In what is shaping up to be a generational contest for the Democratic nomination in the newly created 11th state Senate district, Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Charlottesville, a 31-year veteran of Virginia’s state legislature, is facing 34-year-old Sally Hudson, a progressive lawmaker who was first elected to the House of Delegates two years into President Donald Trump’s sole term in the White House.
“In the wake of the redistricting, a lot of younger candidates for office are emerging, hoping to take advantage of new districts and electorates that may be more supportive of a more liberal vision of the Democratic party,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington.
Historically, Virginia Democrats have hesitated to be too liberal, because of concerns that they wouldn’t sell outside the cities and inner-ring suburbs, Farnsworth said. “But Democratic gains across much of the commonwealth in the last 20 years have convinced some Democrats that a more liberal vision wouldn’t hurt the party.”
A native of Richmond, Deeds, 65, was first elected to represent the 18th House of Delegates district in 1991. Ten years later, in December 2001, he won a special election in the 25th state Senate District, succeeding Sen. Emily Couric, who had died of pancreatic cancer.
Until it was redrawn by two special masters — one Democrat and one Republican — and approved by the Virginia Supreme Court in December 2021, the 25th District included the city of Charlottesville and much of surrounding Albemarle County, and stretched to include all of Alleghany, Highland, Nelson and Rockbridge counties and the cities of Buena Vista, Covington and Lexington. It also included Bath County, where Deeds resided until last year.
But after being paired in the same Senate district with Sens. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta County, and Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham County, Deeds and his wife, Siobhan Gilbride Lomax, decided to make a new home in Charlottesville.
“They cut the district I represent up three ways, and the other two districts are overwhelmingly Republican. I wouldn’t have been elected in either one of those districts,” Deeds said in a recent interview.
This new 11th District, which includes all of Charlottesville and ends just outside Lynchburg to the south, also includes the majority of the people that he has represented for the last 20 years, Deeds said. “That made it an easy decision to move to Charlottesville.”
The special masters intentionally drew the maps without regard for where incumbents lived, resulting in some districts that include more than one incumbent, and some that don’t include any. Instead, they focused on the “grouping together of like communities into the districts with similar population sizes,” according to a memo they sent to the Virginia Supreme Court last week.
“I enjoy the work of being in the legislature, and I just had to decide if I wanted to try to continue to serve,” Deeds said. “I understand there was no guarantee that I would be elected, but if I wanted to continue to serve, I really had no choice — I had to move.”
Campaigning in the new district hasn’t been that different, Deeds said, other than visiting counties that aren’t part of his old district, such as Amherst and parts of Louisa.
“I’ve spent some time introducing myself to some new people, but campaigning is campaigning. You’re still talking to people, trying to relate to people, getting to know the areas,” Deeds said. “The reality is, I’ve run for statewide office twice, so none of these areas are really that new to me. I’ve been there before,” he said, referring to his bid for attorney general in 2005 and his 2009 gubernatorial campaign.
During this year’s contest against a progressive opponent seeking the party’s nomination in an increasingly progressive district, Deeds has tried to shed his reputation as a moderate establishment candidate known for making deals with Republicans.
“I think that you should look at the facts — I’m an effective, progressive and pragmatic legislator. I get more bills passed than most anybody else,” Deed said. “I think that I have a good case to make. I got involved in this process many years ago because I wanted to improve the lives of the people I represent, and I think I’ve done that. I think I’ve proven that I can be effective and I still have a lot of gas in the tank, I still have things that I am passionate about.”
During the 2023 legislative session, Deeds carried a total of 38 bills, getting 26 of them passed, including 10 resolutions creating judgeships.
“My opponent in the primary will tell you that judgeships don’t affect people, but she’s absolutely wrong about that, they affect people dramatically,” Deeds said.
“At my insistence, we have the first African American on the bench in the Lynchburg circuit on juvenile court,” he said, referring to his Senate Resolution 163 that led to the election of Eugene Butler as a juvenile and domestic relations judge for the 24th Judicial District, which encompasses Lynchburg and the counties of Amherst, Appomattox, Bedford, Campbell and Nelson.
Deeds also highlighted his legislation requested by the Albemarle County School Board addressing a school bus driver shortage. “My bill allows retired school bus drivers and teachers to come back quicker,” he said. He also hailed his proposal that makes prank calls to emergency services in an attempt to bring about the dispatch of a large number of armed police officers to a particular address — also known as “swatting” — a Class 1 misdemeanor.
“If we look at the bills that I carried, you’re probably not going to find a whole lot of bills that have headline-grabbing sex appeal, but they are focused on solving problems,” Deeds said. “I think the state legislature should be in the business of making government relevant in the lives of ordinary people, and I think as a legislator that’s what I’ve tried to do for the last 32 years, and that’s what I’ll keep doing if I have the opportunity to serve.”
Case in point: Deeds this year successfully cosponsored landmark legislation to return oversight of the state’s utilities to the State Corporation Commission. “That legislation is significant,” he said. “Since 1996 I insisted there needed to be a transparent rate-setting process. There has to be some level of regulation, and we got that done this year.”
Since the tragic death of his 24-year-old son Gus, who in November 2013 attacked and injured his father at his Bath County home with a knife before killing himself, Deeds has also been at the forefront of sponsoring mental health-related legislation leading to changes in the screening and admission process for people undergoing an emergency psychiatric examination in Virginia.
Deeds said during his almost 30 years in the General Assembly, he has learned that to be an effective legislator, “you have to build seniority and you have to build relationships. Because you don’t get any time off from being a problem solver when you’re in the minority, you still have to work to get things done.”
While he admits that he is more effective at his job when he is in the majority, Deeds said he has also been successful when in the minority. “I’ve been able to work with people, and I try to treat people with respect, and they recognize that and they return the favor, so I’m able to work with people on both sides and in both houses.”
Farnsworth, the political scientist, said that in the new district — which Democrat Terry McAuliffe carried 59% to 41% in the 2021 gubernatorial election — Deeds is in a position to redefine himself in this election cycle, “because this new Senate district is dramatically more liberal than the district that he’s had to run in in the past.”
And the primary in the 11th District, like many others, is both generational and ideological, Farnsworth said. “I think it’s fair to say that Deeds is a liberal Democrat, but it’s also fair to say that Hudson is a more liberal Democrat.”
A native of Iowa City, Iowa, Hudson has been an assistant professor of economics at the University of Virginia for the past seven years. In a recent interview, she said she was “politicized” during the Trump era.
“I’d always been an engaged citizen, but like a lot of people I realized just how far off the rails our democracy had run in 2016, and I got more engaged,” she said, adding that her decision to become politically involved was “turbocharged” by the events around the white supremacist Unite the Right rally that took place in Charlottesville in August 2017.
“There is nothing quite like having actual Nazis walk right down your street to clarify just how close all of us are to the unraveling of democracy,” Hudson said.
“I had always been a voter, but after Donald Trump’s election I started knocking doors in the 2017 races. I think a lot of people recognized just how essential it was that we engage in state government as a last line of defense against the extremism that we were seeing in the Trump administration.”
In 2019, Hudson decided to run for the House of Delegates, challenging incumbent Del. David Toscano, D-Charlottesville, in the 57th House of Delegates district, which at the time included parts of Charlottesville and Albemarle County.
Toscano, however, did not run for reelection and Hudson faced architect Kathleen Galvin in the primary, winning with 65.5% of the vote. Hudson ran unopposed in the general election and won with 96.1% of the vote, becoming part of what she called “the first wave of Democrats that washed” into Richmond.
“For me, my call to run in 2019 was spurred by the realization that the class before me had gotten so close to securing a majority and finally put Democrats in a position to govern. In particular Democrats from seats like the one I serve have a real job to do in setting the pace for progressive reform in Richmond,” Hudson said.
During her two terms in the House of Delegates, Hudson said she was most proud of being named Virginia’s Legislator of the Year in 2021 by NARAL, a nonprofit group working to expand access to abortions, for her legislation repealing a state law that prohibited plans on the state’s health insurance exchange from covering abortions.
“The ban was one of the many barriers to abortion access that Republicans have piled up in the decade beforehand,” Hudson said.
“As an economist I’m always pretty focused on the financial challenges facing families, and that was one of them,” she said. “You can imagine what that’s like, sitting in the ER with the worst diagnosis that you can imagine, and then discovering that you’re going to have to go broke to get the treatment that you need because the one procedure that your doctor is telling you would save your life can’t be covered by the health insurance that you thought you had.”
Hudson said that filing the bill felt only natural for her. “That’s the kind of work that you get when you elect 31-year-old women. Nobody had to tell me to draft that bill besides my friends, because I knew people who have experienced that firsthand. It’s not like some lobbyist just dropped it on my desk,” she said.
You fight for things differently when you are working for people you know and love, Hudson said. “Representation matters in that way that at least some of the people we have in Richmond are women who might one day need to exercise their reproductive rights some day.”
As a lawmaker with a keen interest in energy-related legislation, Hudson said that she is also proud of her efforts in repealing two of Virginia’s coal tax credits that a state investigation had found generated economic losses for the commonwealth.
“I serve a community that is deeply committed to protecting the planet. That’s why energy reform work has been on the top of my list,” Hudson said. “I have also been one of the leading legislators in the House at overhauling how we hold our utilities accountable for fair pricing, and I think we’ve made a ton of progress on that in the last four years, not just in legislation but in reshaping culture conversation around utility reform in Richmond.”
As an economist, Hudson said that she supports workers, which is why in 2022 she carried a measure that granted debt relief to workers who were caught in the trap of overpayments from the Virginia Employment Commission during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The initial estimate of that was going to forgive about $20 million in debt. I think the latest report we got from VEC last month puts it at well over $200 million for workers who would have been out of that money if I hadn’t taken care of that legislation,” Hudson said.
Despite her accomplishments in the legislature, taking on Deeds has proven an uphill battle, at least in terms of fundraising. By the end of March, Deeds had raised a total of $680,000, compared to Hudson’s $270,000.
Hudson still believes that it is time for a generational shift in the state Senate.
“He has lived and served in Bath County for longer than I’ve been alive, and I think he has a lot to be proud of in those three-plus decades of public service,” she said of her Democratic opponent.
But the new 11th Senate District that Deeds has moved into is one of the strongest blue seats in Virginia, “and I think it needs a senator who is going to set the pace on progressive reforms in Richmond,” Hudson said. “I think I have shown in my four years in the House that I know how to do that work on abortion rights, on energy, on democracy reform, and I think he has a history of being slow to come around on some of the values that are deeply important to this district.”
The winner of the Democratic primary on June 20 will face Republican Philip Hamilton and Independent J’riah Guerrero in the general election in November.
And Hudson believes she is the candidate best suited to carry the district. “The only Republican who has declared running for this state Senate seat right now is the guy who ran against me for delegate last year, and I won by 60 points,” she said of Hamilton, whom she soundly defeated in the 2021 House of Delegates election.
The 11th Senate District, Hudson said, is “a very safe” blue seat. “It is absolutely true that it is essential that Democrats take back the House and hold the Senate, but this district is not part of that calculus,” Hudson said. “This district is almost surely going to elect a Democrat. The map pans out, and the only question is which Democrat do we want to represent us in Richmond.”