by Charles McGuigan
Jeff Bourne seems to be on a trajectory that will deliver him to the zenith of the Democratic Party, and his rise has been meteoric. Not yet out of college he spent a summer working for Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas in Washington, D.C. After graduating with a bachelor’s in economics from William and Mary, Jeff snagged a job with Governor Mark Warner and served as deputy policy director. During law school at his alma mater, he landed an associateship on Capitol Hill with a brilliant young senator by the name of Barack Obama. Under Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring Jeff served as one of five deputy attorneys general. He served one term as Third District representative on the Richmond School Board, and handily won a second term last November. But then the dominos began falling, and suddenly Jeff became the 71st District Delegate to the General Assembly. He is one of a new breed of cagey Democrats who will fight tooth and nail for the preservation of our democracy.
Jeff Bourne sits across the table from me in the conference room of Stir Crazy on MacArthur Avenue. This coffee shop is a frequent haunt of his where he works the crowd as they wait in line for their morning pick-me-ups. He has a natural rapport with people, listens carefully to their concerns, and speaks authoritatively, and from the heart. On his finger is a thin, silver wedding band, on the opposing wrist an enormous watch. Jeff wears a navy blue blazer over a crisp white shirt, a fashionable tie pulled tight at the neck. Pinned through the left lapel of his jacket is a brass circle from the Virginia General Assembly, a badge of honor that he wears as the 71st District representative on that august body of governance that traces its roots back to Jamestown, well before the American Revolution, distinguishing it as “the oldest continuous law-making body in the New World.” He pushes back from the conference table. “My dad always told me, ‘It’s better to be lucky than good,” Jeff says. “And I think I’ve been pretty lucky.”
Jeff was born in Hartford Connecticut and lived in Middletown until he was ten years old, and then the family moved to one of the most rural reaches of Virginia. “I grew up in Wytheville, a small Southwest Virginia town,” says Jeff. “It was the summer I was ten years old, and my Dad’s mother died and she lived in Wytheville, which is where my father grew up.” Jeff, his brother and parents traveled down to Wytheville to make funeral arrangements and to close out the estate. They stayed there for three weeks, and during that time Jeff and his brother did things they would never have thought of doing in Connecticut. They rode their bikes through town to attend a minor league baseball game. They roamed through the neighborhood, made their way over to the community pool, strolled down Main Street to wolf down a couple of Skeeter’s world famous hotdogs.
The family returned to Connecticut, but before the school year began, they travelled back to Wytheville to a new life. “My parents recognized while we were there that it was probably the best decision to raise their kids in Wytheville,” says Jeff.
His mother Maria, Italian-American, had worked twenty years as a school teacher; his father, John, African-American, had spent two decades as police officer. They were both committed to their respective careers, but they gave it all up for their children.
“My dad tried to get a job with the local police,” Jeff remembers. “But he came to learn that in a small town like Wytheville the budgets are very small. And so if you’re hiring a police officer or a teacher with twenty years’ experience it costs a little bit more than hiring a teacher right out of college. They had priced themselves out of the Wytheville market.”
But Jeff’s parents were determined to keep their children in Wytheville. “Fortunately for us, my mother and father were very committed to my brother and I, so they did whatever they had to do to make ends meet,” says Jeff. “My mother went to work at a truck stop at the intersection of 81 and 77 as a waitress. I remember her coming home and we would count the money from her tips. My dad bounced around from odd job to odd job. He was a short order cook at Bob Evans one time. He worked for a private trash collection business. Ultimately through hard work and determination my mom rose to a management position for the entire truck stop. And my dad landed a job at a local community services board, and ultimately became the maintenance supervisor.”
From almost the moment they moved there, Jeff became aware of the subtle and not-so-subtle specters of racism. “My brother and I did pretty well in school,” he says. “And so when we started school in Wytheville, they hadn’t received our records yet, so they put both my brother and I in remedial classes. My mom, always the fighter for us, said, ‘Look the kids are in advanced classes,’ and so ultimately it all got worked out. I can’t prove it with hardcore factual evidence, but I suspect it was because of my color and my brother’s color. Things like that happened throughout my school career.”
In high school, Jeff and his friends would do what kids do on a Friday or Saturday night, particularly in rural settings, where there’s not much night life. They would drive along the main drag, pull into a parking lot, talk with friends, and then move on.
“There were plenty of occasions when we were parked in the grocery store parking lot, and we would see pickup trucks with Confederate flags riding through the parking lot, and the driver and passenger yelling racial epithets at us,” Jeff says. “I had never experienced that before. You know, the racial tension was still very much there. I can remember, when I was thirteen or fourteen, the KKK marching down Main Street in Wytheville. It’s almost like it is today in certain areas.”
In high school, Jeff excelled both academically and athletically. He was a letterman in football, basketball, soccer and track. “There were a group of us African-American students,” he says. “We were doing well in school and we were the heart and soul and the A-list players on all the sports team.”
Despite the rabid racism of the parochial minds of some of Wytheville’s inhabitants, Jeff always persevered, and he attributes much of his success to the encouragement of his parents and an English teacher.
“My mom and dad had always taught me that I could do anything I wanted to do,” says Jeff. “And I had an eleventh and twelfth grade English teacher, Rhonda Simmerman, and she really inspired me and pushed me. She even stoked some of that pushback against the norm and the status quo, and she had me hone that and channel it in the right way. So she allowed me, through term papers and writing assignments, to express the frustration that I felt and that I was experiencing.”
We fast forward for a moment to this year’s unprecedented presidential election. “Until this past November the only president my kids have ever known was Barack Obama,” Jeff says. “This last election for president was so prominent and so loud and so hateful and divisive, the kids just picked it up.”
On election night the kids were put to bed at a reasonable hour. But the following morning, rubbing sleep from her eyes, Jeff’s daughter was anxious to know the outcome. “And this moment will never leave me,” Jeff says. “She asked, ‘Did Hillary win?’ And when we told her, ‘No’, she literally cried.”
When Jeff’s wife, Anedra, took the girls to school that Wednesday morning, it was as if a national tragedy had occurred. “Anedra recounted to me the scene at school that morning,” says Jeff. “The kids, the parents, the teachers were all devastated with the election results.” That afternoon, Jeff’s daughter asked a question about one of her friends and classmates, a little girl of Asian origin. “Are they going to send her back to China?” Jeff’s daughter wanted to know. “Is Donald Trump going to send her back to China?”
Jeff was speechless when he heard his daughter’s perfectly formed words, and his throat thickened. “It really crystalized for me the sheer uncertainty that his presidency has brought, and continues to provide for every American,” says Jeff. “My hope was that when he was elected, the weight of the office, the responsibility of the office of the president, would temper him. In hindsight, I know that was naïve of me.”
“There are a lot of dangerous things about our president, and the policies he advocates for,” he says. “And I think the most dangerous thing of all is the unknown. We just don’t know what is next.” His words massage back into being the angst that has been with most of us since that dismal morning last November, which only worsened on the day of the inauguration.
But then Jeff begins talking like the naturally gifted statesman he is, and with words he restores faith, resurrects hope, and resuscitates a deep will to fight and to resist.
“Fortunately in raw politics, the one silver lining in this is that he has ignited an unprecedented movement of people who have never been more so engaged in doing their civic responsibility,” Jeff says. “Now you’ve got folks knocking on doors, running for office, lobbying their representatives, being outspoken. And that is a great thing. I just pray our country continues to stay engaged like that, because, at the end of the day, this will make our democracy stronger.”
He invites me to consider an army of four million civil servants—the men and women who make the government work. “These are good, hard-working people who just want to do the right thing,” Jeff says, and then he mentions Virginia’s senators. “It gives me great comfort to have Tim Kaine and Mark Warner at the forefront of a movement that is protecting what is sacred about our democracy. It’s not going to be easy, but if we’ve got to battle, I’m ready to go to battle. And I’ll put our two senators against any other senators in the country. I’ve been inspired by the work that he (Mark Warner) is doing on the Russia probe.”
After graduating from Wytheville High School, Jeff went off to William and Mary with every intention of becoming a pediatrician, but he was young and mercurial. “I took my first lab science class preparing to go down the pre-med track and I quickly realized science was not for me,” he says. “And then I thought I was going to be an investment banker, and I ultimately graduated with a degree in economics.”
But even before he graduated, Jeff realized investment banking wasn’t for him. One summer he did an internship at Merrill Lynch and could not feature himself doing that kind of work for the rest of his life. The next summer he finagled another internship, and it would seal his fate.
“I got hooked up with a guy who was chief of staff to Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee from Houston Texas,” he recalls. “After the interview, I was blessed to be able to secure a congressional black caucus internship in DC. After a week of being immersed in that world of creating public policy, of service to the greater good, I knew was what I wanted to do. I started trying to soak up as much as I could, talking to everybody, pestering people. I met some really great people, and I noticed that everybody was a lawyer, so I knew I had to go to law school.”
Just after receiving his bachelor’s, Jeff took the LSATs but didn’t do that well. Instead of trying again, he decided to take a couple years off to prepare himself for adulthood. He moved to Northern Virginia, but the only job he could find was in management training for First Virginia Bank. During that time, he sent out scores of resumes. Six months later he was offered a job as a legislative policy writer with the Sierra Club. “It was in their global warning and energy shop to do policy and legislative stuff,” he says. “And so I did that, and it was great because one of the things the Sierra Club does at times is rather than give money to campaigns that they endorse or that they support they’ll send folks to help. And so I got to go to New Jersey and New York and work on these great campaigns.”
When Mark Warner ran for governor, Jeff worked on his campaign, and, after the election, became Warner’s deputy policy director for three years.
After that he returned to his alma mater to study law. He loved the rigors of the law, and the way instructors nurtured their legal eaglets. “They prepare their lawyers to be citizen lawyers,” says Jeff. During the summer between his second and third year at law school, Jeff was given the opportunity of a lifetime.
“It was one of the most exciting and humbling and unique experiences I ever had,” he says. “I was afforded an opportunity to go work in then-Senator Barack Obama’s office in Washington, D.C. He talked with us regularly, and was extremely down to earth, and had a wonderful outlook on the world, and his worldview was optimistic and pitch perfect. That was in 2006, and there was the hype and anticipation of him running for president. I was just happy to be there.”
After law school, Jeff went to work for a small law firm called Morris and Morris where he learned how to try cases, and fine-tuned his oratory skills. When Dwight Jones first ran for mayor of Richmond, Jeff helped him organize his campaign. “A year after he was elected he called me and said, ‘I want you to help me run the city, and I served as his deputy chief of staff,” Jeff says.
Jeff wanted to serve in other capacities, and because he had one daughter already and a son on the way, he turned his attention to the Richmond School Board. After being elected as the School Board’s Third District representative, Jeff left the mayor’s office and went to work for the Richmond Housing Authority where he did policy and government affairs work.
“I went there because I thought one of the biggest things we can do to eradicate poverty is to change and transform our public housing,” he says. “Unfortunately, the leadership there at the time was in turmoil and transition, and so it became not exciting for me.”
During the statewide elections of 2013, Jeff became a firm supporter of Mark Herring, who was running for attorney general. After the election, the victorious Mark Herring invited Jeff to work for him. “That January I was running a division of about thirty lawyers as one of five deputy attorneys general,” he says. “To this day it was the most rewarding, interesting and enlightening professional experience I’ve ever had. As you recall, most of my professional life has been spent somewhere in around public policy and the law, and If there’s a place where all of my interests converge—policy, politics and the law—it would be in the attorney general’s office. Policy is what you should do, the law is what you can do, and politics is what is possible.”
Jeff considers himself fortunate for having served under Mark Herring. “I was proud to be part of the Herring administration because he was so courageous when he changed the state’s positon on the marriage equality lawsuit,” he says. “And when he fought to make sure students could get instate tuition who were legally here. And when he fought for the environment.”
During his time on the Richmond School Board, Jeff changed the notion of what an education system really is. “We have 26 percent of our people living in poverty in Richmond,” he says. “We have 40 percent of our students who are at or below the poverty line, and roughly 80 percent of our students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Now when I talk about education system, I don’t just mean pre-K to twelfth grade. It’s got to be an educational system for everyone because we can only go so far if we focus on fixing the kids. We’ve got to fix the families, too, and part of that is preparing people who are uneducated, undereducated or undertrained, and really providing them with skills, knowledge and the ability to go out and get a job and be prepared for the work force so that they can provide and make a better way for their family.”
When this past election cycle rolled around, Jeff considered several options. A number of people wanted him to run for mayor, or city council. He opted instead to continue his work on the School Board, and he secured the seat handily.
Then, of course, the domino effect kicked in. Donald McEachin won his race for Congress, leaving his state senate seat open. Delegate Jennifer McLellan was the heir apparent to that seat, and she won the contest easily. And that’s when Jeff decided to run for Jennifer’s seat in the House of Delegate’s. He won almost 90 percent of the vote.
“This was a difficult decision because I really care about the school system in Richmond,” he says. “But ultimately I decided that while I wouldn’t be on the school board if I were elected to the House of Delegates, I could have an impact on Richmond Public Schools in a different way, which is why I decided to run.”
Jeff was sworn into office on February 8, 2017. “It was a very quick turnaround time,” he says. “And though I got in for only the last two weeks of the 2017 session, I learned a lot and I saw a lot and I don’t regret the decision one bit.”
In that short time, it became clear to Jeff that conservatives and liberals often worked together collegially. “There are a few issues that Democrats and Republican are just not going to agree on,” he says. “But on the vast majority of issues we can find common ground. There’s no clearer example of that than the budget. So the budget we passed gave raises to state workers, teachers, state police, and it added some protections for the environment. It was a good document. That budget process showed me that when there are real problems the Commonwealth faces, the General Assembly can come together and compromise and find solutions for the people we represent. There are a lot of good people in the General Assembly that want to do the right thing.”
Jeff describes the width and breadth of the 71st District which encompasses Bellevue, Ginter Park, the Fan, Jackson Ward, Carver, Highland Park, the East End, most of Church Hill and Downtown Richmond. “It’s a very diverse and exciting district,” our representative tells me. “It has some of the most abject poverty in the region, but it also has some pretty significant wealth. It’s a microcosm of America; it’s a microcosm of Virginia. Young, old, black, white, rich poor, Hispanic, immigrant. And this is what makes representing this district extremely fun and challenging. The problems we face are complex, but we live in a very engaged district, so people are not shy about offering suggestions, telling you where they stand on issues, and probably on 95 percent of the issues I’m right there with the rest of district.”
When I ask Delegate Jeff Bourne if he has further political aspirations, he says, “My philosophy in this is I’ve not ever said I want to be elected to this and then that. My faith teaches me this is not my plan. I don’t order my steps, my God orders my steps.”