With locality caucuses kicking off Saturday, candidates seeking the 5th District Democratic nomination for the U.S. House of Representatives are gearing up to finish the race.
The four candidates — Leslie Cockburn, Ben Cullop, R.D. Huffstetler and Andrew Sneathern — have varied backgrounds and experience, but all share a goal of unseating Republican first-term Rep. Tom Garrett.
On May 5, elected delegates from the 23 localities within the 5th District will head to Farmville to select the nominee, but the road to the convention has been filled with uncertainty.
The decision to elect a candidate via caucus/convention versus the more common primary election has been a point of contention within the 5th District Democratic Committee.
After initially voting 17-2 in October to hold a convention, the idea was floated to switch to a primary. Since the convention committee had not been decided until Jan. 11, members of the five-person group worried they did not have enough time to organize.
A conference call on Feb. 8 was intended to explain this decision, 5th District Democratic Committee Chairwoman Suzanne Long said. However, the call quickly devolved into fighting and accusations, and a motion to move to a closed session took 45 minutes to resolve.
At a Feb. 19 meeting, a motion was introduced to rescind the October decision to hold a convention. It failed by a vote of 16-7, with one abstention, and the 5th District Democrats proceeded with planning a caucuses for each locality and a convention.
Whichever candidate receives 50 percent or more of the votes from the 5th District’s 250 elected delegates will receive the nomination.
Ahead of the caucuses, the candidates spoke about what makes them stand out from each other, political platforms and experiences that would shape their service if elected.
Hometown: Hillsborough, California
Education: Attended Yale University; master’s degree, the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London
Occupation: Producer, writer, journalist, filmmaker
Experience: NBC News, CBS, PBS “Frontline,” professorship at Princeton, served on the Piedmont Environmental Council and the Krebser Fund in Rappahannock
Personal: Married, three children
Cockburn has worked as a journalist for decades. This experience would allow her to get involved in Congress quickly and effectively, she said, and is the reason she’s already been endorsed by Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga.
“I have had so much experience as a journalist holding people’s feet to the fire that I got to know Congress quite well and I would definitely be hitting the ground running,” she said.
The ability to talk and listen to people from all walks of life and societal positions is an important skill for a public official, she said.
Her campaign is motivated by President Donald Trump’s election, specifically fears that he will undermine government institutions and democracy.
“When there’s a president who comes in and endangers the whole system, endangers our democracy, I felt it was time for someone with my kind of skills to stand up,” she said. “I feel like people will look back and say, ‘What exactly were you doing in 2018?’ and I want to be able to tell my grandchildren I stood up in 2018. It’s that simple.”
Cockburn said that as a woman she feels it is a particularly important time to seek office and effect meaningful change.
“This is a wave year for women, which is important because there are certain issues on the Hill where I would join women members of Congress to get things done,” she said.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in history and government, the University of Virginia; MBA, UVa
Occupation: Financial adviser
Experience: Member of the UVa Children’s Hospital Advisory Board; member of the Albemarle County Police Foundation Board; previously served on the Charlottesville Retirement Commission
Personal: Married, two children
Born and raised in the 5th District, Cullop cites local knowledge and ties among his political assets.
“As we travel around, the people I see on the campaign trail are my friends, relatives, neighbors,” he said. “When I see them struggling to get a good job or to get access to high-quality health care, that’s personal to me because I’ve known these people my entire life.”
The people of the 5th District have not been well-represented by Garrett, Cullop said, and as congressman he would seek to give the people their voice back.
“The first thing about being a leader is just showing up,” he said. “One of the things that I’ve prided myself on in the campaign, and I plan to continue if elected, is accessibility and transparency, and I plan to do an in-person town hall in every locality in the district in my first year of office.”
If elected, one of the first things Cullop said he’d seek to do is get corporate money out of politics, which he believes would help solve problems like gun violence and high prescription drug prices.
“I’ve pledged not to take a dime from corporate PACs,” he said. “Big corporations are unfairly influencing policy in Washington and if we can get big corporate money out of Washington, then we can solve a lot of the other problems facing our democracy.”
Hometown: Gastonia, North Carolina
Education: Bachelor’s degree in chemistry, University of West Georgia; MBA, Harvard Business School; MPA, Harvard Kennedy School
Occupation: Senior adviser, Tom Tom Founders Festival
Experience: Chief of staff for Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass.; sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps; co-founder of Zillabyte and Twilio
Personal: Married, one daughter
A Marine veteran with experience in the business community, Huffstetler says he’s a uniquely well-rounded candidate.
“I want to combine these life experiences to work on building a more inclusive and accessible economy,” he said.
Huffstetler said he is the only candidate with a jobs plan to grow industries in the district, something he has outlined on his campaign site.
“I’m going to continue focusing like a laser on creating jobs here in the 5th District,” he said. “What really drives me is making sure that everybody in all of our ZIP codes can be included in the changing economy.”
Though not from the 5th District, Huffstetler said his family has lived in the Piedmont region for hundreds of years. Over that time, they’ve gotten a taste of the American Dream, something Huffstetler say he wants for everyone.
“I want how the Huffstetlers feel about America to be the way that everyone feels about America,” he said. “I want voters to know that this country is for them, no matter the color of their skin, their religion, or the color of their collar.”
Hometown: East Prairie, Missouri
Education: Bachelor’s in economics, Southern Missouri State University; juris doctor, University of Tulsa College of Law
Experience: City attorney in East Prairie; prosecuting attorney for Mississippi County; assistant commonwealth’s attorney, Spotsylvania County, Virginia; assistant commonwealth’s attorney, Albemarle County, Virginia
Personal: Married, two children
Growing up in a small Missouri town, Sneathern saw the adverse effects of a changing economy firsthand.
With that experience in mind, Sneathern said if elected he will work hard to help similarly affected regions of the 5th District, particularly in the southside, and foster the idea of shared humanity.
“If I get the chance to be their delegate, I fight every single day to bring back jobs to this district, especially the places that have lost so many,” he said. “Try to bring back a reverence for the understanding that we have much more connecting us than separating us.”
Sneathern said his background as a trial attorney and city prosecutor rivals Garrett’s credentials. However, Sneathern said his additional experience in public service a while ago gives him an edge over his fellow Democratic candidates.
One of the most pressing issues facing the nation is a lack of access to high-quality health care, said Sneathern, something he would seek to fix by expanding Medicare.
“Health care is the issue I’ve heard earliest and most often in my discussions and throughout the district,” he said. “I would leave in place the [Affordable Care Act] and current market system, but would expand Medicare so there would be competition between those two.”