Rappahannock resident Leslie Cockburn launches bid for U.S. Congress seat
Donald Trump’s election ‘changed everything for me’
Rappahannock County resident Leslie Cockburn, a prominent journalist, author and filmmaker, will declare her Democratic candidacy for the U.S. Congress this weekend during two separate appearances in Virginia’s sprawling 5th congressional district.
“As you can imagine I never thought about entering politics, even though as an investigative journalist I’ve covered major issues that surround government. But Donald Trump coming to power changed everything for me,” Cockburn tells the Rappahannock News in an interview.
“And I’m not alone,” she adds. “[The Democratic PAC] Emily’s List says 11,000 women across the country have contacted them about running for office [since Trump became president]. There is a tremendous movement right now, a tidal wave.”
Cockburn, who lives in Rappahannock with her journalist husband Andrew Cockburn, will officially launch her candidacy Saturday evening at the annual Democratic Party crab fest in Nelson County and again Sunday evening at Little Eldon Farm here in Rappahannock County.
Then she will climb back into her car and continue introducing herself to tens of thousands of her potential constituents residing in the largest of Virginia’s 11 congressional districts — 21 full and partial counties stretching from the North Carolina border in the south to almost Maryland in the north.
“Larger than the state of New Jersey,” Cockburn is quick to point out.
“I’ve already logged thousands of miles in my car, visiting all the counties in the district at least twice,” she reveals, suggesting she’s been planning her 2018 campaign for some time. Several of her 5th district destinations were so distant that their residents inquired of the roving journalist, “Where in the world is Rappahannock County?”
“But there are things that unite everybody, very basic things,” Cockburn says of the meandering — or “gerrymandering,” as she prefers to call it — district, whether it be obtaining an affordable college education or raising the minimum wage.
“The [$7.25] minimum wage in our district is $1.50 less than West Virginia — $1.50 less!” she educates. “We can do something about the minimum wage.”
At the same time, Cockburn continues, each county in the district “faces its own unique critical issues,” whether it surrounds unemployment, manufacturing losses, affordable housing, poverty, drug abuse, education, transportation, or health care.
“Health issues are unquestionably number one in our district, they affect everybody,” she says. “Not just the fact that our congressman [freshman Republican Thomas Garrett, Jr.] voted to take away health insurance from 23 million people — and didn’t even bother to read the bill — but President Trump is going after Social Security and Medicaid.
“It’s on the table,” Cockburn warns. “The person who takes this job in Congress has to guard the rights of the people in this district. Whereas for years I was reporting from overseas, covering wars and other similar situations abroad, the most important place in the world right now is right here. Not over there. Right here, in our district.”
So rather than covering the political instability of a nuclear-armed Pakistan or growing power of the Taliban, the former award-winning producer for CBS’s “60 Minutes,” among other hats she’s worn, has shifted her attention to regional issues like the proposed 600-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline that would carry gas across several of Virginia’s ecological cores, including the Blue Ridge Mountains, on its way from West Virginia to North Carolina.
Cockburn is sharply critical of the environmental record of her potential opponent, Congressman Garrett, especially when voting on air and water quality: “Just on these environmental issues alone he has no concern whatsoever for people’s health. I find it absolutely astonishing,” she says.
If she were given a choice of congressional committee assignments, the journalist says she would choose the environment, agriculture and transportation.
“As a journalist alone I would be compelled to do something about these issues,” she says, expressing concern in particular over Trump’s recent cuts to the farm bill and its impact on Virginia farmers.
Should she win the Democratic primary and face Garrett in 2018, the contest would arguably be among the most closely watched in the nation, due in part to Cockburn’s background and the district’s close proximity to the nation’s capital.
So far three other Democratic candidates, all from Charlottesville, have declared for the seat, including U.S. Marine veteran Roger Dean Huffstetler, University of Virginia Health System staffer Adam Slate, and attorney and former prosecutor Andrew Sneathern, the latter endorsed by Gold Star father Khizr Khan, who gained much notoriety last year for sparring with then-candidate Trump.
Cockburn will certainly enlist and receive the support of state and national political figures, as well as others. Rep. John Lewis, the prominent civil rights leader and dean of Georgia’s congressional delegation, has already offered to campaign on her behalf, as have others in the House of Representatives, and she has some early support from the Senate side of Capitol Hill as well.
The eventual Democratic primary winner will need the help. Heading into the 2016 election, the national political source Ballotpedia rated the 5th district as “safely Republican.”
As it was, Garrett captured 58 percent of the vote in the general election, easily defeating Democrat Jane Dittmar. In 2014, incumbent Republican Rep. Robert Hurt similarly overwhelmed his Democratic opponent, capturing 61 percent of the vote to Lawrence Gaughan’s 36 percent.
Add to those odds the Democratic Party being in flux following last November’s defeat of Hillary Clinton — not to mention the Democrats suffering heavy losses in the U.S. Congress even while President Obama twice won a majority of the popular vote. As it stands now, 7 of the 11 Virginia members of the U.S. House are Republican.
But given current events in Washington, D.C., particularly at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Cockburn sees a much brighter future.
She recalls filling The Theatre at Washington this past winter with her talk on “fake news.” The positive energy she received from the audience, she now acknowledges, also spurred her to run in this next election.
“The fake news discussion resonated with people,” Cockburn says. “I’m optimistic. This is a critical moment in Washington. But what I’m really excited about is the Democratic party in this 5th congressional district. I’m impressed with how many people understand the importance of the issues, even those in the remotest of places.”