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2018-03-07 / Featured / Front Page

Across the aisle, the face of county politics is increasingly female

BY JIM McCONNELL STAFF WRITER


On the left and the right, more local women are assuming grassroots leadership roles. Of the seven newly elected officers of the Chesterfield County Republican Committee, five are women, above. 
JENNY McQUEEN On the left and the right, more local women are assuming grassroots leadership roles. Of the seven newly elected officers of the Chesterfield County Republican Committee, five are women, above. JENNY McQUEEN It’s a busy Monday evening and the servers at Candela’s Pizzeria and Ristorante Italiano are pulling double duty as traffic cops as they greet a steady flow of customers coming in out of the mid-February chill.

“The Republican women are in there,” one of the servers says, pointing to a private room at the front of the Midlothian eatery. “LWCC are over that way.”

The Huguenot Republican Women’s Club had booked Candela’s as the site of its monthly meeting, which featured an address by Anita Ross, an Afghan refugee who came to the U.S. in 1999, graduated from James River High and earned three college degrees before landing an internship last fall at the White House.

Tara Carroll (front) is the new chair of the CCRC. Other officers include Kathy Mortensen and Carey Allen (seated, left to right) along with Carmen Williams and Stacey Davenport (standing, left to right). JENNY McQUEEN Tara Carroll (front) is the new chair of the CCRC. Other officers include Kathy Mortensen and Carey Allen (seated, left to right) along with Carmen Williams and Stacey Davenport (standing, left to right). JENNY McQUEEN A few days earlier, the club’s leaders learned that another local political group, the Liberal Women of Chesterfield County, also reserved space at Candela’s the same night for a discussion about gun control. Dee Dee Van Buren, president of HRWC, initially expressed concern to restaurant management about hosting simultaneous events for organizations on opposite ends of the political spectrum. But despite being separated by just a few feet and a wall, the night ended without incident or even the exchange of an unkind word.

“It was a non-issue, really,” Van Buren said during a subsequent interview. “I do find it humorous that we booked the restaurant months in advance and they booked it the week before our meeting. But if they want to come where we are, bless their hearts. We’re big girls. We can take care of ourselves.”

LWCC’s founder, Kim Drew Wright, insists it was purely coincidental that both ended up in the same place at the same time. When its leaders realized a group of Republicans also would be there, she says, they sent out a message advising members not to “engage” with them.

Just 16 months after it was formed, Wright’s group has risen quickly to prominence within local left-leaning political circles. Five of the six people elected in January as officers of the Chesterfield County Democratic Committee also are members of LWCC. Their primary goals are to unseat U.S. Rep. Dave Brat, R-7th District, in November and claim a majority on Chesterfield’s GOP-controlled Board of Supervisors next year.

Among those standing in their way are the newly elected officers of the Chesterfield County Republican Committee, including Chairwoman Tara Carroll and four other women in leadership positions: Carey Allen, Kathy Mortensen, Stacey Davenport and Carmen Williams. Prior to this election, the committee’s officers included three women and four men.

“Women gaining positions of power and decision-making is a good thing in the time we are in – even on the other side of the aisle,” says Wright, who thinks the outcome of the CCRC election was a “reaction” to the LWCC’s growing influence in the county.

Women who have been active for many years in local Republican politics have a different take.

“If anything, I think there’s an emergence of conservative women saying, ‘You might be loud, but we’re still here. We haven’t gone away,’” says state Sen. Amanda Chase, one of two GOP women who represent Chesterfield in the General Assembly (Del. Roxann Robinson is the other).

Republicans Dorothy Jaeckle and Leslie Haley also hold the top two leadership positions on the Board of Supervisors, while Dianne Smith and Carrie Coyner are about halfway through their second terms on the School Board.

After he was elected to the Board of Supervisors in 2015, Chris Winslow appointed Gloria Freye to represent the Clover Hill District on the Planning Commission.

“We have always had strong women in leadership in this county,” Jaeckle adds. “We all came from a strong basis of community involvement and volunteer leadership roles. None of us were viewed as ‘Republicans.’ We were viewed as people who care about our community.”

Even as Donald Williams and Jerry Baldwin led the CCRC for the past 10 years, Jaeckle claims the committee was working to build a “bench” of young, energetic people willing and able to lead it into the future.

Carroll “has always been one of those people,” Haley says. “We saw what she did with HRWC. She built great relationships. She’s invested in the community. She can stand up in front of a group of people and lead them in an organized fashion.” Carroll, a Chesterfield native, acknowledges that political activism is in her DNA. Her mother, Ellen Nau, is a past chair of the CCRC and currently serves as president of the Virginia Federation of Republican Women.

Carroll grew up going to committee meetings, volunteering on campaigns and working the polls on Election Day. She babysat the children of former Gov. George Allen and his wife, Susan, and sang at an event for Oliver North’s U.S. Senate campaign in 1994.

She has done grassroots volunteer political work for Allen, former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore and many local Republican candidates, including Robinson, Haley, Winslow, Del. Lee Ware and state Sen. Glen Sturtevant. She also held a variety of roles with HRWC, including president, before succeeding Baldwin as leader of CCRC.

“I believe the most impactful political work starts at a local level and it is our responsibility as citizens – and particularly as parents – to be involved,” Carroll says.

Asked about the perception that the local GOP is elevating women to positions of authority as part of a strategy to stifle LWCC’s momentum, Carroll calls that “an offensive fallacy.”

“It has been my lifelong experience that women have been respected and promoted by the Chesterfield County Republican Committee based on merit. This is far more valuable and enlightened than the advancement of females based solely on their gender as part of a provocative oppositional movement,” she says.

LWCC is aligned with several other left-leaning organizations that have sprung up since Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016. Many of its members participated in the Women’s March on Washington and continue to advocate on a variety of hot-button national issues, particularly the push to preserve the Affordable Care Act against Republican efforts to kill it.

Wright and others also have persistently lobbied state lawmakers to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment as part of an effort to have it added to the U.S. Constitution.

Chase, who has faced scathing criticism on social media for her stance, thinks the ERA is a federal issue and should be taken up by Congress, not state legislatures.

“There are things we can agree on. Conservatives and liberal women both want to be respected and to receive equal pay for equal work,” she says. “I think people’s hearts are in the right place, but you have to go about it through the right process.”

Jaeckle suggests there has been a national effort to “shame or silence” women who don’t ascribe to the liberal ideology. The most effective way to push back against that, she says, is for Republicans to keep producing positive results in the local community.

Noting LWCC’s motivation to unseat as many Republican officials as possible in upcoming elections, Van Buren says Chesterfield is “a great place to live” and citizens have decades of GOP leadership to thank for that.

“We have a lot of really good things going on here,” she adds. “To say we want to throw out all the Republicans … that seems to me like throwing out the baby with the bathwater.” ¦

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