Fight for abortion rights key to 2023 votes in Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio
Del. Danica Roem, D-Prince William, the first transgender delegate, takes her oath of office during the opening ceremonies of the 2018 session of the Virginia House of Delegates at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., Jan. 10, 2018. Roem, who made history as an openly transgender candidate in her initial bid for state office, announced Monday, May 9, 2022, that she is jumping into a 2023 race for an open northern Virginia state Senate seat. | Steve Helber/AP

RICHMOND, Va.—Social issues, especially abortion rights, are dominating the airwaves, and voters’ minds, in three of the four top off-year elections scheduled for November 7, in Virginia, Ohio, and Kentucky.

Virginia’s voting is not for Santa Claus unless you’re Republican right-wing Gov. Glenn Youngkin. He hopes for his own gift: A compliant right-wing Republican-run legislature.

Youngkin staked his campaign to take complete control of the state on his platform of a total abortion ban, so-called “parental control” of the schools, and whitewashing, literally, the Old Dominion’s racist past, including being the Confederate capital and the scene of the 2017 fatal neo-Nazi riot in Charlottesville.

Ohioans are voting on inserting a pro-abortion amendment into the state Constitution. They defeated a referendum in August that would have made referendums tougher to get on the ballot and tougher to pass. It was obviously designed to block the pro-abortion move. Voters who voted “no” in the summer, in what was a record turnout, now must vote “yes.”

Kentucky Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, the state’s last bulwark against a complete MAGA Republican takeover, is making his support of abortion rights a key cause in his race against Republican Attorney General Dan Cameron, an African American running on a law-and-order platform who’s trying to soft-pedal his anti-abortion stand.

Kentucky voters, like Kansans, rejected a constitutional ban on abortions in a referendum last year. Even Republican-sponsored opinion polls give Beshear a lead. And citing the MAGA threat, the state AFL-CIO took the unique step of endorsing Beshear for re-election this past January, the earliest ever.

There’s only one key vote where abortion isn’t on the ballot, and it’s one where railroad unionists are heavily involved.

The Cincinnati City Council succumbed to the lobbying of Norfolk Southern—yes, the big freight railroad that produced the mushroom cloud over East Palestine, Ohio—and agreed to sell the nation’s last municipally owned freight railroad. The road runs to Chattanooga, Tenn.

NS has spent more than $4.2 million on its campaign for Issue 22, approving the sale—and run into a buzzsaw of civic opposition led by Railroad Workers United, the organization that knits together members of all 14 freight rail craft unions, plus civic groups led by the NAACP.

Now for the details:

Virginia legislature up for grabs

Old Dominion voters will elect every state legislator. The Democrats hold the State Senate 22-18 and the Republicans hold the House of Delegates 48-46 with six vacancies, but the narrow margins actually understate the case—and the importance of the vote.

That’s because redistricting and retirements produced a near-record 32 open legislative seats, and the fate of those seats will also seal the fate of Youngkin’s social issues agenda.

Just think of Youngkin, who is term-limited, as a rich corporate executive, which he was, with the social issues of Donald Trump—but smoother and without all the indictments. Which didn’t stop him from emulating other Republicans and purging 3,400 legal voters from Virginia’s rolls, the Washington Post recently reported. That small group, though scattered, could swing close votes.

Pundits are watching the Virginia voting for clues about the strength, or lack of it, of the two parties in a classic swing state, going into the 2024 election. So are abortion rights supporters, led by the Planned Parenthood Action Fund. Ditto the voting in Ohio and Kentucky (see below).

Workers’ rights? A recent attempt to write right-to-work (for less) into the Virginia constitution lost, but that was when Democrats narrowly controlled both houses, and RTW lost in a referendum, to boot. But the Dems, headed by then-Gov. Ralph Northam (D), who was reluctant to dump RTW, couldn’t get it repealed from state law, either.

The Planned Parenthood Action Fund put abortion front and center, because of Youngkin. It activated “a $1.5 million plan to reach more than 150,000 voters in key districts through door knocking, phone calls, digital ads, and mail” and ensure they know abortion is on the ballot.

Says Jamie Lockhart, Executive Director of Planned Parenthood Virginia PAC: “Youngkin told us what he will do if he has an anti-abortion legislature: He will ban abortion. Youngkin has made clear he will sign any piece of anti-abortion legislation that makes it to his desk. Virginians support abortion rights and rightly do not trust Republican politicians on the issue of abortion.”

Political activist TN Long e-mailed that New Virginia Majority, which Alexandria-based Tenants and Workers United founded, “is working towards getting progressive candidates elected across Virginia.” It’s particularly focusing on races in Prince William County, a rapidly changing—towards becoming more Latino/Latina—D.C. exurb, and in the Richmond suburbs of Henrico County.

“NVM is canvassing for Danica Roem, running for the Virginia Senate,” after five years in the Assembly. When Roem first ran she attracted wide attention for her progressive issue stands in what was then a much more conservative county. But the former newspaper reporter, who carried a notebook with her everywhere to write down voters’ comments, was also the first-ever transgender person to seek—and win—Virginia legislative office. NVM also backs former Marine Joshua Thomas, now a progressive attorney and first-time candidate seeking a state delegate’s seat in the Gainesville area.

Roem primarily “focuses on and delivers on transportation issues as most workers in Prince William have to commute long hours to work in richer parts of Northern Virginia,” plus D.C., says Long. Prince William was also “impacted by gun violence” and “expansion of data centers by companies like Google and Amazon taking advantage of large dark fiber networks large telecom companies installed in exchange for federal bailouts.”

Prince William “has seen its recent share of progressive victories, but the many close elections require more grassroots efforts to keep up the momentum. Voters I’ve spoken to are generally opposed to far-right candidates. One even called the Republicans running in Prince William ‘right-wing nuts.’”

That’s a description, both of the close election results and Republican candidates and officeholders—from Youngkin on down—that could easily apply to the entire state.

In Henrico County, NVM is canvassing for State Senate candidate Schuyler VanValkenburg and State Delegate candidate Rod Willett, who seeks re-election. VanValkenburg, a teacher, “is emphasizing improving education and opposing Youngkin’s attempts to whitewash education on racism as well as the governor’s attempts to make life miserable for transgender students,” Long wrote. Willett passed bills to improve mental health care and veterans’ services. The state AFL-CIO endorsed both, along with Roem.

Ohio: Abortion rerun 

The U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision nationwide last year opened the door for Ohio’s voters to enshrine abortion rights in their Constitution. After all, in taking the national right away, Justice Samuel Alito said the issue should be left to the states.

To win this fall, Ohio abortion proponents must overcome a massive disinformation campaign from anti-abortion groups, leading Republican politicians—including one U.S. Senate hopeful—and allied forces. That includes anti-abortion preaching from the pulpits of the state’s Catholic dioceses. Ohio is 18% Catholic and 53% Protestant. As the August vote showed, not all Ohio Catholics follow church encyclicals against abortion.

Virginia is one of two Southern states which has the right to choose. Youngkin wants to eliminate it. Ohio’s lawmakers tried to eliminate it, but the state Supreme Court stopped their attempt. Now voters there get a chance to enshrine the right to abortion in its basic charter.

Abortion backers have outspent foes, even though one right-wing big giver is funding the opposition. Supporters are also leading in the polls, again. The latest, from Ohio Northern University, gives abortion backers a 52%-36% edge—and that’s the smallest lead for the amendment.

Kentucky: Abortion…and Breonna Taylor 

Kentucky Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear seeks a second four-year term as the last bulwark against a complete Trumpite radical right takeover of the Bluegrass State. He faces Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron. Polls, even Republican ones, show Beshear with a lead.

Cameron, who is Black, runs on law and order, carefully not mentioning the big blot of lawless-ness on his watch: His mishandling of the fatal Louisville police murder of sleeping and innocent Black woman Breonna Taylor in her bed in a cop break-in gone wrong seeking a drug dealer.

Taylor’s family won’t let him. They’re campaigning for Beshear, especially in the state’s largest city, her hometown of Louisville. “As a Black face in Kentucky, I don’t want to risk having a governor like Daniel Cameron,” one African-American woman speaker said at a recent rally.

The state AFL-CIO endorsed Beshear in January. It “is making this historic early endorsement of Gov. Andy Beshear to signify our commitment to re-elect Beshear and demonstrate our resolve to keep Kentuckians safe from the false and harmful policies of our opponents,” state fed President Bill Londrigan said in a statement.

Cameron tries to tie Beshear to Democratic President Joe Biden, rails against anti-pandemic restrictions such as masking, physical distancing, and school closures—and downplays his “faith-based” opposition to abortion.

Beshear doesn’t. His campaign aired TV ads about abortion in a state that rejected an anti-abortion constitutional amendment last year, CNN reported. One features Hadley Duvall, 21, who discussed the trauma of being raped by her stepfather while lambasting Cameron for not supporting exemptions for cases of rape and incest to Kentucky’s abortion ban.

“This is to you, Daniel Cameron: To tell a 12-year-old girl she must have the baby of her stepfather who raped her is unthinkable.”

Cincinnati: Workers say ‘Keep the city-owned railroad’

Cincinnati voters will decide on Issue 22, whether to sell their municipally owned freight railroad—the last such city-owned line in the U.S.—to Norfolk Southern, the freight line that brought you the February 3 crash, explosion, toxic water and a mushroom cloud over the small town of East Palestine, Ohio.

NS has spent more than $4.2 million on its campaign to OK the sale. It ran into opposition led by Railroad Workers United, the organization that knits together members of all 14 freight rail craft unions, the NAACP–worried about NS’s safety record in low-income areas–and other civic groups.

“Given the profiteering and irresponsibility of the Class I rail carriers in recent decades, the citizens of Cincinnati would do well to take this vote seriously. RWU urges the people of the Queen City to keep their rail infrastructure in public hands, and to vote NO on November 7th,” said RWU General Secretary Jason Doering. The freight railroad runs to Chattanooga, Tenn.

Added Matt Weaver, a Maintenance of Way worker and RWU steering committee member: “The rail industry has robbed the American people blind for 150 years. Millions of acres of land and massive subsidies were given to the ‘Robber Barons’ of old. Today’s rail industry is the same, indifferent to the needs and concerns of their own workers and customers, let alone the nation.

Citizens of Cincinnati would be wise to hold onto their railroad infrastructure as their forefathers understood the perils of private rail ownership. They would not be well-served by this sale.”

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.