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Halifax Dems offer support to Cockburn at Monday caucus

South Boston NewsSouth Boston News
Democratic supporters of Leslie Cockburn take a seat. / April 19, 2018
The Halifax County Democratic caucus on Monday night drew 153 participants who expressed their preference for a nominee to take on 5th District Republican congressman Tom Garrett in the fall midterm election.

Halifax Democrats handed the lion’s share of the county’s 11 delegates to Leslie Cockburn, an investigative journalist-turned-politician who has emerged as the frontrunner in the race to become the Democratic candidate on the Nov. 6 ballot.

Cockburn, a resident of Rappahannock County, captured nine of Halifax’s 11 delegates, with Charlottesville attorney Andrew Sneathern taking the two other delegates. The other contenders in the Democratic field — Roger Dean Huffstetler and Ben Cullop, both of Charlottesville — were shut out.

On Tuesday, Cullop announced he was dropping out of the race after failing to accumulate any delegates in the first two rounds of local caucuses.

Localities around the 5th District are holding caucuses this week to elect delegates leading up to the Democratic nominating convention in Farmville on May 5. To become the nominee, candidates must capture a majority of the 250 delegates at the Farmville district convention.

By the end of Tuesday, Cockburn held an unofficial lead of 88 delegates — only 38 shy of a 126-vote majority. Sneathern had 34 delegates and Huffstetler held 25.

Halifax was among four counties that hosted local caucuses Monday night, along with Amherst, Appomattox and Henry counties. On Tuesday night, Democrats in Buckingham, Campbell and Cumberland counties held their caucuses. On Wednesday, Bedford was set to hold its caucus.

Previously, Cockburn had taken lopsided delegate counts in Franklin and Pittsylvania counties. She has won every local contest save three: Charlotte County, which narrowly went for Sneathern, and Martinsville-Henry County, which went for Huffstetler. She and Huffstetler evenly split Cumberland’s four delegates.

Monday night in Halifax, county registered voters who gathered to take part in the nomination process filed into the Mary Bethune gym before the doors were locked at 6:30 p.m. to signal the start of the caucus. Participates were told to assemble in the section of the gym set aside for the candidate of their choice.

With those instructions, 119 people took their seats in the designated Cockburn section, 34 in Sneathern’s, and 15 in Huffstetler’s.

By the end of the process, all delegates were identified, a caucus captain was elected, and a delegation chair was seated.

Halifax attorney Carol Gravitt, a local organizer for Cockburn’s campaign, was named the delegation chair, reflecting the strength of the turnout for the candidate, a correspondent and former producer for 60 Minutes and PBS Frontline.

Gravitt credited Cockburn for laying the groundwork for victory early by visiting each locality in the sprawling 5th District and establishing her delegate base prior to local meet-and-greet events.

“One of my main responsibilities,” said Gravitt, “was seeing to it that all of the delegate pre-filing forms were completed and sent in.”

Gravitt said Cockburn is the only candidate to recruit a full slate of delegates who pre-filed in all 23 localities before the deadline for each caucus.

Here at home, Cockburn also “took particular care to ensure that the delegates for Halifax represented the diversity of the county,” said Gravitt.

In an April 9 press release, Cockburn said, “I am honored to have such an outstanding delegation of community leaders, grassroots organizers, and energized Virginians standing with me at every caucus … We are building a strong and lasting network of leaders with whom we will not only win the nomination, but most critically, organize in every corner of the 5th District to defeat Tom Garrett.”

With all 435 seats in the House of Representatives up for grabs in November, Democrats are hoping to win back a majority in the House and possibly the Senate, where elections will be held for 33 of 100 seats. However, the Senate map is daunting for Democrats, who must defend the seats of 24 party members plus two independents who caucus with the 49-member Democratic minority. A large contingent of Democratic Senate incumbents are running for re-election in states carried by President Trump.

The 5th District is among the House races that are considered competitive in Virginia, where Republicans currently hold seven of 11 Congressional Districts. The Cook Political Report this week downgraded the 5th District from “likely Republican” to “lean Republican,” citing anemic fundraising totals by Garrett, a first-team Republican from Buckingham County.

“Garrett, a libertarian-leaning freshman, should be much safer than he is,” wrote Dave Wasserman of The Cook Political Report of the race. “The 5th CD gave President Trump a 53 percent to 42 percent margin in 2016, and Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam lost it by nine despite winning by nine statewide. But Garrett, a former small-town prosecutor, is still mostly undefined and apparently allergic to raising money. At the end of March, he had just $142,000 in the bank.”

Wasserman, also a contributor to, a data-driven politics and sports analysis site founded by data journalist Nate Silver, noted that Cockburn, a progressive activist in local uranium mining and gas pipeline battles, “may now be better known as the mother of famed actress Olivia Wilde.

“Ordinarily, it would be pretty easy for a GOP incumbent to define Cockburn as a liberal elitist and coast to victory in a seat this Republican,” Wasserman continued. “But Garrett currently lacks the resources to build any kind of narrative in the fall, no matter what happens at the Democratic convention. The NRCC or Congressional Leadership Fund may eventually need to bail him out to keep this seat in their column.”

Unlike in other congressional districts in Virginia, 5th District Democrats opted to choose their nominee for the fall through the caucus system rather than hold a primary vote. Lauren Schopen, member of the Democratic 5th District Committee and chair of the Halifax Democratic Party, said that because of the state’s interest in moving to an all-primary system, this may be the last time the 5th District holds a caucus.

Schopen explained that the number of delegates allotted to each locality depends on several factors, including population and past Democratic performance. In addition, the 5th District committee weights rural communities to compensate for population disparities.

Schopen acknowledged that the convention process is confusing and a bit archaic, but it serves a valuable service for rural areas like Halifax by “making it personal.” The process requires the candidates to interact with each locality to understand issues and needs, rather than leaving it to advertising and yard signs to get the message out.

“Of the caucuses I have attended, I am impressed with the friendliness and spirit of cooperation Halifax has created for this important election process. This is not what you find in all localities,” Schopen said.

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