Candidate hails from Missouri farm country, but family settled Front Royal
The irony doesn’t escape Andrew Sneathern, who is running as a Democrat in Virginia’s vast 5th district: 10,181 square miles, larger than the states of New Jersey and Vermont.
The heavily gerrymandered congressional district covers the entirety of 18 Virginia counties, including Rappahannock, portions of three additional counties, two sizable cities included Charlottesville — all said and done, expanded and extended, stretching from North Carolina to just west of Dulles International Airport.
It so happens that for several years, while working as a lawyer in Charlottesville, Sneathern has served on the executive board of OneVirginia2021, which advocates for a fair and transparent redistricting process that doesn’t benefit or take advantage of a particular party. Or OneVirgina2021 states, a process that doesn’t “distort the electoral process, undermine democracy, and render legislative elections a meaningless exercise.”
But back to the irony: One would think that with the enormous territory provided the 5th that its creators might have done Sneathern a small favor and not stopped the district’s boundaries at Chester Gap and included Front Royal.
For Sneathern, who grew up on a farm in Missouri, there would have been no better backdrop than Front Royal to launch his campaign.
“My family settled Front Royal,” the Democrat revealed to the Rappahannock News during a campaign stop in Sperryville. “If you know where Randolph-Macon Academy is up there on the ridge there’s a cemetery there. That’s my family’s cemetery, Millar — M I L L A R.
“My mother’s side,” Sneathern educated. “They moved west. I have the original andirons from the house up there. So we went to Missouri and I came back. When my grandmother knew I was moving out here she said you have to go our family cemetery.
“It is a shame, it would have been real cool [to launch the campaign in Front Royal]. It’s not far at all. A real interesting family history.”
Not that Sneathern would have ever traded for the opportunity.
“Political gerrymandering is one of the greatest evils that has been beset on our democracy and I’ve actually spent a number of years on OneVirginia2021’s executive board trying to fight that,” said the congressional hopeful.
“This is the district where in my mind it is most evident, the ills of that. And I would put [Republican Rep.] Tom Garrett at the top of the exhibit list if I were trying a case against the gerrymandering. I’m a trial attorney so I think of things like this.”
Sneathern eventually left his family’s farm in the southeastern corner of Missouri, worked his way through college, and studied law at the University of Tulsa, graduating in 1996. Following his education he returned to his hometown and opened a private law practice — soon to be appointed city attorney.
Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan would later appoint Sneathern mid-term the prosecuting attorney for Mississippi County, Missouri, a seat that he later ran for and won in election. He and his wife, Larissa, who happens to be from Winchester, ultimately moved to Charlottesville in 2004, where he worked as an assistant commonwealth’s attorney for Albemarle County before starting his own law firm.
He’s also been a civil rights attorney in the general counsel’s office of the Department of Agriculture, and was the special prosecutor for domestic violence and sexual assault in Spotsylvania County.
So why politics at this stage of his career?
“I don’t want to get into politics,” he responded. “After the elections in November  I’m just more concerned for my country than I’ve ever been. I have two little boys who are 8 and 11 and I knew I was going to do something. I didn’t anticipate I was going to run.”
Approached by members of his Democratic party, Sneathern ultimately agreed to toss his hat into the primary ring, facing fewer than a handful of fellow Democratic candidates who include Rappahannock County’s Leslie Cockburn.
“I had a number of people come to me and say they thought I was unusual as Democrat. I’m unusual for the 5th district and probably for Democrats generally. Why? I grew up on a farm. And my family’s farmed for many generations and I think the Democratic party has not always done a very good job of reaching out to rural folks. Even though I live in Charlottesville my background is farming. My mother still farms in Missouri on the Mississippi River.”
Sneathern spent a good deal of time talking about the future of agriculture here in Rappahannock County, including expanding “agritourism.”
“Yes is the answer,” the candidate replied when asked about this county’s ability to survive in the agriculture field with urban sprawl creeping ever so closer, “but it is going to require investment at multiple governmental levels. And a buy-in to understanding that the margins in farming are . . . pushed to the extreme.
“Agritourism — tourism is so close,” he continued. “Look at Little Washington and how many people come there as tourists. That could be done with agriculture in Rappahannock. My brother actually ran a couple of restaurants in Old Town Alexandria. He spent a lot of his time looking for purveyors, that’s what’s going to be required.
“Tax policy is another way that we can encourage preserving this property and using it in a way that is most effective. It would not be effective to destroy what it is that people come here to see, which is the beauty of this place. I’m asking to be a legislator. I can encourage this,” Sneathern said.
“The number one thing you have to do in a job is show up. If I get elected I promise you I will show up.”