“I wasn’t really prepared to win!” said Jenefer Hughes as she stood on a chair in the middle of a crowded sports bar to thank her supporters and celebrate her triumph. Chesterfield County’s new Commissioner of Revenue captured over 55 percent of the vote to defeat incumbent Republican Timothy McPeters in a special election Nov. 7. While few in Chesterfield can even remember the last time a Democrat was elected at the county level, this post last went to a Democrat, who then quickly changed parties, 37 years ago. As political pundits obsess over the nail-biter elections to the House of Delegates, local races which may have more predictive power have largely been ignored. Is Hughes’ surprise victory the political earthquake that will set off a tidal wave of blue sweeping across Chesterfield County? Increasingly, many Democrats hope―and Republicans fear―that may be just the case.
While Richmond was long an exceptional bastion of blue, the surrounding counties of Henrico and Chesterfield exemplified the conservative strongholds that made Virginia into a solidly red state; both last voted for a Democrat for president in 1948. The Commonwealth hadn’t stumped for a Democrat in a presidential election in 44 years until Barack Obama swept the state in 2008. His message of hope along with the rapidly changing demographics of Richmond’s northern suburbs swung Henrico into the Democratic column for the first time in 60 years. Although Henrico and Virginia as a whole have gone blue in every federal election since, Chesterfield has remained stubbornly red―even voting for Trump in 2016. However, the Donald’s victory may have ironically laid the foundation for Chesterfield to swing to the Democrats in the coming years.
Like the countless women across the country exasperated by the loss of America’s first serious female presidential contender at the hands of a self-proclaimed pussy-grabber, one single mom in Bon Air decided that she had to get involved―even if she had no idea how. Jenefer Hughes hadn’t had much time for politics between her career as an accounting professional and her role as a single mother of two, but when she heard about the inaugural meeting of Liberal Women of Chesterfield County (LWCC) last January via Facebook, she decided she had to at least show up. Elizabeth Harden, the chair of Chesterfield’s Democratic Committee, told the gathered women if they wished to bring a new direction to the country, then they should start with their county and they had better run for something. With her skills in accounting and her technological savvy, Hughes made the decision that night to throw the die and run for the Commissioner of Revenue.
She ran a campaign fiercely dedicated to the issues―how to modernize the office and diversify the county’s tax base―while avoiding partisanship at all cost. “I never ran against my opponent, I always campaigned on what I wanted to bring to the office,” said Hughes.
In an age of tribal partisan politics, her disinterest in bashing her opponent and commitment to open and respectful engagement with all voters left some conflicted. Many of those who chose Trump just a year ago never saw themselves casting a ballot for a Democrat a year later; however, Hughes’ pragmatism and 30 years of Fortune 500 experience proved alluring. With her positive campaign, professional experience, and commitment to the issues Hughes won in a remarkable 10-point landslide victory and may have just pioneered Chesterfield Democrats’ winning electoral strategy.
Hughes’ trouncing of her incumbent opponent adds to the mounting evidence that Democrats can get elected anywhere if only they run. This past November, Virginia Democrats learned that the more people that run, the easier the races get to win. Hughes found that joining forces with the five Democratic candidates for House of Delegates seats campaigning in Chesterfield County mutually reinforced them all by allowing the campaigns to share their huge body of volunteers, distributing everyone’s leaflets at every event, and knocking on over 50,000 doors. Kim Drew Wright, the founder of LWCC, has already begun planning a coordinated campaign to challenge every office in the county and has vowed to find well-qualified candidates “to run for everything from dog catcher on up” in the 2019 county-wide races when the other four constitutional officer positions, as well as the Board of Supervisors, will be up for grabs.
As during the campaign, Hughes remains concentrated on the value and expertise that she can bring to the county. Although “Chesterfield County has changed, and people are waking up and wanting to make their voices heard,” for her, it’s “not about a democratic takeover of everything, it’s about balancing the county to government by both Republicans and Democrats.”
Hughes hopes having two parties in power together will drive the need for consensus and create constructive conflict that provides better outcomes for the citizens. Just one month into her new job, Hughes has been delighted by the “incredibly friendly and welcoming” reception her fellow county officials have shown her. She admits that her view of what is best and how to get there may vary from that of her overwhelmingly Republican group of colleagues; however, she hopes that they can write that all too rare bipartisan success story by reminding themselves that they are in it together to provide quality service to the citizens.
Photo Credit: Jenefer Hughes for Commissioner of Revenue