Democrat Lawrence Gaughan’s campaign for the 5th district House seat hinges on getting non-voters to the polls Nov. 4
Lawrence Gaughan, a 47-year-old Albemarle County native, professional actor and founder of a Charlottesville-based nonprofit focused on increasing voter turnout and citizen participation, is the Democrats’ choice to face second-term incumbent Republican Robert Hurt in the Nov. 4 election for Virginia’s 5th congressional district.
On a recent fundraising trip through Rappahannock County, which is near the northernmost edge of the vast, 10,000-square-mile district that stretches from Southside Virginia to Fauquier County, Gaughan sat for an impromptu interview with the newspaper staff. He talked about his reasons for running, what he believes are the most important issues, and why he believes, as he told the Lynchburg News & Advance in June, that Hurt is “just wrong for Virginia, he’s wrong for our district, he’s wrong for America, he’s actually wrong for the world if you look at some of the things that are going on.”
Gaughan and his campaign, led by manager Joshua Norris (who accompanied him on the visit to Washington), have been focusing much of the efforts on grass-roots canvassing and organizing. And much of that effort has taken place in Virginia’s Southside, which some political observers say is the region of the 5th district with the largest number of non-voters, disaffected Republicans and swing votes. Gaughan lives in Danville, on the North Carolina border; Hurt is not far away, in Chatham.
When asked by a Lynchburg reporter to respond to some of Gaughan’s charges that Hurt is unresponsive to “regular, everyday people” in his district and instead works hardest for big banks and corporate interests — and a House Republican leadership bent primarily on thwarting President Obama — a Hurt campaign consultant said: “Lawrence who?”
Rappahannock News: How would you do things differently in Washington?
Lawrence Gaughan: Well, the first thing I would’ve done, last summer — they had a jobs bill that would’ve created something like $850 billion in public-private investment for infrastructure projects. I would’ve voted for that. I wouldn’t’ve been voting against the health care bill, relentlessly voting against it, that’s what the whole shutdown was about. It was just his continual relentless effort to try to kill the health care law by shutting down the government. So I wouldn’t have had any part of that. I would’ve been working on trying to find ways to make the health care law better and better each year.
So what you have with a congressman like Robert Hurt is a reasonably pleasant guy, a family man and a good person, but . . . he supports these policies that are . . . so devastating to the majority of the people of our district, that you have to almost . . . you have to wonder what his motivations are, and whether he has any interest in the best interests of the majority of the people here. And if he’s helped anybody in the last three or four years, I can’t find them. I’ve talked to people who’ve said they might vote for him, but he hasn’t done anything for them. And there a lot of folks I’ve talked to that he hasn’t helped at all. I’ve yet to find . . . maybe he’s helped some rich bankers that live in Richmond, but I don’t think they live in the 5th district . . . . His whole policy plan is to support limited special interests, that really have no ties to the 5th district of Virginia whatsoever.
RN: Was it in your plans, say two years ago, to run for Congress, or was it something you’ve been considering for a while?
LG: I should say, and I probably should go on the record saying this, that the minute he got elected in 2010 and beat Tom Perrillo, I’ve thought about doing this.
RN: What prepared you for this, not having held elective office before?
LG: I’d say the thing that prepared me the most was my upbringing in a bipartisan household. Listening to my parents, my mother was a Republican, her adoptive parents were hard-line Republicans . . . That gave me a lot to develop in terms of what makes this country tick. If half of us are Republicans and half are Democrats, how do we function? How do we get along? But then I realized, somewhere around 2000, that half of us are actually non-voters. So we’re not divided fifty-fifty — we’re divided 25 percent Republican, 25 percent or more Democrat, and a large portion, 40 to 50 percent, not voters at all.
And so at that point I started to research voter turnout, and I started to work for more campaigns and get involved in more . . . political operations and doing campaign work and working for the Democratic Party and doing fundraising on behalf of the party and actually working as a volunteer for party candidates like Obama. And in 2011, I enrolled in a graduate program in social change, a master’s degree program at Pepperdine, one of five programs in the whole country that are offered in this kind of hybrid of political science, sociology and a little bit of emphasis on business and entrepreneurship, and on finding ways to promote social change by just encouraging more grassroots efforts and getting people involved . . . A lot of the students in my cohort were focused on going into countries in Africa and working on poverty and hunger/starvation, on water issues. And I was more focused on here at home: You know, how can we fix this country?
When I graduated with my master’s degree just over a year ago, I figured . . . 2014 is a year when we have an opportunity to raise awareness of low turnout, particularly in a midterm congressional election. And if you fight just that one issue, alone, I think, and you reach people with a positive message that we want to help people, we want a government that’s not necessarily out of control and it’s not big, and it’s just there to help people, it’s just there to work, it’s there to function, to provide people with the resources that they need so that we can build a middle class, and create sustainable prosperity.
I founded an organization called Gov360. It was just basically designed to raise awareness about low voter turnout. I stepped down as executive director of that organization [to run], because it’s a nonprofit organization and I wanted to be sure that there’s no conflict of interest.
RN: So which citizens are not voting and what can you do about it?
LN: When you look at some of the really compelling data . . . well, people say poor people are the ones who don’t vote. But then you go in and look at a political science class at the University of Virginia, and 80 percent of those students won’t go and vote in a midterm election. That could be in [renowned political analyst] Larry Sabato’s political science program. And there’s no reflection on this data in the mainstream media. You don’t see this. If you did see it, if you did hear about it more often, it would change things. These political science students and these people who often are artists and musicians and actors, could be just anybody, they’re just not voting. But they’re very aware of what’s going on. They may not read the paper, per se, but they read a lot of alternative media.
RN: Does the research say that people don’t vote because they’re disaffected by the political process?
LG: You see where I’m going with this. Yes, people think: This doesn’t matter because it’s one vote against a $100 million. Or sometimes it’s irrational things like . . . they think the government is just completely out of their control, and they don’t realize that the President doesn’t really have that much power, it more lies in Congress, the House in particular. And they see the cycle of career politicians going into the House, getting elected — 98 percent of House incumbents get re-elected every year. So they see the cycle of people spending more of their time getting elected in two years than they spend focused on helping the country.
RN: How much of your strategy for the campaign is based on your feelings about voter turnout?
LG: How much of it? I’ll put it to you this way, there’s a lot of other issues out there. There’s an organization concerned with redistricting. Redistricting would be about two percent of my biggest issue. Voter turnout would be something more like 80 percent. Just to give you an idea. Which will come first, redistricting or voter turnout? We’re trying to get to the root of systemic problems. If people realize voter turnout is the root of the problem, then . . .
RN: How does Virginia rank in voter turnout nationwide?
LG: Above the national average. The 5th district in particular is better than the national average. But we can do better. Even doing better than the national average, you can end up with results that are not leading to true representation. Because you might have, as I said, only 20 percent of these young people coming to vote. Well, then the person who’s sent to Washington isn’t representing anyone under 45. Or rural African-Americans, their turnout could be low, like 30 or 40 percent. So then there’s 60 percent of the rural African-American community that’s not being represented by Robert Hurt. So that’s the thing we want to try to focus on is these areas where turnout is still low in the 5th district, even though we do well in the district overall. But we need to do better.
RN: I read somewhere in May that Hurt had raised $300,000, and your campaign had raised maybe a tenth of that. How is fundraising going?
LG: What my opponent will tend to do is raise a million dollars and spend maybe $600,000, $700,000 of that on attack ads. TV ads, negative ads. Really do nothing but turn off voters, in the long run. Even in his own party. So I’m looking forward to him doing that. It’s fine. We’ll take a positive approach. We’re not going to do any attack ads. We’re not going to do the cookie-cutter campaign that you’ll see from a Robert Hurt. What we will do is reach out to folks for money and support, and then also just reach out and connect with ordinary voters. And . . . yeah, he started out with like a $300,000 advantage over us, but . . . if you consider he’s going to waste $600,000 $700,000 on ads, and $300,000’s going to go to consultants to devise these ads . . . . We start out with zero, we’re about even. Because I don’t know if these people know it, but their negative ads actually turn off voters. I think they know it, but they keep doing it anyway.
RN: You think there’ll be a change with . . . what happened to Eric Cantor in the primary, for instance. People think his negative ads hurt him in the race against [David] Brat.
LG: Books have been written, studies have been done. You’d think they would realize that the negative ads don’t work. But that’s what really scares me, because I wonder if what they’re thinking is that they can depend on low turnout to win these elections — and that that’s why they run the negative ads. Sometimes a Democrat responding to a negative ad will turn off just as many Democratic voters because . . . well, that’s my Democrat that I was going to vote for, but they’re running these same negative ads, just like the Republican runs, and they just kinda go, well, the heck with it.
But there’s a movement that’s occurring this year, where it’s like a lightning-strike movement, where people are kinda waking up and going, “Wait a minute, maybe we should vote. It might actually change something, at least in this district.”
There are a lot of people in their 40s who haven’t voted since they got out of high school and were old enough to vote, and they said, “Well, the government’s just broken and I’m going to prove it by not voting.” And some of them are now just scratching their heads and going, “Hey, what exactly am I proving here?”
In our next report on the 5th district congressional race, we hope to speak with incumbent Rep. Robert Hurt of Chatham. Libertarian Paul Jones, of Charlottesville, also is running, as is Independent Green candidate Ken Hildebrandt.