While most national office hopefuls are spending a majority of their time on the campaign trail, Dr. Cameron Webb is in the hospital trying to save lives during a COVID-19 pandemic that has taken in excess of 200,000 American lives and infected millions more. In his role as director of health policy and equity at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, Webb has seen the very worst of what COVID-19 does to people and has first-hand-knowledge of how failed public policy makes first responders’ jobs harder.
Working during a tight campaign, especially one like Webb’s in Virginia’s 5th Congressional District that the Cook Report says is a toss-up, would be a disadvantage for most candidates. But for Webb, 38, treating patients suffering from COVID-19 has shown voters in his district that he is well-suited to serve them.
“My insight as a doctor is one of those professions that gives you a vantage point into our society as a whole in a very intimate way,” Webb told The Root. “So that’s what I’m bringing to this—just a lot of insight into food insecurity and housing instability and challenges with transportation and all these different issues that are the core kitchen table issues but I can see them through the eyes and through the words of countless patients. That helps a lot.”
For political newcomers like Webb, face time with voters is vital. Fish fries, shaking hands and kissing babies are hallmarks of the intimate connections candidates must establish with people whose votes they seek. But instead of hugging potential supporters, Webb is doing virtual town halls and socially-distanced events to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. But for all of the time he would ideally be spending on a regular campaign trail, he is making up for it with patients whose conditions reflect the healthcare inequalities that he will work to address if he is elected to Congress November 3.
One thing they make clear for him is the need to expand the Affordable Care Act (ACA) Republicans tried to undue during Obama’s presidency and Trump has vowed to end. Beyond the ACA, he supports a public option to help insure the 30 million Americans who are uninsured. A public option, according to The New York Times, allows middle-income, working-age adults to select a public insurance plan instead of a private one. Webb also thinks about environmental racism as another healthcare issue that impacts people, which is why he supports America rejoining The Paris Agreement, which aims to reduce the global temperature rise well below two degrees Celsius.
“As a physician, my perspective is to follow the science,” he said. “Science tells us we have to achieve these reductions in carbon emissions. If we do so, we have a chance to stave off some of the worst impacts of climate change. Remember, that’s going to impact our food environment, so that’s one of the potential health impacts, but also having longer allergy seasons or asthma or respiratory disease or vector borne illnesses. I think we talked about Zika a couple of years ago, that was a big conversation. Those vector-borne illnesses are more likely with climate change. So those are the things that we want to talk about, want to make sure we see what’s coming and make sure we’re ready for it.”
Webb, an internal medicine doctor who became the 5th District Democratic nominee after winning his June primary, would be the first Black medical doctor to serve in Congress.
Atima Omara, founder and president of Omara Strategy Group, says Webb is running his race in a fashion similar to South Carolina U.S. Senate candidate Jamie Harrison. Both are black candidates who are running in areas that would not respond to the style of say, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, but are looking to support someone who is not as extreme as Trump.
“To bring a lot of folks over [to the Democratic side], you have to talk in a more broader sense about things,” Omara said. “Yes, ‘I’m going to talk about racial justice and why Black Lives Matter, but I’m going to talk about it in ways that are understandable to folks outside of just the base who are interested in defunding the police. I’m going to talk about the economy and how it’s hurting not just black people and brown people who’ve been affected by the economy, but also a lot of other voters in the district who are hurting as well economically.’
She added: “That appeals to a lot of independents who don’t consider themselves Democrats, but are the suburban folks, the rural folks who do see some merit to the arguments the Black Lives Matter activists have been making. I’ve seen marches in parts of the state of Virginia I never thought I would ever see a march for Black Lives. Like rural areas. So the message is resonating and there’s a captive audience.”
The 5th Congressional District, which stretches from the Virginia-North Carolina border up to the suburbs of Washington, D.C., has been viewed as reliably Republican until recently. The Fauquier Times reports the last time a Democrat held the seat was in 2008, the year Obama was elected to the presidency. In fact, Trump won the district by 11 points in 2016. But Webb is leading his GOP opponent, Bob Good, in fundraising, raking in $2.7 million between July 1 and Sept. 30, plus $2.5 million in individual contributions. Comparatively, Good raised $722,000, plus $550,000 in individual contributions, during that time, according to The Fauquier Times.
Taikein Cooper, chair of the Prince Edward Democratic Committee, said Webb is one of the rare candidates whose day job is an advantage to his campaign.
“He did something that most consultants, most other candidates said that it couldn’t be done. They said, ‘Hey, you have to stop working and run for Congress.’ And he committed to work even before the pandemic, Cooper said. ‘Hey. This is where I’m needed the most.’”
Cooper continued: “Everybody doesn’t have the privilege of saying, ‘Hey, I don’t have to work if I don’t want to work because I want to run for Congress.’ And so I think that message of his willingness to serve has been critical, especially in this half. He has bridged that gap because he’s bringing in public health experts and he’s having these virtual town halls with them and giving updates on things that he has seen in the emergency room and on a COVID unit, as well as what people are seeing across the country. And he’s using that to inform others in our district, which I think has been incredible.”
One could say Webb started campaigning for the seat several years in advance when he worked briefly in the Trump Administration back in 2017. Webb was completing the second half of his prestigious White House Fellowship that began under Barack Obama, in the fall of 2016. A University of Virginia-trained physician, Webb spent much of his time working on implementing the Affordable Care Act and Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative before Trump won the 2016 Election, shocking the nation—and Webb’s work environment.
He went from working with twenty-three federal offices and agencies and in the most diverse work environment in his life, to being an outsider in a very insular, white-male dominated one in which his expertise was not sought after—even ignored.
“They didn’t want my help,” he said of the new Trump senior appointees. “They moved my desk out into the hallway and asked me to just kind of sit in the hallway outside the Office of Cabinet Affairs because they said they were working on sensitive matters. Every day I would ask how I could help and they would say they didn’t need my help. So that went on not for two days, not for two weeks, but for two months. I was at that desk in the hallway. I always tell people it’s really important that even in moments like that, I had to figure out how I am going to engage, how am I going to do my part with this moment.”
He didn’t allow the rebuffs to discourage him. Webb walked around and engaged people in the Executive Office building about policy issues. Sometimes, he would take Trump appointees out for coffee or lunch. Over time, Webb got to know people.
His meetings didn’t usually result with a consensus on policy, but they still were able to build relationships. Most importantly for him was that he was able to get across that he really cared about the issues and the people who would be impacted by them.
“They knew that I was coming from a place of people’s best interest and data that I was using,” Webb said. “They were coming from a place sometimes where the data they were referring to they came to a different conclusion. We had those conversations. When I talk about being a consensus builder, I’m confident that’s something I can do in a legislative space because I’ve spent seven months in the Trump Administration with folks who viewed the world very differently from me.”
During our phone interview, Webb never dropped his diplomatic demeanor. Though he has obvious policy disagreements with Trump, he never directly names him or speaks against him as bombastically as other House candidates in more liberal districts like Jamaal Bowman and Cori Bush’s, both of whom are all but certain to win their races. But that is the thing about Webb: he doesn’t have to be outwardly anti-Trump to be competitive. He just has to be himself and the type of candidate who can win the trust of residents of his district.
And, for him, that comes with using his unintentional relationship with the Trump Administration to his advantage.
“The second [Trump supporters] hear that I worked in his administration for seven months their ears start to open,” he said. “They’re just like, ‘Wait a minute, how did you do that?’ What’s funny is a lot of people say you should just become a Republican and you’ll definitely win this race. [But] I say I’m a proud Democrat and I think there’s opportunities for us to work together. The truth is people support President Trump for different reasons. For some of them, it was the economy. When we talk about where our economy is now, in the setting of this COVID pandemic, they’re open to doing something different that may support our economy.”
And, for Webb, his openness to engage these Trump supporters may get him elected to Congress—even if his broader political outlook may be the polar opposite of the man they elected to the White House in 2016.