked Trump over Democrat Hillary Clinton by 55 to 41 percent in November 2016, the same election in which Garrett beat his Democratic challenger, Jane Dittmar, with more than 58 percent of the vote.
Cockburn says she believes she’ll find common ground with at least some of the district’s right-leaning voters on conservation issues. Cockburn is a longtime board member of the Piedmont Environmental Council and has taken a strong stand against Dominion Energy’s controversial natural-gas pipeline, which would cut through the district.
Cockburn said the natural gas the pipeline would carry is not yet needed, and she is concerned about the damage it will do to the more than 1,000 waterways and watersheds in its path. She says she’ll emphasize the importance of expanding alternative energy options in Virginia – especially solar – and the opportunities it offers for new jobs.
“I can’t stand it when [politicians] just say, ‘Oh, we’re going to bring you jobs,’” Cockburn said. “But there are really great possibilities in solar.”
Cockburn will also advocate boosting the $7.25-an-hour federal minimum wage to at least $8.75 “right away,” and will push for fixes to the Affordable Care Act while fighting against Trump administration attempts to gut Medicaid and Social Security disability programs.
She said she’ll also advocate for better federal funding for education that would allow students free community-college tuition and better pay for public-school teachers. In general, Cockburn said she is opposed to vouchers “and anything that takes money away from public schools” and calls for student loan reforms that would allow overly burdensome debt to be discharged by bankruptcy courts, something not currently permitted.
“I think student loans have become like auto loans,” she said. “There is a really predatory problem here. [Lenders] are preying on students and their parents and their grandparents.”
If elected, Cockburn said she’d do whatever she can to enhance the success of the types of businesses rural Virginia has become known for, its cideries, wineries, breweries and destination-wedding venues.
“There’s a huge number of jobs in the tourism industry,” she said. “It’s really about government rewarding people for doing the right thing rather than the wrong thing.”
For more information, visit lesliecockburnforcongress.com.
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