Leslie Reflects on her Campaign in Vanity Fair Article
I’ve been campaigning now for nearly a year, seven days a week. I’ve put 45,000 miles on my car, in a district bigger than New Jersey. But just when I think, I can’t do this anymore—I can no longer live on fried catfish and Clif Bars—I get inspired by remembering a moment that reminds me why I’m on this path.
It was a cold day in February on Capitol Hill. I was with one of the great civil-rights heroes of our time. Congressman John Lewis has gravitas. He can fill a room with electricity. And when he spoke to me, passionately and directly, any doubts I had about the months I’d spent campaigning simply vanished. When I saw what happened in Charlottesville, he confided, it made me cry. I couldn’t believe what the president of the United States said. You have to get up there and lead. You have what it takes to do that. You will have my help, and you will have my support. I realized, right then, that it wasn’t all folly, this idea of running for Congress. In rural Virginia. In a district with Charlottesville at its heart. Challenging three Democratic rivals and then the far-right Freedom Caucus—and the inevitable blizzard of dark money that would descend upon the race. John said he would come with me to walk the streets of Danville, where he had marched in 1963. My campaign was now part of something bigger.
My decision to run as a candidate for Virginia’s 5th District (with its 440,000 voters spread across 308 precincts) traces back to a Democratic Party breakfast of buttermilk biscuits and country ham in the spring of 2017. We were gathered at the firehouse in Washington, Virginia, known as “little Washington” (because big Washington is only 90 minutes down the road). It was April and the coffee was bitter. I was watching our Democratic candidate for the Virginia House of Delegates, Tristan Shields, belting out a verse of the 1961 hit “Stand by Me.” Tristan had chosen to sing his stump speech rather than speak it. It was a bold decision. Interspersed among lyrics like When the night has come and the land is dark, he had added the odd bullet point, I support re-districting, delivered in a low murmur.
Outside the firehouse doors, a great deal was going on in Virginia politics. Republicans in Richmond were gutting employment law and stripping funding for women’s health. Immigrants in surrounding counties were being hounded by ICE at pop-up roadblocks. Activists, in response, were sprouting, many of them feeling militant. I turned to search for more coffee creamer when our local Democratic Party chair, Ross O’Donoghue, and his counterpart in Fauquier County, Dee Pendley, approached. They had a proposition. Why don’t you run for Congress?
I had never thought seriously about political office. In fact, I had spent most of my 35 years as a journalist holding politicians accountable. Covering the world as a producer for 60 Minutes and a correspondent for Vanity Fair and PBS’s Frontline—often reporting from conflict zones—I repeatedly circled back to Washington to demand answers for a failed war or some misguided policy. But now the Trump administration was busy shredding the institutions that permitted dissent. And once the damage was done, it would be hard to repair. There were plenty of governments around the world, run by oligarchs and kleptocrats, to prove it. I knew that in Rappahannock, Virginia, we would feel it if we no longer had a voice.
Rappahannock—due west of Washington, D.C.—is a rural county, one of the “rurals” the pundits point to on talk shows as “neglected.” When people gather at the Sperryville Corner Store or the Farm Co-Op, we discuss politics and grass, as in pasture. We think about the plight of bees and feel threatened by invasive species. We are battling Chinese stink bugs and Russian olive trees. We have farmers, teachers, volunteer firemen, builders, lumbermen. We don’t even have a stoplight.
What distinguishes us from other rural counties is our large community of former C.I.A. officials, who calculated years ago that Rappahannock would be outside the blast zone should Washington ever be nuked by an I.C.B.M. We also have journalists, former denizens of the State Department, military veterans, artists, brewers, wine-makers, and progressive farmers. Our county has one of the most famous restaurants in America, the Inn at Little Washington—for 40 years a regional culinary destination. It also has huge disparities of wealth, with one of the highest rates of income inequality in the country. The Food Pantry and the Benevolent Fund work overtime, and last year our high school just managed to escape a mass shooting after authorities intercepted a student who had reportedly threatened to “blow this place to pieces” and “make Columbine look like a joke”.
The 5th Congressional District is one of the most gerrymandered districts in America. It runs from the suburbs of Washington, D.C., to the North Carolina border: 10,000 square miles of fields, board fences, and hills covered in oak, tulip poplar, and sassafras. The Blue Ridge Mountains hug the district to the west. Charlottesville, home to the University of Virginia and now a magnet for a resurgent movement of white supremacists, sits at the center—a blue island in a red sea of rural counties on the political map.
Our freshman congressman, Tom Garrett, a hard-right Republican, called for the evisceration of the Affordable Care Act. The defeated bill he voted for would have denied health care to 23 million people. Garrett also helped repeal the act that protected Virginia’s streams from coal ash (a form of industrial waste that is full of heavy metals, which can cause spontaneous abortion and stillbirths). He sponsored a bill demanding that Virginia residents should be able to bring their assault weapons to Washington, D.C. Garrett voted to overturn the requirement that gun shops be alerted if a purchaser is mentally challenged. He once posed in his office with white-supremacist leader Jason Kessler.
This is the man that a Democratic challenger would run against. (In the spring caucuses, I will face three fellow Democrats: Ben Cullop, Roger Dean Huffstetler, and Andrew Sneathern.)
I would like to think about it, I said to my breakfast companions, flattered by their invitation.
Why don’t you come to our Commonwealth Dinner in Warrenton? Dee asked. You could declare at the dinner.
Dee urged me to contact Lisa Hystad, who had just stepped down as Democratic chair for the district, and who knew more about the 5th than anyone. Lisa lived in Greene County, two counties south. She agreed to meet for coffee at her farm. I headed down Scrabble Road to Highway 29. The most memorable sign along the route read, Jesus Christ, King of Kings, Firewood Delivered, Bob.
Lisa’s farm was not far from Stanardsville, with stunning views of the Shenandoah National Park. Lisa is petite—and straightforward. First of all, it will cost you two to three million dollars, she cautioned. Second, if you run here as a Democrat, you have to be progressive. Nothing middle of the road. Bernie won this county. (The day before, I had been told by a seasoned political consultant, You can’t be left wing here. Stick to the middle.)
The last Democratic candidate, Jane Dittmar, had stuck to the middle. A professional mediator, her two issues were small business and rural broadband. And in the last weeks of the campaign, the Republicans had pumped in a million-and-a-half dollars’ worth of advertising, spreading slurs that Jane had once been charged with a D.U.I. while driving with a minor. The allegations were false. But there was no time for mediation before Election Day. Politics in the 5th District was combat. I was lucky that I had worked in six war zones.
My background in investigative journalism included navigating the back country of Afghanistan and Somalia, picking through minefields in Cambodia, witnessing the devastation wrought by sanctions in Iraq, cataloging horrors in Haiti and Colombia, meeting with radical jihadis in Peshawar, Jalalabad, and Lahore, exposing covert operations, speaking truth to power. I was honored with 10 top honors in broadcast journalism including two George Polk Awards. Why would I ever consider a congressional run when I knew what a sinkhole Capitol Hill had become, with K Street corporate lobbyists feasting on the carcass of any decent bill? As one political operative said to me when I called to ask for a campaign contribution, Why are you doing this? You know better.
Looking back, my conversion had actually begun in October 2016 with the word ”pussy.” Hearing Donald Trump boast of his groping skills had filled me with revulsion. This was Silvio Berlusconi, American style: vulgar, reckless, tawdry, misogynistic.
Next, the cascade of events following the election results—the clear perception of what the Donald and his henchmen could do to the country—had alarmed and energized me. The Women’s March, the day after the inauguration, had been another factor. The river of resistance flowing down Independence and Constitution that day carried me with it. I felt a rejuvenated sense of activism. My daughter, the actress Olivia Wilde, was with us, along with her partner, Jason Sudeikis, my niece Laura Flanders, and her partner Elizabeth Streb. Journalist and producer Alison Hockenberry joined us with her daughter. We all felt it was the beginning of a movement.
Then, a year ago February, I was asked to speak in Rappahannock about fake news. The theater in “little Washington” was packed. I gave an unvarnished history of the government’s use of misinformation. Trump’s “fake-news” propaganda was taking aim at the fourth estate in a menacing, visceral way. Everyone in the room sensed the danger of remaining silent in the face of the gross manipulation of truth.
I accepted Dee Pendley’s invitation to the annual Democratic dinner. But before seriously considering a run, I wanted to see more of the 5th District. Only one Democrat had won the 5th in recent years: Tom Perriello, a Yale graduate from a well-known Charlottesville family. He lasted one term, defeated in 2010 by the Tea Party; last year, he lost his gubernatorial primary bid to Ralph Northam.
Let’s go to Danville, I said to my husband, Andrew, the Washington editor of Harper’s,presenting the expedition as if it was one of our joint reporting trips to Colombia or Kurdistan. I want to see the far end of the district.
How far is it? he asked, suddenly interested.
Three and a half hours.
He perked up when I added that Martin Luther King Jr. called Danville one of the worst cities in America for civil rights. I had read in the local paper that, on occasion, the Danville police were known to leave their patrol-car hoods open to block the dashboard cams.
The weather was what the Irish call a “fine, soft day,” with a slate-gray sky and drizzling rain. We barreled down Highway 29 and, on the outskirts of Danville, were greeted by the largest Confederate flag in America. As we drove through town, past the old tobacco warehouses and the abandoned textile factory, we decided to visit the Danville Museum of Fine Arts and History, located in the mansion of William T. Sutherlin on what was once Millionaires’ Row. This was the house, we learned that day, where the government of the Confederacy had spent its last week before disbanding. Upstairs, there was a room draped with more Confederate flags—the site of monthly meetings of the Daughters of the Confederacy. The bedroom across the hall, where Jefferson Davis had slept, came complete with a costumed mannequin of a slave.
I’m sure there’s another side to Danville, my husband observed. And, of course, there was another side; in fact, many sides. But these would take time to discover.
Several days later, I attended Dee’s dinner, at an old manor house in Warrenton. It was packed with Virginia politicians and Fauquier County donors. I had not yet made up my mind about whether to run. But Dee introduced me from the podium and announced that I was going to speak. I was completely unprepared.
It was Dee’s idea of a test. Dee was a preacher. He valued oratory. Patrick Henry had set the tone in Virginia and, ever since, preachers have kept up standards. One famous African-American preacher in Danville, the son of a colleague of Congressman Lewis, asked me before throwing me his support, Can you electrify a room?
I decided to tell a story. There was a time in Baghdad, when the National Guard was patrolling the city in Humvees that had no armor on the bottom. The Guard called them cardboard coffins. For months, the casualties mounted as members of the Guard were killed, wounded, or lost their legs. Because the units were cohesive, sometimes drawn from one neighborhood back home, the carnage was devastating to their communities. As a 60 Minutes producer, I worked with the Oregon Guard to bring this to light. The story had an immediate impact. The Pentagon threw resources into up-armoring vehicles. We saved lives. And that, I said to the crowd, is precisely what we could do in the 5th District, whether it came to confronting the challenges of health care, the opioid plague, or racial injustice.
I was deluged with well-wishers, including a man who had worked in a Humvee factory. Dee was satisfied.
It was time to think seriously about whether it would be possible to build a campaign—a necessity if I should actually decide to run.
I called Congressman Steve Cohen from Memphis. Steve was whip smart, a canny politician, and a friend of Al Green, the singer-songwriter-turned-reverend. Steve invited me to the capital to show me the ropes. Come up to my office. You need to meet some people.
We had lunch in the members’ dining room with another congressman, Don Beyer, part of the Virginia delegation. Beyer’s advice was to get in the car, go to every one of my 21 counties, and build relationships. Beyer has an encyclopedic knowledge of Virginia counties. He knows every church, every car dealership. Virginia Senator Tim Kainestopped by the table and we were introduced. Suddenly, Congressman Cohen threw down his napkin and was on the move. We have to find Lois.
Florida Democrat Lois Frankel—a compact and determined powerhouse, with Mar-a-Lago in her district—was recruiting women to run for the 2018 midterms. I found myself racing with Steve through the maze of Capitol Hill to find her, hopping on the little underground train (that is among the biggest perks of Congress) and stopping outside the chamber. You wait here, Cohen said. I have to vote.
Within minutes, he returned with John Lewis and Steny Hoyer, the House minority whip. Both were warm and encouraging. Then Lois appeared and grabbed my hand. Come on, she said. We’re going to my office. Congresswoman Frankel walks at a furious pace. She is direct, no nonsense, and generous. You have to go to the D triple C [the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] and EMILY’s List today. I’ll make some calls. She wanted to know about the district, my background, my reasons for even thinking of this career move. Don’t let anyone tell you this is a dead-end job. It’s not. You can get things done here.
Armed with contacts, I made my way to the office of Travis Brimm, the southern regional candidate fundraising director at the D.C.C.C. After we exchanged pleasantries, the first words out of Brimm’s mouth were, How much money can you raise? He seemed uninterested in my district or my platform. The warm glow from my reception on the Hill had faded. You need to spend 20 to 40 hours a week doing call time. Eight hours a day would be good.
But we have a caucus convention, not a primary, I bleated. I have to get out to every county to build a field operation.
That too, he acknowledged.
Another senior operative reinforced Brimm’s message. I would have breakfast with a donor, he told me. Then get on the phone with potential donors. Then have lunch with another donor. Get on the phone again to prospect for donors, and maybe go to a political event in the evening.
It seemed like a dreary existence and completely contrary to the work that needed to be done to prepare for 23 caucuses, where delegate recruitment was paramount. How could you persuade anyone to stand for you as a delegate at a caucus without getting to know people, coming to meet them once, twice, six times? Plus, as a former journalist, I knew that the heart of my campaign would be centered around asking the right questions. The answers to those questions would build my platform. That would take time.
I hit the road, attending the annual Democrats’ dinner in Rocky Mount, the Danville Fish Fry (with a standout catfish chef), the Democrats’ gathering in Lunenburg County, the Greene County potluck, the Campbell County NAACP fish fry. I met with the founder of the Lefty Lunch Ladies in Fluvanna, the ReSisters in Bedford. I traveled the proposed route for a fracked gas pipeline with activists in Nelson County, and hiked with the chair of the Democrats in Albemarle. I attended the agricultural fair in Franklin County and entered the women’s frying-pan toss (coming in a respectable second). I ventured to Pino’s Pizza in Lawrenceville on the North Carolina border, in a county called Brunswick, where the economy is dependent on the local prisons. I met the chair of the Democratic Party, Dr. Kyle Williamson, whose mother was a prison guard and whose brother was a felon. When I asked where the bus stop was, he said, “Richmond,” an hour and a half down the road.
The ultimate decision—to take the plunge and run—was cumulative. It was Kyle saying things were so bad in Brunswick that the local McDonald’s had left. It was Peggy Whitehead at the Blue Ridge clinic saying 1,600 children would lose health care if the Affordable Care Act was repealed. It was Carolyn Reilly at Four Corners Farm, in Franklin, showing me where an unnecessary gas pipeline would run through the back pasture, leak into the stream and, should it explode, blow up the house. I felt I could actually do something in Congress about the acute need for environmental protection, health care, transportation, opioid treatment, criminal justice, and the starved public schools. I decided, in mid-July, to declare my candidacy.
Soon after, every issue in the district was elbowed aside on August 12 by the ugly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville. White supremacists, K.K.K. members, and neo-Nazis descended on Emancipation Park to show support for the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on his horse, Traveller, erected in 1924 during Jim Crow—a monument that some in the Charlottesville city council had hoped to remove. The night before, on the University of Virginia campus, their preferred chants were Blood and soil and Jews will not replace us. The marchers felt they had a friend in the White House. And when they severely beat counter-protesters (as police stood by), and one neo-Nazi plowed his car into a crowd of peaceful demonstrators, killing a young protester named Heather Heyer, Trump did not disappoint. He told the nation there were “very fine people on both sides.”
Doris Gelbman took exception to that. Doris is a respected attorney in Charlottesville who happens to be both of Jewish descent and gay. Her office is a few blocks from the park. She is the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. In the days preceding the rally, Doris tweeted her feelings about neo-Nazis showing up in town. The responses she received were chilling. They made comments about their belief that the Holocaust never happened, she told me. They asked me whether I knew where the skin from my father’s family was. They could buy it on eBay on a lamp shade. Gelbman felt vulnerable because the tweeters clearly knew her office address, which is public information. I came to the conclusion that the Second Amendment applies to all of us, she said. I went out and bought a gun.
The person who best understood the terror and despair unleashed by the rally was Susan Bro, the mother of Heyer. My children were not brought up to be prejudiced, she told me. I’ve known white supremacists in our county. Some said I shouldn’t have brought Heather up the way I did, to be involved. ‘She should have kept her head down.’ But I would always take a quiet stand, wherever I’ve lived, for racial equality, gender equality, gay rights.
Things were tough when she was raising Heather and her brother, Nicholas. We fell between the cracks. My kids never saw a dentist but twice in their lives. I remember when I was too poor to take the bus. Through it all, she raised a family that cared deeply about social justice. She understands that living in harsh conditions like hers can sometimes turn people into extremists. She thinks that hard times with no financial fallback may have helped breed the attitudes of some of the Nazi followers. And yet she wants the leaders of these groups to be held accountable for what happened to Heather. She was with a peaceful, nonviolent group. She had nothing but keys and her phone in her back pocket.
Days later, at the Methodist church behind Emancipation Park, the Reverend William Barber spoke to a packed house. His theme was the birth of a new civil-rights movement. If one thing could come out of the tragedy of Heyer’s death, he said, it would be a breakthrough in race relations, a new beginning. The reaction to his words was thunderous as the congregation stamped its feet.
I can still hear those stamping feet. The 5th District has become the front line in the age of Trump. John Lewis knows how to respond. I can still hear his words: Get up there and lead.
As I travel around the district, people often say, It’s your time—time for a woman. I feel that I am part of a tidal wave of women in 2018. When I went to a “candidates’ week” event in Washington, I sat at a table with Congresswoman Frankel and a group of women hopefuls. These are my girls, Frankel told the minority whip. I asked all of them to tell me their backgrounds. Air Force, Navy, C.I.A., tech executive, union organizer. There were no politicians among them. Each was highly qualified in her own field. Each was determined to win.
Thank you, Mr. Trump, for propelling me into such good company.