Over the weekend, Virginia Democrats in the congressional district that includes Charlottesville and Danville picked Leslie Cockburn, a former 60 Minutes journalist, to face incumbent GOP Rep. Tom Garrett in the general election.
The choice of Cockburn, a nationally recognized TV personality known for her tough investigative reports, ramps up the stakes for Garrett, one of the Republican party’s leading cannabis legalization advocates.
Democrat Leslie Cockburn, a former 60 Minutes reporter, is taking on Rep. Tom Garrett, a Republican who has championed the federal legalization of cannabis.
With Cockburn’s entry into the race, Garrett becomes the second pro-legalization Republican Congress member to face an uncertain re-election campaign in a district that’s normally a safe GOP seat.
In California, longtime Orange County Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, the leading GOP voice for cannabis in the House, has rarely faced a serious challenge. But this year a small army of challengers from both parties are gunning for his seat from both the left and the right.
Rohrabacher is the longtime sponsor of the Rohrabacher-Farr (now Rohrabacher-Blumenauer) budget amendment, which safeguards the rights of medical marijuana patients in states that have legalized cannabis for medical use.
Garrett is a genial and folksy libertarian with a commonsense law-and-order streak. (He was previously a state prosecutor.) Not long after his Capitol Hill swearing-in, Garrett introduced HR 1227, the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2017. The act would remove cannabis from the federal list of controlled substances and allow states to regulate it as they please. It’s not far from the legislation that Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) introduced last week—except that Garrett has nothing approaching the seniority and political clout that Schumer possesses.
“I really don’t care about marijuana,” Garrett said at a political conference in Washington, DC, last year. “What I do care about is individual liberty. What I do care about is justice. What I do care about is economic opportunity.”
It’s too early to say where Cockburn stands on legalization. Her web site doesn’t specifically address the issue, but she vows to reform the student “school-to-prison pipeline,” reduce mass incarceration, reform the bail and asset forfeiture laws, and support healthy solutions to the opioid crisis.
How Safe Is Garrett’s Seat?
Heading into the 2016 election, Ballotpedia had Garrett’s district ranked as a safe Republican seat. Garrett proved it to be so, beating his Democratic challenger 58% to 42% in a race with no incumbent.
As recently as the 2006 and 2008 elections, though, the district was a near-tossup, with the Republican winning just over 50% of the vote.
And Cockburn appears to fit the profile of the most formidable candidates in the upcoming election: a tough, experienced woman inspired by her outrage over the words, actions, and policies of President Trump.
“I was really very offended by Donald Trump,” she said over the weekend.
She is one of several women in Virginia and nationwide who were prompted to run for office by Trump’s victory.
Cockburn beat out Marine veteran Roger Dean Huffstetler and Andrew Sneathern, a former prosecutor, in the 5th district Democratic contest.
Her victory will be made official at convention next month in Farmville. Democrats in Virginia’s 5th congressional district opted to pick a candidate through multiple caucuses rather than in a primary.
Cockburn said building enough support to win the caucuses required intense retail politicking throughout a district bigger than New Jersey. But she said it will pay off in the general election, as she’s built up a core group of supporters in every county.
“We’re building something here,” she said.
Democrats are hopeful they can pick up a seat in a district Trump won in the 2016 election as part of an effort to take control of the US House.
Garrett is seeking a second term in Congress. A former prosecutor and state senator, Garrett is a member of the conservative Freedom Caucus.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.