By Holly Hazard:
Lost in the discussion of how minority Democrats won Medicaid expansion last month in the Virginia General Assembly is the story of one vibrant 26-year-old woman who may have made a big difference.
The story starts with the surprising change of mind of Del. Terry Kilgore, a long-serving Republican whose 1st District ( parts of Lee, Scott, Norton and Wise counties) lies in a poverty-stricken corner of the state.
Well-respected and powerful, Kilgore shocked many when he announced in mid-February that “too many Southwest Virginia families struggle for access to health care, often out-of-reach due to cost…It is time to act.”
After years of opposing Medicaid expansion, his new stance brought hope to the House Democrats, and more Republicans to the negotiating table. Eventually, four Republican Senators and 18 Republican Delegates joined with the Democrats in a historic policy shift to approve Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act.
Kilgore explained his change of heart by dissecting the health challenges facing Southwest Virginia—the opiod crisis, obesity, lack of pre-natal care and the financial strain health care costs puts on families. But southwest Virginia has been in an economic quagmire for years. Why the change of heart now? The answer may be found in the 2017 House of Delegates election.
From 2007 up till last year, Kilgore had run unopposed. However, after the Trump election, the Women’s March and a call for women to run for office, Alicia Kallen, a hospital administrator with no experience in politics decided she’d had enough.
Alicia joined the race in June and ran a smart, focused campaign that touched on the issues that matter in Wise and Norton County—education, jobs, and health care. She spoke to the challenges in her community at football games, county fairs, clubs and civic groups. Her campaign volunteers marched down Main Street in the 4th of July parade, allowing voters to see that the spark of progressive ideals was alive in their community.
When a group of canvassers from Northern Virginia staged a “Blue Migration” to Wise county one weekend to help canvass, they found Democratic voters at the door whom no one had talked with in 15 years. Alicia and her campaign gave Southwest Virginia Democrats the gift of a choice at the ballot box.
Predictably, Terry Kilgore still won. But Alicia Kallen scored 4,600 votes out of about 20,000 cast. And those votes counted. Because out of the dust of Alicia’s defeat came a belated understanding from Del. Kilgore that something wasn’t right in Southwest Virginia. Apparently, he began to listen to people suffering from a broken healthcare system, and saw a path forward that he was blind to before the campaign.
It’s not likely that the presence of 15 new Democrats in the House of Delegates or the win of Gov. Ralph Northam had an impact on Del. Kilgore’s change of heart. But those 4,600 voters in his district who finally had their voices heard are a different matter altogether.
This story has a moral. When Democrats expend energy and resources only on the races we can win in a current election, we deprive challengers like Alicia Kallen of the powerful force for good they can be in a loss–especially in a loss.
Every voter Ms. Kallen talked with, and every vote she flipped, should send a message to the Democrats in the legislature, the governor and the Democratic leadership: every race counts.
Thank you, Alicia Kallen.
Holly Hazard is is a member of Mason District Democratic Committee and is on The Blue View Staff.
Photo is of Alicia Kallen, sixth from left, and staff and volunteers from Blue Migration during her campaign for Virginia delegate last year/ Photo by Rick Clayton