Though she has never held elected office, Susan Platt has impacted political causes and campaigns for most of her life. A former Chief of Staff for then- Sen. Joe Bidden, campaign manager for multiple Virginia politicians and founder of two groups to promote female candidates, Platt has quickly risen to the top of many polls ahead of the June 13 Democratic primary. As she prepares to face off against fellow candidates Justin Fairfax and Gene Rossi, both former federal prosecutors who have also never held elected office, Platt says her long experience both around politics and as a Democratic activist makes her the best fit to be the Commonwealth’s next Lt. Gov.
In an exclusive interview with the Tribune, Platt talked about becoming the first-ever female Lt. Gov., her support for a minimum wage increase and her plans to help the most at-need Virginians.
On the campaign trail, you and your two primary opponents have taken similar positions on many policy issues, including support from women’s reproductive rights, environmental issues and a minimum wage increase. What separates you from your opponents?
Well, I think there’s a couple things that differentiate me. And it’s not just the issues we talk about, although they’re extremely important. What differentiates me and, I believe, qualifies me as the best candidate for this job is that I do have 30 years as an activist. And I understand how to get things done. I have had experience at the highest levels of legislation in this country as then U.S. Sen. Joe Biden’s Chief of Staff. I have worked for Virginia businesses, large and small, and I have worked for the state, in a sense, on the Virginia Tourism Corporation Board, understanding tourism, how it affects the economy in different regions of the state and how we can mold all this together.
If elected, how will you lead Virginia in our Commonwealth’s second-highest office?
So, as diverse as the Commonwealth is, it has different things in different regions that are important to maintain those. And it’s talking about incorporating what Virginia has in the surrounding areas, how to utilize that to help promote economic stability and security for more people. But, of course, involved in the middle of all that always has to come transportation, education and healthcare.
It’s also just trying to work with people, work with their communities. It’s always better I think, in my political business of being an activist or an advocate, it’s all about working together with people to get stuff done.
I don’t believe you come in and say, ‘here’s my plan, here’s my idea, let’s implement it.’ I think, if you don’t get local buy-in on what you need to do, it’s just not going to be effective, and it’s just not going to work. And it’s a shame. That’s why you have to have local buy-in on all these things. They don’t want you to solve their problems. They can do that if you give them the tools.
You’ve talked about making Virginia more inclusive. How would you do that as Lt. Gov.?
I think by electing the first woman Lt. Gov. would be a good start. And I am somewhat convinced that I think (current state Sen.) Jill Vogel is going to win on the Republican side. I would hate to see the Democrats nominate an all-male ticket. I think it’s time that, we are more inclusive in what we do. We’ve only ever had one woman elected statewide, (former Attorney General) Mary Sue Terry, who I was just with the other day on a television broadcast. And, I think after what happened last year we’ve seen an increased activism with a number of people wherever I go anymore, particularly in the last two weeks. I say to folks ‘democracy is not a spectator sport.’ If you want to affect change you have to participate. And I think we’re seeing a lot more of that this year.
What specifically would you accomplish as Lt. Gov.?
I’ve talked about making it a full-time position for me. Some Lt. Govs. have done that, some have not. I’m at the point where I think I can do that, and I can do that effectively. Where I’ll go across the Commonwealth and help forge these alliances in these different areas to help bring back some of these different struggling economies. Also, I’ll help children and adults stay together where they want to be and have a happy life. I want a children’s advocate, because we talk about in this state, the school to prison pipeline. We talk about the need to do more training and educating once people do get out, that have been incarcerated, and I think that’s very good to do that. I think it’s much more important to get people on the front end, before they get older and get stuck in ruts. You know, my stepdaughter, her addiction, she had some mental challenges and difficulties. However, her addiction was forged because she felt helpless and hopeless. And I think a lot of these folks with kids that go awry and start committing crimes as they get older, and the recidivism, is because they don’t feel they have a way out. I think if we start younger and give people better tools to start earlier in life and learn to feel powerful and effective, and empowered, the less we will have the need for these training programs after. However, once they go through that and they’ve served their time and parole, they need to get their rights back. Because without that, the recidivism is just so much worse. It’s a cycle that just doesn’t get broken.
A priority in this election, as in pretty much every other statewide election, is education. How do we enhance our education system in Virginia?
I talked to a (school administrator) and he said there were two main problems that we have now with schools, with teaching now. One is kids are coming to school not prepared to learn. The second one is that we’re teaching them 21st century jobs in 20th century schools. We’re teaching the old way. We’re not teaching the new way. So you have to teach how to learn differently and how to process and how to problem solve differently now, but we’re teaching in the same four walls. So teaching now is much more collaborative, and the work efforts are together with people. And you need the internet. We’re doing good stuff in this state, we really are, but we’ve got a lot more we need to do. Always, just with any business, you always have to look at how do we improve every couple years, how do we make ourselves better, how do we change.
The two Democratic candidates for Governor have both proposed a system to provide free two-year community college for Virginian residents. Ralph Northam has proposed a system where students could receive the free education in exchange for a year of service to the Commonwealth. Tom Perriello has advocated for a free system for all Virginians. What kind of ideas do you have in that area?
I think they’re both interesting ideas. It’s a little bit like Ralph Northam but it’s a little bit different. It’s a little like Tom Periello. It’s almost like an apprenticeship, in that sense, programs where you can bring people needed in an area and they get their loans paid off. I mean we can do that more than just for healthcare. We can do that for teachers. We can do that for technicians, we can do that for scientists, computer specialists and others.
Would you support a similar program for technical schools?
Absolutely. And there are parts in this state where the technical schools are bursting at the seams. And there are other parts in the state where the technical school barely has a third of its capacity because so many people have moved out of the area. So, you see a disparity in where people are with the vocational technical schools and what they are teaching. If we can have more partnerships with companies, that we bring here or are here, to help forge some of these unions, then we’d all be better off.
The three Republican Lt. Gov. candidates have made protecting gun rights a major issue in this campaign. Where do you stand on gun rights, and what would you like to see changed?
I believe in the 2nd amendment. I believe in that. However, I do not think that just anybody should go buy a gun. I think in this day and age we have to make sure that we test, and we have a system of tracking people who of course have mental illness issues. You know, I think we need to make sure that we can do instant background checks on everybody. And I don’t see why we need assault weapons frankly. And I think one gun a month would be just fine. Economics is starting to drive a little bit more importance than some of the other things that Republicans really like to go over the top in pushing when they say that ‘we’re going to take away their guns’. I have no interest in taking away anybody’s guns. But I do think we have to prevent gun violence, and do anything we can do prevent gun violence.
Perriello has talked in support of a $15 minimum wage, and there have been a lot of discussions about a minimum wage increase in this election. You’ve come out in support of a minimum wage increase, but what would that look like specifically?
(That means) $15 (an hour). I mean, what people are making now is just not enough money to get by. Particularly up in this part of the state. In other parts of the state it may be not quite as important because cost of living isn’t quite so high. But people there still, that’s not a living wage. We have to do everything we can.
It goes hand in hand with Medicaid expansion. People can’t afford all this. There’s no way that people can afford to do all this. And that’s what I saw when I visited an addiction center in Lynchburg recently. They’ve been open two years and they told me that in two years’ time they have had 500 patients. That’s a lot. And they said they currently have 250. Gov. Terry McAuliffe just allowed some Medicaid funding to go into there, so when they start to take some they figured by the end of June and July they’re going to be up to 750. Now the problem with that though also, is these are people who make minimum wage, then they work on getting out their addiction. They just can’t seem to get ahead. Addiction to opioids takes two years for your brain wiring to change. And it’s so hard for people. If you can’t get through that, if you can’t make a decent wage to live and eat, the odds of not fulfilling this program are pretty high. And it’s the same way when we talk about committing crimes. I think if we had a higher minimum wage it would be a whole lot better for our healthcare system and everything else.
There has also been discussions about moving Virginia away from its status as a Right to Work state. What are your thoughts on that progression and your support for unions?
This is not something that we would talk about (in past elections). I don’t believe that Right to Work is going to change, at least anytime in the near future. But I do think that unions serve a tremendous service to all of us. You know, I talk about the service employees because this affects us on different levels and people don’t realize it. When my father was suffering with Alzheimer’s and Dementia, he had people come in, caregivers like the SEIU workers. And they had an eight-hour day. They couldn’t work overtime. They had an eight-hour day. Well, life for an Alzheimer’s or Dementia patient is not on an eight-hour schedule. And those people do important, important work. They should get time and half. They have the lives of our parents, our elderly, our disabled.
I also keep going back to the coal miners, but it’s important because they were a union. And there are so many of them there now that without that retirement, without that healthcare, who knows what would happen to them? And I look at that and think, you know, ‘thank goodness they were a union.’ They do have an income and they do have money and they do have the healthcare that takes care of them. It’s a very important part of the coal miners’ history, it’s a very important part of our history.
You have come out against Dominion’s two proposed oil pipelines in the Commonwealth, in part because of environmental concerns. What should Virginia do for its energy needs if they don’t have the pipelines?
I think we need to invest a whole lot more in renewable energies. When Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney came out and said ‘Richmond should be renewable, 30% renewable, by 2030’ he was leading the way for the Commonwealth. I think the state needs to stay something, step out. I’m glad the Governor has said we’re going to do our own Paris Agreement. And that’s great, that’s great. But I do think we have to be a little bit bolder in terms of forward thinking. Again, I go back to, ‘if you’re not changing, you’re not growing, and you’re not building, you’re not getting better.’ And you have to adapt to change or you won’t survive. And we’ve seen what’s happened with the coal mines, we’ve seen what’s happened with any other industry. If you don’t change, you don’t survive.
Perhaps your most high profile role in politics was as Chief of Staff to then- Sen. Joe Bidden. What did you take away from your time working for him?
I think my values are not dissimilar than Joe Biden’s. My father’s family was hard working, union job family. And he, like I said, was the only one that went to college. But that hard work and that determination and those values to help others, because they were an immigrant family, it was ingrained in me from day one. You know, equal work, equal pay, everybody should have the opportunity, and this is what Joe Biden talks about, and its love of family. But that means also being able to put food on the table and the roof over the head and making sure there are better opportunities for our children than there were for us. And that’s how I was raised and he was raised the same way. And I was raised in terms of a sense of fairness, of hard work and determination and that’s the same, I mean we would have very close, very similar upbringings in terms of our parents.
As criticism has mounted toward Donald Trump, many Republicans have been reluctant to distance themselves from the President. Why is it significant for Democrats to take control of government and continue to press Trump?
I called on him to be impeached a week or so ago. And several people kind of hit me on it because I said, ‘this is worse than Watergate.’ And no more than two or three days go by, and (retired former Director of National Intelligence) James Clapper says ‘this is worse than Watergate.’ I mean, any of us that have been around in that time, know we’re in a crisis. This is a guy who has profited from foreign governments. His own FBI Director (James Comey) couldn’t tell if he was telling a lie, if he was trying to influence him, obstruct justice. When these people, they’re dealing with this guy on a day-to-day basis, he’s discriminated against everyone who’s not a billionaire. This is not the America that I was brought up in. That I was learned to do unto others. And Virginia has a long history with the Constitution and our Founding Fathers, the framers of the Constitution.
Why Lt. Gov. and not governor?
That’s an interesting question. Some people have asked the question differently: Why Lt. Gov. and not delegate. My answer is the same: I’ve always done things statewide-level and at the time I thought about this and I had been for the last four years trying to get other women to run for Lt. Gov. because I assumed Northam is going to step up and no one would do it. I said, ‘well I guess I have to lead by example’, and that’s what I’ve done. That’s what I’ve done my whole life.
Typically, Lt. Gov. and Attorney General, as the other two of the three statewide offices, are stepping stones to run for governor. If incumbent Attorney General Mark Herring wins his re-election campaign this year and you win your campaign this fall, Is that something you’d be interested in in 2021?
Mark Herring has dibs on that.
Why should voters elect you as Lt. Gov. in 2017?
I’ve been a leader. I’ve been a leader in government. I’ve been a leader in business. My life experience has taught me to appreciate those who don’t have as much as others, those that are hardworking, and it’s time I think that we finally elect a woman Lt. Gov. in this state because I think all voices are important and I do believe it’s time that we change a little bit the good ole’ boy network and we elect a woman leader.
I think in this campaign I’ve made it a point to go everywhere that I could, as diverse places, as diverse people, as diverse religions, as diverse jobs, skills, as I could. And I’ve done this all my life, but to try to understand where the state is, and I think I knew a lot, I’ve learned a lot, there’s still a lot more to learn. I think I’ve got a great understanding particularly of the hate that’s coming across from the Bully-in-Chief (Trump) and like I mentioned, I feel that. I feel that more now because so much was directed at me because I stood up. And to others who weren’t even standing up, they were just being who they are, and the hate that was coming across their way. So I feel like I’ve been everywhere I’ve not excluded anyone, I’ve seen everyone I possibly could and not excluded anybody, any group of bodies, trying to campaign everywhere with everyone that I possibly could to get as much understanding and wealth about what people care about, what they think about.