National politics are local in Henrico, a new battleground for the Democratic party in Virginia. For the first time in living memory, every district went blue in the 2016 presidential election. However, it’s not a sure bet for Democrats, particularly in District 72, where Hillary Clinton edged out then-candidate Trump by only four points. Collectively, Gary Johnson and Ewan McMullin won 6% of the vote in this district.
Enter local high school history teacher Schulyer VanValkenburg, who is running in District 72 as the Democratic candidate for State Delegate. After 9 years in office, Republican incumbent Jimmie Massie is not seeking re-election; the Republican candidate for the seat is Eddie Whitlock III. He’s a lawyer who specializes in representing creditors and serves as the current Chairman of the Henrico County Republican Committee. RVA Mag caught up with VanValkenburg at his office opening to ask him some questions about his campaign and to see how it was all going.
Streever: Henrico seems to be shifting blue. Is that driven by local or national issues?
VV: You’re definitely seeing Henrico become more Democratic, and it’s local and national issues [when knocking] on the doors. People are increasingly concerned with the rhetoric and actions coming out of DC. But national issues aren’t their only concern. They’re concerned about schools. How can we make sure kids can prosper? How do we make sure kids are in a position to succeed? These are very local issues we talk about, but they’re affected by the national, and people are starting to feel the pinch from national decisions.
Streever: Like healthcare or jobs.
VV: Right, like Medicaid for example. If we were to expand Medicaid in our district alone, it’s over 2,000 people insured, over 100 jobs. People understand that those national issues connect locally. People are excited about the Democratic party and what it stands for.
Streever: The Atlantic Coastal Pipeline was a divisive issue for Democrats statewide. Where do you stand?
VV: I’m not pro-pipeline–I’d like to see us more aggressively move toward renewable energy–but it seems like this pipeline is going through. As a legislator, my responsibility will be to make sure that environmental regulations are being met in a fair and above-ground process, and property rights must be respected.
Clean energy is on the horizon, and I think it’s neglectful that the state is not doing what it can to incentivize clean energy. This is the first year we’ve had more solar jobs than coal jobs, and we should be encouraging that. That’s where the jobs of the future are. Let’s create middle class jobs, let’s make sure they’re careers that people can retire from. This is a project for a whole generation.
Streever: Some legislators have pledged to not take contributions from Dominion. Will you?
VV: To be above-ground and to do away with an appearance of conflict, I took the pledge. That doesn’t make me pro- or anti-Dominion, it’s just a way of keeping my decision-making clearly separated. Because they’re a state-regulated monopoly, the legislature has to work with them. The best thing we can do with Dominion is work toward the future, which is green energy.
Streever: Tom Perriello, who was anti-ACP, is headlining your office opening. Nationally, the party seems split between two wings, Sanders and the establishment. Do you identify with either?
VV: I’m going to keep it local; I’m a Tim Kaine Democrat. He represents the best of what it means to be a Democrat. He stands up for equality, inclusion, and he is pragmatic about expanding opportunities for people. He’s willing to get down and pass laws that will benefit people, whether that’s the economy or on healthcare.
Streever: On local issues, you and your opponent seem to really differ on education; was this the biggest issue for you?
VV: Education is the core of our candidacy because it’s the core of this county, the core of my career. People move to Henrico because it has some of the best schools in the state. It’s really at the foundation for this community.
The better your public schools, the less crime you have. There are so many studies showing that children with better educations are in less trouble and more likely to prosper. This is a big divide. My opponent is a fan of vouchers, privatizing schools, virtual schools. That’s something I wholeheartedly reject and I think it’s something our county rejects.
Streever: It’s national and it’s local–Richmond author Tressie McMillan Cottom wrote a best-seller, Lower Ed, that highlights the perils of for-profit collegiate education.
VV: Yeah, I’ve read that. People have seen the state neglect education over the last decade, since the recession. They’ve neglected it in funding. Counties are paying double now. It’s put a huge burden on Henrico, that’s why you have larger class sizes, less support staff.
They’ve also been neglectful on testing. Our current testing is very poor. We need state government working for our public schools, and we can’t afford to fund two systems with privatization.
Streever: What can you do as a legislator that you can’t do as a teacher?
VV: Having a public school teacher in the assembly–that matters, but actual change will be accomplished through legislation. Most legislators aren’t public school teachers. How do we fix student assessment? Right now, we assess them purely through a testing mechanism of SOLs, which are a bad test. So we are not creating whole students.
People talk about things we used to have in school. Music and art, tech training, apprenticeships. Those are gone because the general assembly focused on test scores in core subject areas. Economically, we have a whole generation of students who don’t have the skills to get into jobs that don’t require college.
Justin Fairfax [Ed: Democratic candidate for Lt Governor] talks about this. There’s over 100,000 jobs that require more than a high-school diploma, less than a college degree. An apprenticeship or job training program can get those kids really solid middle-class jobs.
Why are we asleep at the wheel on this? It’s the incentive structure the General Assembly put into place. Those are areas where you can get bipartisan agreement, but it requires people in public education to build awareness around what’s working and what’s not.
Streever: One of the speakers at your opening, Congressman Donald McEachin, has launched a federal probe into discrimination at local schools. Is this something you’re familiar with?
VV: I’ve been following this. The suspension rates and disparities in education are very troubling. The way we punish kids is not effective. You have the troubling civil rights issue and the effectiveness issue. When you suspend kids in such a high volume you aren’t doing the core duty of educating them and creating the opportunities they need as they move forward in life. I think Congressman McEachin is on solid ground here.
Streever: You’ve been vocal on Charlottesville. How do you think this discussion will unfold here in Richmond?
VV: Charlottesville is a clarifying moment for a lot of people. We are clearly at the point in our history where we either need to remove or contextualize these monuments. I think Dr. Northam was right though, we need to move this issue to the localities.
Whether you put them in a museum or contextualize them on-site as Mayor Stoney is trying to do, if we do it correctly, we can tell the fuller picture, which recognizes the awful legacy of racism and slavery that are part of our history. I think Mayor Stoney’s commission is an exemplary model of an inclusive and democratic approach.
Charlottesville tells us that equality and inclusion, core American values, will always have to be talked about and fought for. We need leaders who are going to stand up and say when something is wrong, because this is the core of who we are as a country. This is America; life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all people.
Streever: There was a wave of KKK fliers distributed in Henrico on Monday, right after the march in Charlottesville. What can you do about something like that?
VV: It’s imperative for leaders to condemn those things. People need to know that it’s not acceptable. As a Constitutional nerd, I bring up Martin Luther King and his I Have A Dream speech. He talks about the promissory note of the Declaration. He recognized that those are values that we have to constantly stand up for. You have to make them true as leaders and as citizens.
Streever: What’s the difference between teaching and running for office?
VV: It’s the same. It’s all about talking to people, explaining why things matter, why you should care about these ideas. It’s a lot like teaching. I hope I’m never seen as the talking points candidate, because I have too much fun talking about these things and having these conversations.