RICHMOND – In 2015, Lee J. Carter, an information technology specialist from Manassas, was shocked by 245 volts during a work assignment in Peoria, Illinois, when an electrician had incorrectly wired a panel.
He wound up injuring his back; for the next three months, he could not walk more than 50 feet at a time. Yet Virginia rejected Carter’s claim for workers’ compensation, and his employer cut his hours after he got better. That ordeal inspired Carter to run for the Virginia House of Delegates.
Few people thought he stood a chance of carrying the 50th House District, which includes Manassas and part of Prince William County. He was a little-known outsider challenging a powerful incumbent – Republican Del. Jackson Miller, the House majority whip. Though running as a Democrat, Carter said he did not get a lot of formal support from the state Democratic Party.
But on Nov. 7, Carter shocked the naysayers: Like David against Goliath, he won the House race by nine points, unseating Jackson, who had represented the district since 2006.
How did he pull off the upset? For almost two years, Lee said, he went into the community and talked to residents all day, every day. In the end, they decided they wanted him to come to Richmond and represent them.
Carter is a member of the Democratic Party, but he describes himself as a democratic socialist. He is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America; the group endorsed him in his 2017 election.
“One of the things I came to understand very early in the campaign is, if you’re to the left of Barry Goldwater, they’re going to call you a socialist anyway,” Carter said. “So I figured there is no point in hiding it. I am who I am. I believe worker-owned businesses are better for the community than investor-owned businesses.”
Still, the word “socialist” can raise eyebrows in Virginia politics. Scott Lingamfelter, another Republican who lost his House seat last fall, used the label in his final newsletter to constituents on Jan. 5.
“Last November, the state took a sharp turn to the left, electing people who truly do support a socialist agenda. Republicans were routed, including me,” wrote Lingamfelter, who was beaten by progressive Democrat Elizabeth Guzman in the neighboring 31st House District, which includes parts of Prince William and Fauquier counties.
“I believe that in the months and years to come, Virginians will conclude that this election of far-left candidates was not helpful to families, small businesses, and constitutional governance, the things I stood for when I served in the House.”
Carter, a former Marine, said he will look out for workers – and that is why he won by such a large margin.
“I just went out there with the help of hundreds of volunteers with a message of ‘I’m a working-class guy,’ and I’m going to go there [Richmond] and represent working-class issues. We knocked on tens of thousands of doors and brought that message directly to people at their homes,” he said.
Since the election, Carter has been deluged with phone calls from constituents and supporters with requests and ideas. He said the constant flood has continued to this day.
One of Carter’s supporters, and the top individual donor to his campaign, is Karl Becker, who works in the defense industry in the Washington area. Becker worked with Carter on Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016.
“Lee is very passionate about the inability of the government to serve folks,” said Becker, who contributed $6,750 to Carter’s House campaign.
“He experienced a workplace injury and discovered that workers’ compensation was not working for people. That got him involved in looking into other aspects of politics, and he is very much of the opinion that he can make a difference.”
Becker said he admires both Carter and Sanders for supporting universal health care and “Medicare for all.” Carter is sponsoring a resolution to have state officials study the cost of implementing such a system. The resolution has been referred to the House Rules Committee.
Also this session, Carter introduced legislation to more than double the sales tax on watercraft and to provide more protection for workers in the workers’ compensation system – an issue “near and dear to my heart.” One of his bills was aimed at covering Virginia workers who are injured out of state, as Carter was.
All of his workers’ compensation measures, as well as his sales tax proposal, were killed at the subcommittee level in the House.
For his House race, Carter put together a coalition of groups, including Let America Vote, which fights gerrymandering; the Sierra Club, an environmental organization; the Sister District Project, a Democratic effort focusing on swing districts; and Swing Left, a support group for progressive candidates.
Carter said the Democratic Party is in the midst of change.
“I think right now, it is a party that is torn between two visions of what it is supposed to be,” he said.
“I view it as a party that is supposed to be advocating for the issues of working people exclusively. There are a lot of people at the same time who view the party as one that should advocate for compromise between the interests of working people and the interests of their employers.”
Carter, who graduated from the Sorensen Institute of Political Leadership at the University of Virginia, said having a party of compromise would be fine in a political system with multiple parties.
“But in our current system, you have the Republican Party, which is unabashedly for the interests of the big corporations. So you need a party that is unabashedly for the workers to balance that out. Otherwise, things don’t function.”
Carter quoted former Lt. Gov. Henry Howell, an independent Democrat nicknamed “Howlin’ Henry” for his progressive populist views: “‘An eagle can’t fly with two right wings.’ We need a left wing.”
By Brandon Celentano
Capital News Service