Beating the tea party in Tidewater

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By Rick Howell

    Politics can often be a terrific venue for the mixture of business and pleasure. If you can’t manage it in Tidewater, so close to Virginia Beach, you’ll never figure it out.
    But I had no such trouble last week, working on the campaign of House of Delegates candidate Steve Heretick in Portsmouth and Norfolk.
    Heretick was waging what many considered a nearly impossible task, seeking to end the career of longtime delegate Johnny Joannou in the June 9 primary.
    Joannou had been there so long, he was like a familiar landmark, as well known as the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel. He’d always been a Democrat, but his views hadn’t changed much over the decades.
    Joannou had been the only Democrat in the House to vote against Medicaid expansion. On the issue of a minimum wage hike, he’d spoken at a committee hearing in January, and made it clear that his concern wasn’t for low-paid workers. “It would hurt my business,” he said.
    The Heretick campaign put it this way: “Joannou pretends to be a Democrat when he’s in Portsmouth, but goes to Richmond and votes like a tea-party Republican.”
    Steve Heretick figured it was time to put an end to that, and he had just the credentials for a serious challenge. A former chairman of the Portsmouth Democratic committee, who’d served terms on the city council, Heretick had long been a fixture in Tidewater politics and as a civic activist.
    But he was a progressive, cut out of different cloth than the conservative Joannou. Nevertheless, the hardest thing to do in politics is to beat an incumbent. It wouldn’t be easy, and would most likely be a close race.
    This is where I came in; well, my union sent me in. United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 400 sent a team of campaign activists into the district (79th House) to make the final push of door-to-door canvassing in the days before the primary.
    One other union, SEIU (Service Employees International Union) was there, along with several progressive groups, including Equality Virginia, the Sierra Club, and the New Virginia Majority, a top collection of campaign activists devoted to a progressive agenda.
    Our worst fears about the incumbent were confirmed the weekend before the vote, when the Norfolk newspaper reported that “tea party” activists had been asked to help Joannou. I guess they knew a fellow caveman when they saw one.
    Their efforts were dubbed “Operation Monkeywrench II.” We made quite a few jokes over that, I can tell you. We all wondered what “Monkeywrench I” had been!
But in the end, neither monkeys nor wrenches could help poor Johnny. The tea party’s rare assistance to a Democrat would fail.
    As we knocked on doors, especially in Norfolk, many Democratic voters said they felt it was time for a change. The five Norfolk precincts put Heretick over the top (it was closer in Portsmouth), and he won with 52 percent of the vote.
    As liberals/progressives, we believe that we represent the future, and that conservatives are clinging to the past. We made that happen literally in Tidewater; Heretick is the future; Joannou is now the past.
    The pleasure part of this experience? Well, nothing in politics is more pleasurable than winning. But I managed to have some other fun, too.
    For me, the sight of God’s vast ocean is absolutely a spiritual experience, and nothing clears my head better than that. Before leaving, I made it to Virginia Beach for a few hours: A serenity earned and well-deserved, if I do say so myself.
    In Steve Heretick, the GOP-controlled House will have a new voice, and he’s not afraid to speak up. I’m happy to have been a part of it.

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Rick Howell, a Bedford native, can be reached by e-mail at RickDem117@gmail.com.