Virginia Senate District 10 holds 67 precincts. As you no doubt learned in the rough-and-tumble of the recent campaign to represent it, it is a state district that was gerrymandered from a solid Republican district to one that’s moderately Republican. That makes it the closest thing to purple that exists in a sea of Virginia reds and blues, though it’s not purple in the sense that it is politically integrated. In its long, inkblot stretch, it moves west to east from country to city, suburban to urban, solid red to solid blue.
For reasons due partly to its political geography and partly to turnout, only eight precincts in last Tuesday’s Senate race proved truly neck-and-neck battleground. The margins of victory in these precincts were less than 10 percentage points.
In the purple state Senate District 10, Precinct 506, outlined in yellow, was the most purple spot in last Tuesday’s election. The race’s victor, Republican Glen Sturtevant, edged Democrat Dan Gecker by just 25 votes of 1,243 cast.
Of the eight, six were northern Chesterfield County precincts that form a buffer, a partisan DMZ, between red suburbia and blue urbanity. On the precinct-breakdown map created by the indispensable nonprofit Virginia Public Access Project, the six are a pinkish fulcrum. To their west, the bulk of Chesterfield County spills forth. To their east lies Richmond, which cups itself around its edges, a helmet of blue.
The purple heart of Senate District 10 on Tuesday was precinct 506, where the margin of victory was 25 votes. According the Chesterfield registrar’s unofficial count, 617 people went for Republican Glen Sturtevant, a Richmond School Board member, and 592 went for Democrat Dan Gecker, who was their representative on the Board of Supervisors (though as an independent).
“I’m not surprised, at all. There really is a battle going on there,” says Mark Harold when I reach him by phone. Harold, who calls himself a political independent, was the past president of the Greenfield Community Association, and I find him only because the association hasn’t updated its board membership webpage since 2006, when he was president. He since has moved to a nearby Chesterfield neighborhood.
“The demographics have changed there,” Harold says. “Now, it’s much more ethnically-driven; you have more Asians, Hispanics, African-Americans. The whites are older and they stay because the house is paid for. You have a lot of people who have and a lot of people who don’t. There are more renters and they are not very civic-minded and, well, it really is a snapshot of what’s going on in America. We’re seeing the dumbing down of America, the wussification of America.
“It has become a prime example of the 10 percent of people who do the work and the 90 percent who live off their backs and it’s a fight there for the future of America.”
And then he really gets going.
The Midlothian district, where these precincts lie, is generally an unpredictable creature, Chesterfield Registrar Lawrence Haake warns. As in many places, the closer to home the seat is, the less party seems to matter. Republicans put Democrat Ed Barber on the Board of Supervisors in the ’90s, but wouldn’t send him downtown to the State Capitol when he wanted to go. They liked Gecker just fine as their supervisor, but turned their backs on him last week. In 2012, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney eked out a victory in precinct 506 — and so did Democrat Sen. Tim Kaine.
It should not be surprising that a politically integrated precinct would be one that is integrating racially and economically. Census tract data that includes Greenfield tell the story of a place that from 2000 to 2010 went from 98.5 percent white to 76.3 percent white. In 2010, a little more than two in three homes were owner-occupied. Median household income, adjusted for inflation, has risen slightly from $60,590 in 1999 to an estimated $63,895 in 2013. At the same time, an analysis by scholar John Moeser at the University of Richmond’s Bonner Center for Civic Engagement shows a marked increase in the percentage of people, white and black, living in poverty in the census tract that includes Greenfield and neighboring precincts. It is the classic statistical portrait of an inner-ring suburb.
But was does purple look like in 2015?
It looks like basketball hoops at the curbs and mailboxes painted with flowers and mid-sized ranches, split-levels and tri-levels with American flags hanging from the front porches. It looks like chattering kids walking home from elementary school and moms pushing strollers and retirees walking their dogs.
Precinct 506 and its kin to its west, precinct 509, where Sturtevant won by 30 votes, are lovely, older neighborhoods thick with towering oaks, with which residents have a deep and abiding love-hate relationship.
Purple looks like Democrat Marshall Lloyd, who is out walking his beagle, and who voted for Gecker because Sturtevant stuck him as little “too Tea Party.” Gun control is one key issue for him. “I own two weapons, but I don’t understand why people think they need a semi-automatic that could fire thousands of rounds.”
Mike Thompson, 76, and a resident of the Greenwood neighborhood in Chesterfield County, voted last Tuesday in one of the few battleground state Senate districts. He supported Republican Glen Sturtevant, who won Thompson’s precinct by just 30 of the 692 votes cast.
It looks like Democrat-turned-Republican Mike Thompson, a retiree who dressed Thursday morning in the shirt he wore on Election Day and is walking around his yard with an “I Voted” sticker affixed to his chest. “My feeling about Gecker, and it’s not just me, I’ve heard this from a lot of people, he was just too close to this mayor we got in Richmond and Gecker was involved in the baseball stadium deal,” Thompson says. “The city schools are going to pot and they want to build a baseball stadium? That just burns me up.”
In his opinion, which he gladly shares, President Obama has been a disaster, Hillary Clinton isn’t even worth mentioning and Donald Trump “has got a lot of good ideas, but needs to learn when to keep his mouth shut.”
Purple looks like the 65-year-old African-American Democrat who doesn’t want her name used, but who puts her hands on her hips when I ask her if she stayed up Tuesday to watch the election returns. “Did I stay up? You know I stayed up. We had a chance to win the state Senate.” She says she graduated from high school in 1968, and “I remember when we had a middle class. I remember when jobs were plentiful and you could work two, three jobs if you wanted them. The Republicans can say what they want; everything they do is about the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.”
And purple is freelancer David Hylton, who was picking up his child from school, and who has voted for both major parties over the years. “This time, both sides were extremely negative, so I voted third party to show my support for the need for a third party.” And it’s independent Butch Lowe, a construction worker who voted for Gecker, but who wants a Republican president who will push fair immigration reform, doesn’t want to confiscate guns, but favors gun control, and will work for limited government spending and legalization of marijuana. “I’m never going to vote straight ticket,” he says.
In the DMZ, those I interview are no less partisan than those in the eastern and western blocs, but they live among each other and know and like their neighbors. They watched each other’s kids grow up and still talk about how when Hurricane Gaston knocked out power to some homes for days, they strung extension cords from house to house and held block parties to cook everything in the freezers before it could go bad.
Harold, the former Greenfield Community Association president, may be right about this changing neighborhood epitomizing a battle for the soul of America. But at least here, where it’s a little harder to demonize all Republicans because one is helping you sweep up your leaves and it’s hard to hate Democrats because one just brought you a homemade cherry pie, the heart of it still beats strong.
Clarification: An earlier version of this story placed Windsor Farms in Senate District 10, as the Virginia Public Access Project map indicates. That precinct, 106, is split between Senate Districts 9 and 10. Nearly all of Windsor Farms lies within Senate District 9.
Never miss a Sunday Story: sign up for the newsletter and we'll drop a fresh read into your inbox at the start of each week. To keep up with the latest from Tina Griego, search for the hashtag #SundayStory on Twitter and Facebook.