Douglass: duty bound, determined

This is one of a series of interviews with the 5th district Congressional candidates. Our interview with Rep. Hurt can be found here

John Douglass, retired Air Force brigadier general, former Assistant Secretary of the Navy and current Hume hay and grape farmer, says he has not received much in the way of either funding or advice from higher-ups in the Democratic Party in his bid for the 5th congressional district seat held by first-time Rep. Robert Hurt.

He doesn’t say this as if he’s admitting something terrible, though, instead delivering it with a grin and a shrug. “It’s been great,” he says. “They’ve pretty much been leaving everything to me.”

A cynic might say – keeping in mind that, as we all know, there are no cynics in politics – that the lack of attention is because Douglass’s chances of unseating his Republican opponent are not terribly good. Informal and in-house polls tend to bear this out, with one early survey putting Hurt some 18 points ahead of Douglass. But Douglass promises he won’t be returning to his favorite place in the world – his barn – without a serious fight.

“My opponent has been avoiding a debate,” he says, “and when we get up there, we’ll see why.”

Gen. John Douglass chats on Main Street in Washington, leaning on the latest in a series of Mustang convertibles that date to his days as a military consultant in Europe. Photo by Roger Piantadosi.
Gen. John Douglass chats on Main Street in Washington, leaning on the latest in a series of Mustang convertibles that date to his days as a military consultant in Europe. Photo by Roger Piantadosi.

Though Douglass’ campaign says Hurt’s handlers have turned down at least seven other opportunities for debates, there are two now scheduled: one Wednesday, Oct. 10 in Danville – Hurt’s home turf – and the other Oct. 15 in Warrenton.

“I think my chances are good,” says Douglass, whose military service includes stints in high-ranking defense-research posts for Presidents Reagan and Clinton. “We’ve done polling, he’s done polling . . . my positives are higher than his, my negatives are lower than his. That’s why he’s avoiding a debate, why he’s going to put it off as late as he can. Because he knows, when he’s up there, I’m going to grill him on some of these tough questions, and he knows what his experience is compared to mine.

“He’s a professional politician,” Douglass says. “Has he really created any jobs in Virginia, like I have, like bringing the Virginia-class submarine to Virginia, which created thousands of jobs here. Or some of the other aerospace jobs I helped bring here. Has he ever served his country in uniform? Is he a farmer?”

“I fit the profile of the district a lot better than he does,” says Douglass, adding that, in the 5th district – which spans western Virginia from Fauquier and Rappahannock counties all the way to the North Carolina border – some 40 percent of people “either live or work on farms.”

The 5th-district campaign may not be any uglier than higher-profile Senate and presidential races here in battleground-state Virginia, but Douglass has accused his opponent of supporting ending Virginia’s long-standing ban on uranium mining, and doing so while the effort would benefit his family – specifically his father, Henry C. Hurt Jr., an investor in Virginia Uranium, Inc., the company formed in 2007 to develop the uranium deposit near Hurt’s hometown of Chatham.

Hurt’s campaign has responded by saying the mining is a state issue, not a federal one – and that “Robert has no interest in uranium mining in Virginia or anywhere else,” as a recent campaign press release put it, “and any suggestion otherwise is a lie – plain and simple. In fact, Douglass’ pitiful attack is just more of the same Washington, D.C. gutter politics we have come to expect from his campaign.”

That press release went on to accuse Douglass of “lobbying congress to sell sensitive satellite technology to the Chinese – while lobbying lobbying against ‘buy American’ provisions for our armed forces” – two charges Douglass says are clearly and provably untrue. “Maybe if Corporate Congressman Hurt had ever worn the uniform himself,” said the email response from Douglass’s communications director Chase Winder, “he would know better than to question the patriotism of those who serve our country.”

And so on.

The points Douglass makes when not engaged in this thus-far proxy debate with his opponent, however, are worth repeating here.

On the economy, Douglass notes that there are counties in the northern half of the 5th district where the unemployment rate is half the national average. “We have others where it’s three times the national average. So what needs to be done is you need to focus on those counties where you have very, very high unemployment . . . We need leadership who can get the federal government, the local and state governments, and industry together in a comprehensive development plan for those counties where the unemployment rate is high. And it starts with proper funding of education.

“You know right here in Rappahannock County you all are struggling with your education budget, they’re struggling over there in Fauquier County. But we’re relatively well off compared to Lunenburg or Appomattox, or even . . . down in Danville. So in our more rural counties, we have to have some federal assistance to make sure that if you happen to be born in one of those counties, you have the same fair chance at education as if you’re born in Alexandria or Burke or somewhere else.”

On abortion and what constitutes personhood?

“Only our Lord knows the answer to that,” Douglass says. “But I will tell you this: I’m a pro-choice candidate and I’m not hiding from that. I believe that women and their families and whoever their spiritual-guidance counselor is . . . should make the decision. They shouldn’t be made by a bunch of middle-aged guys down in Richmond.”

Douglass says his campaign is “almost totally financed by individual donations. We do get some small PAC checks from some small organizations,” he adds, “but not corporate PACs. He [Hurt] gets a big chunk of his money from big corporate PACs.”

And if you ask Douglass to explain his feelings about the Tea Party – he’d made the comment to an interviewer in Charlottesville several months ago that the Tea Party was one of the things that most creeped him out – you will get an earful.

“I think that part of the issue we have today, in our political lives, is that the world is changing,” he says, planting both hands flat on the table. “We’ve known about these changes for a long time. There’s a whole group of people who try to pretend that it’s not changing. That they can just yell louder, stomp their feet louder, roll around on the ground, and that the changing of the world will actually go away. Instead of actually looking at what the problem is, what are the elements of the problem, and moving on to the next stage – solving them.

“So many of their solutions are to simply . . . get rid of the government. Just get rid of the government and forget the consequences,” Douglass says. “And these are normally people who don’t really depend that much on the government – or don’t realize they depend that much on the government. And when you start through the things that the government does, and you ask these people, ‘Do you want to really dismantle this, and just let it be chaos, and let every person fend for themselves, or whatever?’ – the whole idea of the Tea Party falls apart.

“Start with the Department of Defense. Is this something we want, that we should we all band together for the common good – and if so, what kind of strategy do you want, how do you get there? They don’t have anything. Zero there. And then you move on to the various departments, and you get to some of them, like the Department of Veterans Affairs, and they’re going to pull the rug out from under these people who have been to Iraq and Afghanistan four or five times, come home hurt, and they’ll pull their benefits out from under them no matter how much they’ve suffered in defending us.

“Same thing is true with elderly people. You pull the health care out from under elderly people, and real humans suffer consequences,” softly banging the table for each of the last four words. “Some will die. Some will suffer. Those are real bad things for real Americans. I just feel that’s wrong. You don’t leave wounded on the battlefield when you’re in the military.

“Yet you got people who never served in the military trying to make draconian cuts, people who would cut out services for our veterans, cut out services for our seniors, cut out the people who inspect our food. Try to do away with the EPA that tries to keep our water and air clean, get rid of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that would oversee all of our power stations. I don’t see real governance in that group of people – a coherent strategy. It all then boils down to just . . . turn it over to industry or somebody, somehow they’ll all might the right decisions, and serve the common good.

“Show me the evidence of that working. Somewhere. There are some examples, probably – but a lot of examples on the other side. Without some structure, where the common good is the basis for how you do things, things begin to fall apart very rapidly. Only the strongest and the wealthiest survive in those kinds of conditions. And I don’t think that’s how democracy should work.”

Finally, on defense policy, Douglass has some unexpected thoughts, which he prefaces by saying “I have always been somewhat of the guy who looks over the horizon and into the future. I’ve done that all my career.”

First, Douglass says “we have entered into a period of time when the major challenges to this country basically revolve around international terrorism,” and a new strategy is needed.

“I think we need a new strategy, and I think part of that new strategy would be to make sure we know who and what is coming into this country – across our borders, our coastlines, our ports. And if we were to take some of the money that we’re spending on offensive systems and began to focus it on the research and development we need to develop defensive systems, we’re probably at a period of our national history where investments in defense would provide more bang for the buck than all these invasions and overseas operations where we have troops on the ground for long periods of time. We lose a lot of kids, invest all this money – and when we come home it’s a lot different than what we thought it was going to be.”

“So I am a strong advocate for a shift, not a total shift but a partial shift, towards more defensive systems for our country. And I think . . . the president has evolved, as have a couple of his predecessors, into more of a strategy of tactical deterrence. Deterrence is what saved us from nuclear holocaust during the Cold War. And the tactical deterrence now is, we say to these bad boys around the world, ‘If you do terrorist attacks on the United States and we know it’s you – we’re going to come get you . . . We’re either going to take you out or we’re going to bring you home and put you in jail and you’re not going to like it.’ ”

Roger Piantadosi
About Roger Piantadosi 544 Articles
Former Rappahannock News editor Roger Piantadosi is a writer and works on web and video projects for Rappahannock Media and his own Synergist Media company. Before joining the News in 2009, he was a staff writer, editor and web developer at The Washington Post for almost 30 years.