Former '60 Minutes' producer enters the race for Virginia's 5th District
The time is right for a Democrat to take Virginia’s 5th Congressional District, according to Leslie Cockburn.
Cockburn is a Democrat challenging incumbent Congressman Tom Garrett for the 5th District seat. The other Democratic hopefuls include Ben Cullop, Roger Dean Huffstetler and Andrew Sneathern. The 5th Congressional District Democratic Committee has scheduled its nominating convention for May 5.
A resident of Rappahannock County, Cockburn and her husband Andrew live on a farm in the rural county. They have three children and four grandchildren.
For 35 years, Cockburn said, she was an investigative journalist.
“I covered the world,” she said. “I was a producer at 60 Minutes, I’ve covered six wars, (worked in) over 50 countries, I was a correspondent for Frontline for four years, I have written for magazines, written books … that was my world. I covered Wall Street as well, all the tough stories. Every single one of those stories had a piece of Washington in it, so I got to know Capitol Hill very well.”
Journalists who work in Washington seldom go into politics, Cockburn said, as they have seen how the sausage is made, so to speak.
When Donald Trump was elected president, however, everything changed for Cockburn.
“Once I went on the Women’s March, and once my local party chairs asked whether I would consider running for Congress, I decided that now is the time,” she said. “I was very offended by Trump as a woman and very concerned about him as a former journalist because he attacked journalists as the enemy of the people. That’s attacking the foundation of the Fourth Estate. We have no democracy without it. I feel very strongly about that.”
Cockburn spent three months traveling the district to learn its needs – no easy task, considering that the 5th District is larger than New Jersey.
“I approached it like a journalist,” she said. “I did a tour last year of Henry County. I went to every county to see what the issues were, what was important. I decided to declare and to run, and I have been doing nothing else since, seven days a week for ten months now.”
The right time
There has been much talk of the “blue wave” in politics – Democrats winning seats in traditionally red districts in the aftermath of Donald Trump winning the presidency.
If a Democrat is going to win Virginia’s 5th District, Cockburn said, this is the year it will happen.
In 2016, Democrat Jane Dittmar lost the 5th District seat to Republican Tom Garrett. Dittmar, Cockburn agreed, ran two years too early.
“She feels that way, too,” Cockburn said. “But she feels that she helped pave the way to make it possible. I feel that way, too; she ran a great campaign. … It is a blue wave here, and there’s a lot of excitement about women running. It’s tough for a Democrat, but this year is special. There’s a window here, and we need to jump right through it.”
Cockburn characterized Garrett as a “weak” incumbent due to a lack of accessibility.
“His door has not been open, and it’s not just to Democrats,” Cockburn said. “I’ve actually been up on Capitol Hill and had Republican Congressmen come up to me and say ‘Thank you for running.’”
“You don’t have to attack Tom Garrett as a person,” Cockburn continued. “His record speaks for itself. … The first thing he did was vote for a healthcare bill that would have taken healthcare away from 23 million people in this country. … In fact, he admitted that he didn’t even read the bill. That really made people nervous here, and I find that it is the biggest issue by far. People are so concerned about losing healthcare.”
People are afraid not only of losing their own healthcare, but their parents’ or children’s healthcare, Cockburn said. Two-thirds of nursing home residents are on Medicaid, she said, and at just one Nelson County clinic, she learned that 1,600 children would have lost their healthcare under the proposed healthcare bill that Garrett had supported.
She also was concerned that Garrett met in his office with Jason Kessler, the organizer of the white nationalist rally that sparked violence in Charlottesville last March, leading to the death of 32-year-old Heather Heyer. Garrett met with Kessler prior to the rally and later expressed regret, saying that he did not know who Kessler was at the time of the meeting, according to Garrett’s website.
“Then he voted for a tax bill that added $1.5 trillion to the deficit and causes automatic cuts – cuts like, for example, federal funding for Danville that’s been part of the River District renaissance,” Cockburn continued. “Cuts in Medicaid and Medicare, $25 to $28 billion per year cut from Medicare just to make up for adding that huge amount to the deficit to hand to corporations that don’t need the money.”
With the nominating convention a little more than a month away, Cockburn is also running against three other Democrats seeking the 5th District seat. Of the field, she said, she is the only union member, the only woman, the only one who lives in a rural county and the only one who lives on a farm.
“There are certain rural issues that are exactly the same in my county, in Rappahannock, as they are in Charlotte County, or Halifax, or Henry,” she said. “I think that’s very valuable. … There’s a subcommittee on the agricultural committee that’s just perfect for this district, so I would want to get on that. It’s really about paying attention to what’s going on here.”
While healthcare is one of the biggest issues that Cockburn hears about on the campaign trail, she also hears a great deal about the need for jobs, she said. To that end, she supports several initiatives, including Medicaid expansion, which is both a healthcare issue and a jobs issue.
In addition to providing healthcare for 400,000 Virginians, she said, Medicaid expansion is estimated to create approximately 57,000 jobs in the Commonwealth based on trends seen in other states that chose to expand Medicaid.
Alternative energy is another arena where Virginia could add a tremendous number of jobs, Cockburn said.
“This area is regarded as the best place in the whole region for renewable energy, for solar projects,” she said. “We’ve got a big solar center in Rocky Mount. It’s a beautiful facility … but it’s underused. We need to expand this, and also tie it together. Every county has a solar project, and most of them don’t even know the other one exists. You have to bind all these together so that we have a whole new industry in the area. Last year, solar energy created six times more jobs than any other job creator in the country. We need a piece of that.”
In addition, Cockburn said, the district needs to work to better align training opportunities with the thousands of jobs already available. In infrastructure fields – skilled trades – there are thousands of open jobs, she said, and the average age of people working infrastructure jobs is 57 years old. As they retire, more and more job opportunities will open for young people.
Giving a voice
The massive size of the 5th District could leave people in counties like Henry concerned that they would be overlooked in favor of large cities like Charlottesville.
“I’m not from Charlottesville, and that’s an important thing, because my county would get lost, too,” Cockburn said. “Rappahannock is up north, but it’s not so different from Henry County. It’s less developed than Henry County. We don’t have a stoplight. We have more cows than people. We have the exact same education issues. We have the same issues with guns. We have the same issues with employment.”
As a former investigative journalist, Cockburn said that she spent her career giving a voice to the voiceless, and if she is elected to the 5th District, she will continue that record.
“I spent many years speaking truth to power and giving voice to people who are voiceless,” she said. “At that office on Capitol Hill, what we need to do is not only kick the door open, but take the door right off the hinges so that people in Henry County can come up there and always have access to their Congressperson. Let’s get some things done.”
Ben Williams reports for the Martinsville Bulletin. He can be reached at email@example.com