On Friday, April 28th, the Democratic Parties of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County held a firehouse primary to determine the Democratic nominee for the 26th district House of Delegates seat. The two choices were Cathy Copeland and Brent Finnegan. Although I met first Ms. Copeland at her announcement, I’ve known Brent many years. Facebook tells me we’ve been friends since 2010.
Unlike a traditional primary, a firehouse primary has fewer polling locations (there were two, one in Harrisonburg and one in Rockingham County). In addition, the process is run by the party and not the state. However, unlike a convention or some caucuses, the primary is held in public facilities and is open to the general public, not simply party members.
When I first learned about this contest, I was interested in learning more about both of the candidates and their positions. After all, I would want the candidate I agreed with most to win this primary, in the same way, I would want the candidate who most was in line with my positions to win the general election. However, when I discovered that the Democratic Party would require each voter in the primary to sign a loyalty oath, I lost interest in the process. I was told that each participant in the 26th district Democratic primary would be required to sign an oath to agree to support whoever won the primary regardless of who he or she was or what he or she may stand for.
It reminded me a bit of the 2014 Republican Party of Virginia Convention. As someone who attended the previous three conventions, I looked forward to the one taking place that year. Although I had been expelled from the party months before I was told I could still participate. However, I was dismayed to discover that each attendee was required to sign a loyalty oath to support all of the Republican candidates in the following general election. As I was running for local office, I could not honorably sign a document pledging support to my Republican opponents.
Although I didn’t vote, I stood outside of the polling place for several hours on Friday in order to collect signatures for Cliff Hyra, a fellow seeking the Libertarian nomination for governor. I overheard Kai Degner, a former Democratic city council member, wondering if I would sign the pledge. While there, I ran into my first college professor. She taught Intro to International Relations at JMU which I took while a student in high school. However, she came back out of the building after waiting in line for some time stating that she didn’t cast a ballot as she refused to sign a document automatically pledging her support to whomever won the primary. I spoke to one candidate, Mr. Finnegan, about the matter, and he said he wished that instead voters were asked to state their support the principles of the Democratic Party rather than their wholesale support of their candidate.
For a party who prides itself for sticking up for the rights of the poor, marginalized, and those discriminated against, the idea of a loyalty oath ought to be repugnant to both rank and file Democrats and independents. In addition, the thing is completely and legally unenforceable so what purpose does it serve other than trying to guilt trip voters into supporting candidates they might not otherwise vote for simply because they wish to express their opinions? Should such a thing even be legal given that the primary was held in a public place, inside Harrisonburg’s City Hall? I wonder how many people who planned to vote in Friday’s contest, like my former professor, were turned away for refusing to sign a loyalty oath to the Democratic Party and her candidates? My advice to the local Democrats is, don’t hold your party nomination contest in a public place and invite the public to attend if you are planning to make voters sign a pledge to support you in the process. Not only is it bad public relations, it is also an insult to the principles of political freedom.
Lastly, congrats to Brent Finnegan for winning the primary. Unless another candidate enters the race, the choices for the voters of the 26th district in November are Brent Finnegan (D) and Tony Wilt (R). It should be interesting to see how they compare.