- Interview by
- Indigo Olivier
Earlier this month, Virginia House delegate Lee Carter announced his candidacy for governor among a crowded field of establishment Democrats. The thirty-three-year-old socialist and antiwar Marine Corps veteran is running on an ambitious platform to reimburse Virginians for out-of-pocket COVID-19 expenses, to establish statewide universal health care under Virginia’s Medicaid system, and to legalize marijuana and use the tax revenue to fund reparations, affordable housing, criminal justice reform, and more.
During his time representing Virginia’s 50th District, Carter has passed bills capping monthly insulin prescriptions at $50 (one of the lowest prices in the nation), expanding wage protections for airport workers, reinstating teachers’ right to strike, and establishing worker cooperatives as legal entities. Carter is the former cochair of Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign in Virginia and a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).
Carter spoke to Jacobin about democratic socialism, the storming of the Capitol, the threat of white supremacist violence, and why he entered the race.
Why did you decide to enter the 2021 gubernatorial race in the first place?
It’s a very similar story to why I decided to run for the House in 2017. I looked at the political landscape, and I kept waiting for someone to bring up the issues that I thought people needed to hear about.
In the case of my first House race, it was workers’ compensation. I initially ran for office because I was hurt at work in the summer of 2015, and the workers’ comp system was just horrible. I kept going to people that I knew who worked in politics, saying, “What are you going to do about workers’ comp?” And nobody had an answer. So I decided it was going to have to be me that steps forward, to bring that issue to the front.
With this gubernatorial race, I’m looking at the sort of cascading crises that we’re facing, between COVID, the economic crisis that it’s causing, the crisis of police violence that we’ve been in for a very long time, and now the very real crisis of fascist violence. I wasn’t seeing anybody in the gubernatorial race that was talking about these things in a way that was big enough to rise to the scale of the challenge.
Lay out the field for me. What are you up against here?
We’re up against every embodiment of the big-money political machine in Virginia. We’ve got former governor Terry McAuliffe, who is very close with the Clinton family. He is a multimillionaire many times over. We’ve got the current lieutenant governor, Justin Fairfax. And then we’ve got a longtime state senator by the name of Jennifer McClellan. We have one of my former colleagues who just abruptly resigned from the House to run for governor, Jennifer Carroll Foy. These are folks who are very well funded and are politically very well connected.
We’ve got the guy with the nine-figure bank account in former governor McAuliffe, three attorneys, and me. It’s very much the case that I am the outsider in this race — ideologically, politically, and financially on the outside. So it’s going to be an uphill fight.
The people of Virginia definitely have an appetite for something different, and that’s what I’m hoping to give them the chance to vote for.
Talk a bit about your time as a Virginia House delegate.
I’ve been in the House since the 2017 elections. Two of those years were in the minority under Republican rule. Two years were in the majority, with Democrats having trifecta control over Virginia. In the first two years, it was primarily a team effort to put political pressure on the Republicans to force them to do the right thing. We were able to force them to give in on expanding Medicaid.
There are roughly half a million more Virginians who have health insurance now, through Virginia Medicaid, that did not have it four years ago. That’s something the Republicans did not want to do. We had to force them to do it.
Since we’ve taken control of the House, I’ve been able to pass legislation to cap insulin co-pays at $50 here in the Commonwealth of Virginia and to ban law enforcement from strip-searching children. I’ve passed legislation to make sure that airport workers are getting paid appropriately. There were a number of airport workers, wheelchair attendants in particular, who were considered tipped employees, even though federal law prohibits them from asking for tips. So they ended up working for $3 and $4 an hour. Now they’re up at the airport minimum wage, which is around $14 an hour.
I also passed legislation legally recognizing worker cooperatives as a type of business in Virginia. As a socialist, I feel that the worker-cooperative structure is the primary method that we should be using to organize our economy. It’s worker ownership of the means of production in a very real, very literal way. There were a couple of worker cooperatives in Virginia before, but they were operating in a gray area. Now it is actually a legally recognized option, which makes it a lot easier to create more programs in the future that incentivize the creation of worker cooperatives and converting existing businesses to worker cooperatives. It also makes it easier for those existing worker cooperatives to operate. That’s setting the way for workers to own and operate their own workplaces in a “one person, one vote” fashion.
Could you lay out some of the cornerstone pieces of legislation in your campaign platform?
We need to reimburse people for their out-of-pocket COVID expenses, first and foremost. Whether that’s $20 for a test, or $200,000 because you went to the ICU, you shouldn’t be paying out of pocket because you got sick during a global pandemic. The [federal government] isn’t going to do it, so Virginia’s government needs to.
We need to make sure that when we rebuild from COVID, we do it in a way that we own and operate. We’ve got to end these corporate subsidy programs that Virginia has been engaged in for far too long, where we’re giving hundreds of millions of dollars to corporations like Amazon, Micron, and IKEA, and begging the billionaires in charge to give us some jobs. We’ve got to take that money and repurpose it and put it into the hands of actual Virginians so that we can build the worker cooperative sector of our economy. We can put people to work in jobs that they own and operate, rather than being at the whim of faraway investors.
We’ve also got to legalize cannabis and make sure that every single dime of cannabis tax revenue is held for reparations for black and indigenous Virginians. We have an opportunity to actually begin making reparations for all of the heinous crimes that Virginia’s government has been complicit in over the last four hundred years, from the genocide of Native Americans to slavery to redlining, Jim Crow, and the war on drugs. We have an opportunity, where we’re about to have a brand-new revenue stream, to start making reparations. It’s not going to be enough, but it’s the beginning.
When it comes to health care, I would love to have the federal government implement Medicare for All. They’re the best ones to do this. But if they aren’t going to act, there’s no reason that the states can’t. I’m going to fight for a universal health care system in Virginia that covers everybody. We’re not talking about “access” and “affordability.” We’re talking about actually being able to see a doctor when you need it, period.
Looking on the world stage, we have examples of places that are very similar to Virginia implementing universal health care systems — Austria, for example. Their population is roughly the same as ours, about 8.5 million. Their GDP is roughly the same as ours. They have probably the most expensive universal health care system in Europe, and it’s still 30 percent cheaper than the one we have here in Virginia, which doesn’t cover everybody. There’s absolutely no reason why Virginia can’t lead the way on that.
With a Governor Carter administration, one promise that I’m making is that even if I have to sign thousands of individual clemency petitions myself, our prison population will be at least 30 percent lower on the day that I leave office than it is on the day that I’m sworn in. Those are the major policy goals of a Carter administration.
How would you define democratic socialism, in your own words?
I don’t describe myself as a democratic socialist. I describe myself as a socialist, because I feel that democratic socialism is a redundant term. One of the core pieces of socialism is that you have to have democratic control over the economy and politics. If it’s not democratic, then it can’t be socialism, just definitionally.
The thing that makes me a socialist is that commitment to worker ownership. Our economy should not be owned and controlled by a small handful of people who have us working day in and day out, to enrich them while they play golf. It should be owned and operated by the people who are doing the work every day. On the small scale, that can look like a cooperative restaurant where, every two weeks, after workers clean the tables and close the doors, they bring out the balance sheet, they bring out the schedule, and they decide who’s working what hours and what they’re going to do with the money.
On a large scale, it looks like the Mondragon cooperative [in Spain], which is the world’s largest worker cooperative. It was started by about a dozen people in a church basement in the ’50s, and now it has eighty-one thousand worker-owners, and it’s never had a layoff because the CEO has to run for reelection among the workers every four years. You’ve got this spectrum of ways that ownership and control can manifest, and anything within that spectrum is socialism.
I’m fighting to make sure that the working class of Virginia and, hopefully, eventually, the world will have ownership and control over our own economy.
As an elected official, have you noticed any shifts in the political winds since the pandemic began?
There is dissatisfaction in every state, and there has been for quite a while. But since the pandemic, I’ve seen people realize that our economy, the way that it’s currently structured now, is owned and operated by and for a small handful of wealthy people. That creates this sort of house of cards where any disruption at all to the profitability of those businesses means that they just kick hundreds of thousands or millions of people to the curb. That’s what we saw with the coronavirus lockdown.
Now we’re starting to see people demand direct support from the government. We’re seeing these large-scale demands for at least $2,000 a month, but we’re also seeing more and more people come to an understanding that when we’re on the other side of this, when we’re able to look at coronavirus in the rearview mirror in the coming months or years, we need to rebuild our economy in a way that is owned and operated by us and for us, so that it’s more resilient.
So if there is another pandemic and another shutdown of the economy, it’s not investors in New York and London and Tokyo making decisions to fire millions of people to save their profit margins. We definitely are seeing people start to demand more economic power and more ownership over the economy.
Last year, you were targeted by the far right for introducing legislation that would restore state employees’ right to strike. Could you talk about that experience and the threat of far-right violence today, particularly the threat it poses to socialists?
This is part of a timeline of things that have happened here in Virginia. Of course, there were the multiple attacks on the city of Charlottesville in 2017. Those didn’t just start with the attacks in August that everyone’s familiar with. There were a number of torchlight rallies that were hosted by a Republican gubernatorial candidate, Corey Stewart, at the time, going back to May 2017. That’s what put the city of Charlottesville on the radar for that big Nazi convergence that happened in August.
It has continued. I’ve faced continual assassination threats for my political beliefs and political involvement, and for the fact that I am as outspoken as I am. Last January, there was another wave where a lot of the same participants — the Proud Boys, Alex Jones, various Nazi organizations — were in Richmond on MLK Day.
The event in 2017 in Charlottesville was supposed to be about a statue; 2020 in Richmond was supposed to be about gun laws. They got it in their head that somehow my bill to allow teachers to go on strike had something to do with guns. Don’t ask me how they made the connection — I have no idea. But they made hundreds and hundreds of death threats to me, to a number of my colleagues, and they even targeted mainstream liberals. There was a plot to kidnap the governor here in Virginia, just as there was a plot to kidnap the governor of Michigan. At the end of the day, there were twenty-one thousand people from all across the country who came to Richmond, many of them extremely heavily armed, and they essentially besieged the city for a day.
We came very close to there being outright bloodshed in the streets. There was actually a plot by a neo-Nazi organization to start firing into the right-wing crowd to induce them to start attacking everybody else. That was foiled at the very last minute with three arrests. The fact that the spark didn’t ignite things doesn’t mean that the tinder wasn’t stacked up.
We had this experience of weeks and weeks of these continual threats, and the people of Richmond were terrified. The people who work with the General Assembly were terrified, not just members but clerks and pages and the janitorial staff. Everybody that works in that building was terrified for weeks leading up to it. We’ve seen now what happens when you let extreme right-wing attacks and demonstrations continue uninterrupted, up to the recent sacking of the US Capitol in an attempt to overturn an election that their fascistic leader lost.
Alex Jones played a major part in organizing the mob that terrorized Richmond in 2020. He’s also admitting to financing a lot of the activities on January 6 in Washington. There’s a straight line connecting all of these violent attacks, and the lack of repercussions for the extreme right just further emboldens them. Virginia’s failure to deal with the Nazi problem has unfortunately become America’s problem.
What would you say to those who downplay the threat of right-wing violence?
I would say that it’s time for them to wake the hell up. These are people who are organizing violence in the streets, whether you’re talking about car attacks or rolling street brawls like we’ve seen from the Proud Boys for years. Two pipe bombs and a cooler full of Molotov cocktails were found in the US Capitol [during the riot]. I understand the instinct to say that it’s not good for the state to have the power to take these things on. But also, historically, the only time to stop fascists from taking over is when they’re in their infancy. We really are at or near the point of no return. They sacked the US Capitol. We either deal with them right now, or they will win.
People like to point to this white, downwardly mobile section of the working class as a defining demographic in national politics today. Many pundits often label this section as Donald Trump supporters. Do you agree with this analysis? If not, how would you distinguish between these downwardly mobile, white working-class folks from, for example, those who stormed the Capitol earlier this week?
Certainly, there are a lot of people that fit that category, that did vote for [Trump], but they’re not his ardent supporters. They’re not the people with the flags. What we saw at the Capitol was a crowd of people, some of whom took private planes to Washington, took very expensive RVs, or drove their $60,000 pickup trucks to Washington, DC.
The most ardent of Trump’s supporters are a class of people that like to portray themselves as working class. It’s like the kind of guy who calls himself a mechanic because he owns the shop, not because he turns wrenches. It’s people with fifty-foot fishing boats. To use more academic language, it’s the petty bourgeois backlash that’s always been the core of fascism. That was the class of people that most ardently supported Benito Mussolini, Francisco Franco, and Adolf Hitler. It always forms the core of a fascist movement. They use those cultural signifiers like calling themselves a mechanic to try to get working-class people to go along with them, but in general, it’s not the working class that forms the core.
How do we win over the working-class folks that may have voted for Trump but were not involved in storming the Capitol?
You’ve got to build a multiracial working-class coalition that actually stands for a better life. We’ve got to fight to make sure that anyone who is left out in the cold by our economy sees a better future in our movement.
And you’ve got to do it in a way that is convincing. It can’t just be the same old Democratic Party politicians again and again. Creating a means-tested program to give a $500 tax credit to people who attended no more than three years of college is never gonna do it. It’s about mass politics. It’s about saying there is a system that is rigged against you, and it’s also rigged against me, and we’re going to join together to build a new system that actually works for us, because we’re the ones that own it.
That’s the only way you can get people from all stripes of the working class to join a movement for positive change. They have to see a real possibility that things will get better for them. You’re never going to reach that petty bourgeois core. You’re never going to reach the fifty-foot fishing boat guys. But you can at least create the conditions where the people that they are trying to recruit see a better alternative.
What are your feelings about the future of this country? Do you have hope?
I have to. Our choice really is socialism or barbarism. That’s not a rhetorical device. It’s not a catchy slogan. It’s a reality. We saw at the Capitol that liberalism does not have an answer for the rise of fascists. They will continue getting more and more violent. They will continue getting bolder and bolder. The choice we have at this moment is to either build a mass working-class coalition that is militant in the defense of our people and our gains. Or we let the fascists win — and that’s unacceptable.