By Tom Steyer and Dorian Warren
Virginia’s story is America’s story. Its beautiful land has seen triumphs of freedom and aspiration, and yet it is also stained with the blood of indigenous people, slaves and soldiers, Confederate and Union alike.
Some of the best and the worst moments in our country’s history have taken place in Virginia. Black and white indentured servants rose up against elite rule in Jamestown in the 1676 Bacon’s Rebellion, hastening the creation of racial categories and the emergence of a system of slavery based on race. Yorktown is where America won its freedom from Britain in 1781. Less than a century later, Richmond became the capital of the Confederacy, and more than half of the Civil War’s battles were fought on Virginia soil. In 1989, Virginia became the first state in the nation to elect a black governor, Douglas Wilder. And on August 11, 2017, thousands of white supremacists marched through the streets of Charlottesville, where the day ended in violence and tragedy. A few weeks ago, they came back to double down on their white nationalism.
On Nov. 7, the entire nation will again be watching Virginia when it holds the first important election since Donald Trump became President.
The top of the ticket sets the tone for the state, and the contrast between the candidates and their campaigns for Virginia Governor could not be starker. Democrat Ralph Northam understands that the Commonwealth is strong because of the diverse voices, backgrounds, heritages and cultures of the people who choose to call Virginia home. Republican opponent Ed Gillespie has used an overtly race-baiting playbook. From the start, he has lied about Northam’s record and embraced the politics of cynicism.
Gillespie has released four offensive, racist, and anti-immigrant TV ads to score political points with Trump’s right-wing supporters. One of his ads opens with the words “Kill. Rape. Control” smears the entire Virginia immigrant community by associating them with the MS-13 gang. Gillespie’s ads intentionally inflame racial fears, and they directly appeal to the white supremacists that marched through Charlottesville this summer. This blatant fearmongering was designed to win over President Trump and his supporters ― and it worked. Last week, President Trump tweeted his endorsement of Gillespie.
Immigrants are our neighbors, our co-workers, our friends, and family. We are talking about people who have been in this country for decades. Families that want to stay united. Children who have only ever known one country to call home. DREAMers and refugees and workers—all of them central to our economy, society, and culture.
And unless you belong to the less than two percent of citizens who are Native Americans, your path to this country also began elsewhere — whether willingly or unwillingly.
Being American and being a patriot has nothing to do with where you started or how you arrived. It comes down to what you contribute to this country once you are here. The Virginian immigrant community is an essential thread in the fabric of our society, culture, and economy, as students, soldiers, workers, journalists, entrepreneurs. One in nine Virginians is foreign-born.
This election will play a crucial role in determining the direction of not only Virginia, but of the nation. The results of this referendum on the right’s bigotry will set the tone for races around the country in 2018 and beyond.
That is a big reason why leaders from every corner of the progressive coalition are finding common cause to back Ralph Northam. As Presidents of progressive organizations, we have worked in this race to register tens of thousands of young voters and mobilize immigrants, and those who support them, to elect a leader who will serve, not scapegoat, their community. Progressives are uniting in Virginia because this race is about restoring the soul of this country. It is about recognizing something basic, but supremely important: that we are all Americans and human beings, deserving of dignity and respect.
The vast majority of Virginians, like most Americans, want to pull together. They want a more prosperous, healthier, cleaner life for their families and communities. They want to rally around a positive, inclusive vision for a new American century.
They need leaders who will protect the rights of every person in America—citizens alongside DREAMers, refugees, and other immigrants hoping that one day this country will grant them the path to citizenship they have earned. Leaders who will advance an inclusive vision of the American democratic project where all of our fates are interdependent and bound together. Leaders who know the importance of investing in the American people and will put public needs ahead of corporate greed. Leaders who will not run from our most pressing challenges, but instead pursue bold ideas to address them.
That is the kind of leader Ralph Northam will be for Virginia. And that’s what this election is about. Virginians rejected the dark divisions of the past in 2016. Next month, they can move forward on a path towards a brighter future.
Tom Steyer is founder and president of NextGen America and Dorian Warren is president of the Center for Community Change Action.