Candidates for Fifth District Democratic nomination speak at Charlottesville forum

Five candidates will vie for nomination to run against Rep. Tom Garrett

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The Democratic nominee will be decided in a convention this spring

Eleanor Barto | Cavalier Daily

The Charlottesville Democratic Party and the Albemarle County Democratic Party co-hosted a public forum with candidates for Virginia’s Fifth Congressional District Democratic Party nomination in downtown Charlottesville Saturday morning. The event at The Haven featured four of the candidates in competition for the nomination — Roger Dean Huffstetler, Leslie Cockburn, Ben Cullop and Andrew Sneathern

A fifth candidate, Lawrence Gaughan, announced his bid for the Democratic nomination Friday, after the panel was finalized. He hosted a press conference outside of The Haven Saturday following the panel.

Gaughan, an actor and founder of GOV360 — a nonpartisan, nonprofit voter engagement organization — won the Democratic Party nomination for the Fifth Congressional District in 2014. He lost the general election to Republican Robert Hurt.

The Democratic nominee will be decided in a convention this spring. The elected nominee will run against incumbent Rep. Tom Garrett in the November Fifth Congressional District general election.

Each candidate was given two minutes to answer a question — either posed by the moderator or a written submission from the crowd — and one minute to follow-up after every candidate had spoken. The forum was specifically structured as a way for the public to meet the candidates and be introduced to their campaigns.

Cockburn, who is a writer and filmmaker, commented on the unique state of American politics and how non-politicians are joining the scene.

“This is an extraordinary time and it’s attracting extraordinary people into politics,” Cockburn said. “We should all be very pleased about that.”

The other three candidates at the panel are also political outsiders. Cullop is an investment associate for Manchester Capital Management and serves on a number of local boards. Sneathern is a trial attorney specializing in prosecuting domestic violence and sexual assault.

Huffstetler, co-founder of the data analysis cloud platform Zillabyte and a Marine veteran who served in both Afghanistan and Iraq, also commented on this phenomena.

“I think what you’re going to find is that we’re very hardworking people who care about the future of their country,” Huffstetler said. “I’m really proud to be able to convey it with these folks today.”

Mary Alice Kukoski, a second-year College student and president of the University Democrats, said her organization is enthusiastic about the five candidates running for the party nomination.

“We are heartened go see so many individuals stepping up to not only represent the Fifth District but also challenge Tom Garrett,” Kukoski said.

The first question addressed how many Fifth District counties voted more heavily Republican during the 2017 election than they had in previous years, and how the Democratic candidates planned to address and potentially change this political shift to the right. 

A historically red district, Garrett won 60 percent of the total vote in 2016. Garrett won 22 percent of the vote in Charlottesville.

“We have to understand that winning this district doesn’t mean winning over the Trump supporters, it means getting out to vote,” Cockburn said.

The candidates emphasized facilitating greater Democratic voter turnout. They further called for open and deliberate engagement with all citizens of Virginia, whether Democrat or Republican.

“The reality is that we need to do two things — we need to show up, and we need to listen,” Cullop said. “And if we do both of those things in this district … we’re going to be able to be successful.” 

Sneathern also addressed reaching out to all populations and overcoming the harmful effects of gerrymandering in the Fifth District.

“If we go talk about the values that bring us together … then we can win,” Sneathern said. “I guarantee you that we will win.”

Huffstetler placed an emphasis on empathy across political boundaries as part of his stated campaign values of duty, empathy and commitment. 

“Empathy means that we understand that things are tough, and we care about it, and we listen,” Huffstetler said. “We try to understand people, we don’t try to fight with them, even if they don’t vote for us.”

The forum covered a range of topics including economic policy, facilitating job growth and opportunity and addressing racial and economic inequalities. The candidates also discussed endorsing the Black Lives Matter movement, supporting gun reform and universal, single-payer healthcare systems and condemning pipeline development in the state.  

The campaigns of the five congressional candidates — regardless of the ultimate Democratic nomination — have gained attention since Huffstetler first announced he was running last spring. Kukoski said she is anticipating a lot of focus on the race on Grounds in the fall.

“Regardless of the outcome of the convention this spring, we know that the political energy on Grounds will be high this fall,” Kukoski said. “We look forward to harnessing that enthusiasm, continuing to build on the great voter turnout and civic engagement of the past two elections.”

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