National group wants to back Virginia centrists, boost bipartisanship

State Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta. (Source: Virginia Mercury)
State Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta. (Source: Virginia Mercury)
Published: Mar. 27, 2019 at 8:37 AM EDT
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Before spending money and lending support to candidates during this year’s elections for state Senate and House of Delegates, Unite America wants to recognize models of bipartisanship in the General Assembly.

Unite Virginia, part of Unite America, picked Dels. Chris Peace, R-Hanover, and Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke and Sens. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, and Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta for its first-ever “Unity Award,” which includes being honored at the first “Unity breakfast” Wednesday in Richmond.

Unite America, launched in 2013, says it is building a movement to “elect common-sense, independent candidates” to serve people, “not the party bosses or special interests.”

The group focuses on electing independent candidates to narrowly divided legislatures, according to its website, “where they can deny both parties an outright majority and use their enormous leverage to forge common ground solutions.”

The four Virginia lawmakers the group is recognizing showed a dedication to political reform that makes elections more fair and demonstrated a willingness to work across the aisle, said Matt Scoble, the Virginia political director for Unite America.

He said Hanger and Locke co-patroned many of the bills that would change Virginia’s redistricting process.

Hanger notably reached across the aisle in 2018 to get Medicaid expansion passed. He’s now being challenged in a primary by Tina Freitas, wife of Culpeper Republican Del. Nick Freitas, who cited Hanger’s voting record on things like Medicaid and gun laws as motivation to run.

Peace — who is facing his own primary challenge that also takes aim at his vote for Medicaid expansion — and Rasoul, Scoble said, showed a dedication to bipartisanship when they became co-chairs of the Virginia Future Caucus, part of the Millennial Action Project network.

The organization will make endorsements and contribute to Virginia General Assembly campaigns this year, said Nick Troiano, executive director and one-time independent U.S. House candidate in Pennsylvania.

“The reason our organization exists is to bridge the growing partisan divide,” Troiano said. “Right now there are more and more incentives pulling our leaders apart.”

He said Unite America likes policies that encourage competition and compromise, like redistricting and campaign finance reform and ranked-choice voting.

And since there are no options in Virginia for citizens to force a ballot referendum, the only way to accomplish those policy goals is through the legislature, he said.

Unite America was formed by Charles Wheelan, a Dartmouth professor who wrote “The Centrist Manifesto” and formed the Centrist Party in New Hampshire.

Virginia’s Unity Awards are the first the organization has given out in the country.

“It made sense for Unite America to start in Virginia to bridge the partisan divide in an election year,” Scoble said.

Scoble said Virginia lawmakers have become more willing to meet in the middle since 2017, when Democrats almost erased Republicans’ majority in the statehouse.

Last year, Unite America donated $1,000 to the campaign of John Vihstadt, an independent who ran unsuccessfully for re-election to the Arlington County Board, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, which tracks money in Virginia politics.

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.

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