Around 10:30 on Election Night, Democratic campaign workers, progressive citizens, and purveyors of liberal news who had been holding their breath as more and more states fell to Donald Trump all allowed themselves a momentary gasp of air when Virginia was called for Hillary Clinton. For Virginia Beach high school teacher Cheryl Turpin, the moment didn't last long; she found out that in the 85th district — her own — Trump had beaten Clinton by less than a single percent. It stung.
Turpin, who has never held public office before but campaigned fervently for Clinton, decided that she would not simply accept another political leader who she felt did not represent her views or have her best interest at heart. She decided she would run for office herself.
On Tuesday, January 10, Turpin, an environmental-science teacher and mother of two adult daughters, faces Republican Rocky Holcomb, a Virginia Beach sheriff's captain, in a special election for the state House of Delegates. The outcome could help flip Virginia's Republican-controlled General Assembly blue, as later this year all 100 seats in the statehouse and the governor's chair will be up for grabs.
She wishes to fill the seat vacated by Republican Scott Taylor, who was elected and recently sworn in to the U.S. House of Representatives. Turpin feels her upbringing in a military family and her quarter-century teaching in the local public schools are threads that have woven her into the cloth of the military-centric, family-friendly Virginia Beach community. She is counting on voters energized by Trump's election to get to the polls and send her to Richmond, where she can be part of the resistance.
Sufiya Abdur-Rahman: Back in November, on Election Day, when you saw that Hillary Clinton had lost, and lost so closely in your district, how did you react to that?
Cheryl Turpin: I was very disappointed. We had worked so hard here in the district. We had knocked on doors, we had phone called, we had banks. I'm not sure I could have done anything more. I had knocked, I had put signs out, I had done all I could do. It was very, very disappointing.
SA: Is that what spurred you into this race yourself?
CT: It was. I had this opportunity. I've been standing on the sidelines of this game for a long time, working for other people. I thought, Now I have this opportunity to move forward. I decided to throw caution to the wind and take the leap, and here I am. It's been amazing.
SA: Again, the election was really close in that area. It could have gone either way. Can you tell us a little bit about why it's so important to flip your district blue?
CT: This is an important opportunity for us. This has been a red district for about 30 years. We have the momentum, and we have a lot of anger about the outcome. I think we can move forward with that energy and make this a blue seat.
SA: Have you seen any uprising of blue issues in your district in the recent past?
CT: I would say yes. I think there's definitely some anger. I think one of the key things we can focus on is that this election is just ten days before the inauguration. It's an opportunity for us to send a message that we're kind of angry down here at the beach and we're ready to move forward. What better way to send a message to Donald Trump that we're fighting back?
SA: How do you appeal to those voters, then, who went over and voted for his side, to now vote for you — someone who is clearly on the blue side?
CT: As an educator, it's what I have learned to do: to make compromises, bring people together, to create a solution through compromise, and it's what I do best. Hopefully that ability to compromise brings those middle people into the blue area. Everybody's got a favorite teacher.
SA: What kind of a teacher were you? What would your students say?
CT: I am the teacher that everybody can believe in. I make [students] believe in themselves. Just last year, the senior class elected me to be the dividing page of their yearbook. Not because of teaching, but because I taught them about civic involvement and how to become involved in their community. To find a passion. I said, "No matter what your passion is, there's something in the community you can do with it."
Down here [the pastime is] surfing. We have the Surfrider Foundation, and it's all about protecting the ocean. My students who were surfers didn't really understand that that organization existed, and now they do. Now they're active participants in protecting the environment. That's what I've taught my students beyond my science — to be compassionate, find your passion, and follow through.
SA: Is climate change an issue you'd like to take up legislatively if and when you get into the House of Delegates?
CT: Absolutely. Climate change is affecting us down here in ways that have just been catastrophic. We had two 1,000-year floods within four weeks of each other. If climate change is impacting us, it impacts the entire state. We've had people who have not returned back to their houses. All of their property is stored in pods in their front yard. [The rains of Hurricane Matthew] occurred the first week of October. And some people actually decorated their pods as Christmas presents for the holidays.
But it's just the kind of thing that we can do better at. We need a mechanism in place for these catastrophic events. What happened here, at the beach, actually affects us economically across the commonwealth.
SA: What other issues are primarily on your agenda?
CT: Also, education reform. I've been an educator for a long time. I've taught pre-SOL's [Standards of Learning tests]. I've taught true SOL's. I look at the number of tests that are out there. My daughter, who went from kindergarten through twelfth grade here in the City of Virginia Beach, took more than 130 mandated tests.
As an educator, I stand there and I watch the kids take the test and I think to myself, There's got to be a better way. We should be doing interactive problem-solving; we should be looking at STEM education and creating problems for these kids to solve. Not make them sit there and regurgitate back data that's been taught to them over eight months. I really would like to look at education reform from the over-testing standpoint. I think we just have too many standardized tests in place.
SA: I read that your father served in the military. Can you tell me about your dad's service and what it was like growing up in a military family?
CT: It was an extraordinary experience. We moved from station to station. As you move from one base to another, you learn to get along with people, make friends easily. Really, that's part of the reason I went into education, because every place I went there was an educator there who made me feel comfortable and at home. I learned about service to my country. I learned the importance of civic duty.
My dad had the privilege of being a communications officer for the military police in Fort Bragg. During the marches of Martin Luther King, he was the communications officer with them, so he would meet with him regularly on making plans on how to move forward. Civic engagement has always been an important part of my life.
SA: Do you think that this background, in a military family, has prepared you to represent voters in your district, which has such a heavy concentration of service members and veterans?
CT: Absolutely. I know the troubles my dad had being a retired veteran with service of 23 years. I know it from the daughter-whose-father-went-off-to-war perspective. I know it from my mother's perspective of struggling to keep the family together as you move from station to station. My mom would hold the house together while my dad served in Vietnam and my dad served in Korea. Absolutely, I have a strong background in being able to meet the needs of those constituents.
SA: After November, a lot of Republicans around the country have been feeling emboldened by what they're calling their "mandate." What kinds of legislation has the Virginia GOP passed, or pursued lately, that are of concern to you?
CT: I think it's the attack on women, the continuing attack on women. A moment that precipitated my action into politics is when they closed Hillcrest Clinic in Norfolk in April 2013. Thousands of women had health care pulled from them simply because the doors were too narrow. The facility didn't meet the brand-new requirements that [the Virginia General Assembly] put in place. [In 2011, Virginia passed unreasonable licensing standards, otherwise known as TRAP laws, for abortion clinics that led to the Norfolk clinic's closure. Those laws were rolled back in 2015 by the Virginia Board of Health.] These attacks continue not only on women but on all types of social groups within the commonwealth.
SA: How do you plan to combat them?
CT: One at a time. Just be a voice of compromise; what I've done all my life is to compromise. To reach creative solutions to these problems. Reach out across the aisle. Shake hands. Do what we can to make change occur.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Sufiya Abdur-Rahman is a writer who works as a writing teacher and writing specialist at Bowie State University.