Mary Jo Sheeley is competing with the Girl Scouts.
Outside a Kroger in Chesterfield County, she stands opposite stacks of cookies, holding a clipboard with 13 signatures. She needs 200.
“Hi, I’m Mary Jo Sheeley and I’m running for the House of Delegates,” she says to one of the Saturday shoppers. “Do you live around here?”
It’s election season again. And while political fatigue or indifference might be a typical concern for people running in Virginia’s off-year elections, such candidates as Sheeley hope a surge in political energy will help them in races that otherwise might seem bleak. Like the competitive gubernatorial field, some races for the House of Delegates are shaping up to be a referendum on the 2016 results.
Donald Trump’s election animated Sheeley, 61, who went to the Women’s March in Washington and visited the state legislature with LGBT and women’s health groups.
“And I watched the guys up there not listen,” she says. “They’re not listening to us.”
Sheeley sees Democrat Gov. Terry McAuliffe as a positive vetoing force against the Republican-controlled General Assembly — but his term is nearly up. So a few weeks ago, in consultation with her husband and daughter, she decided to run for the Democratic nomination in the 68th District, where she lives.
Sheeley retired a year ago from her career as an environmental lawyer and volunteered for the Hillary Clinton campaign. Running is a continuation of that work, she says.
“What I’ve told many women is, you protest, you march, you write, you keep your voice out there,” Sheeley says. “But you also find candidates you believe in and you join the process to help them get elected.”
Women are stepping up in larger numbers. EmergeVA, the Virginia wing of a national organization that trains Democratic women to run for office, reports that its applications increased 200 percent the day after Trump’s election — including many for House seats. All 100 of them are up for re-election this year.
Two other candidates have filed to run in the 68th, Ben Pearson-Nelson and Dawn Marie Adams. The district contains parts of Richmond, and Chesterfield and Henrico counties, where Hillary Clinton took 23,697 in-person votes to Trump’s 18,922.
But Republican Manoli Loupassi has represented the area since 2008.
“District voters tend not to think at the state or national level,” says Deirdre Condit, a professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University. “They tend to think on individual level: Do I know this candidate? Can I get access?”
When Sheeley’s in the city, she acknowledges, in City Council’s 1st District that Loupassi once represented, most people know who he is.
“He’s going to be a force to reckon with because he’s been there eight years and he’s got a lot of financial backing,” she says.
Already, Loupassi has raised more than $92,000, including $1,000 from one of Sheeley’s former employers, Dominion Resources, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.
Condit says gerrymandering has helped entrench incumbents in Virginia, with parties allocating resources only to districts where they have a good shot at flipping.
“It spirals into self-fulfilling prophecy,” she says, noting that Democrats often have poor turnout in election years with no national candidates, a phenomenon she attributes to the decline of labor unions.
“But it’s an interesting year,” Condit says. “The questions is: Is the 2016 election enough of a disrupter in Loupassi’s district? For people who are not dedicated Loupassi voters or new voters, will it reach a threshold of attention? It’s an experiment right before our eyes.”
Loupassi voted this year to defund Planned Parenthood, prohibit cities from adopting sanctuary policies protecting immigrants, and for stricter voting laws — issues that have triggered protests and rallies among activists recently. Sheeley also cites LGBT rights as a topic on which she disagrees with him.
Loupassi’s office did not return an interview request for this story.
Attorney Bill Grogan ran in the 68th as a Democrat in 2015 and an independent in 2013, garnering about 36 percent of the vote each time.
For Sheeley, it’s a steep learning curve of new skills. She’s designing a website, hiring a campaign manager and raising, she hopes, half a million dollars. She also wants to knock on every door in the district.
“The dining room is now my office,” she says. “It’s just covered all over.” S