Virginia politician’s novel approach to personal scandal: Tell all before opponents do

Virginia politician’s novel approach to personal scandal: Tell all before opponents do

Lee Carter, who represents Virginia’s 50th district in the House of Delegates, recently drew notice for a tweet storm relating details of his personal life.

Paul Schwartzman / The Washington Post

MANASSAS, Va. – The history of American politics abounds with examples of leaders sunk by scandal, the dark details excavated by their enemies.

Lee Carter, a Virginia state lawmaker with enough proverbial skeletons to crowd a graveyard, has taken it upon himself to beat any potential rival to the punch.

In a whiplash-inducing confessional on Twitter, Carter, a Democratic delegate from Prince William County, recently told his 18,000 followers that he needed to share details of his past before unidentified foes "try personal smears."

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Once, a few years back, he was fired from a job, he tweeted. At 18, while in the Marines, he was arrested for suspicion of assault, a charge he said was dismissed. A "terrible student" in high school, he said "horrible things" on the Internet – things that were "homophobic, trans-phobic, sometimes sexist or racially insensitive."

The delegate’s compendium of lowlights included lay-offs, a foreclosure and a car repossession, and a time when the Confederate flag made him feel something more positive than the revulson he currently experiences.

"I’m on divorce #3," Carter, 31, continued, before describing himself as the victim of "abuse, including rape."

"And just like everyone else under 35," he tweeted, "I’m sure explicit images or video of me exists out there somewhere."

He then took pains to reassure his audience that he’s no Anthony Weiner, the former congressman whose in flagrante selfies caused a national furor. "I never sent them unsolicited," Carter wrote. "And never while I was in a relationship."

As the General Assembly’s only self-proclaimed socialist, Carter quickly distinguished himself in Richmond after his 2017 upset victory over Del. Jackson Miller, the GOP’s third highest ranking House member. While Carter spoke during a hearing earlier this year, a Democratic colleague seated behind him teasingly held up a photo of a Soviet hammer- and-sickle.

But Carter’s revelations about his personal life in early September – delivered in a spasm of tweets on a Friday night as he sat alone on his couch – brought him new notoriety and caused a veritable ripple of gasps within Virginia’s political class, including Democrats desperate to overtake the Republicans’ 50-49 majority in the House.

Among his Twitter followers, the immediate response was largely positive – "Amazing honesty," wrote one. "It’s genius," wrote another. But others were plainly flummoxed. "Bruh you don’t have to get married everytime," wrote a third.

Up for re-election in 2019, Carter’s self-induced "Jerry Springer" splash is making party loyalists fret that he may have etched a bull’s-eye on his own back.

"This is just not a message that will play well with grandma," said Ben Tribbett, a Democratic consultant based in northern Virginia. "It wasn’t just the content of the tweets, it was the volume, which painted a picture of someone whose life is not in order. And that’s never a good look for an elected official."

Carter, in an interview at a Manassas coffee house, insisted that his life is just fine, particularly since May, when he separated from his third wife, from whom he’s in the process of divorcing. But he said that by revealing the less-than-flattering details, he hopes to neutralize what he expects will be a Republican effort to tarnish him.

During his first campaign, a conservative blog posted several pages from a court document relating to a child support dispute he had with his second wife, the mother of their seven year old daughter. More recently, he said he became alarmed when rivals tried to "smear" Julie Salazar, a Democratic-Socialist , as she campaigned for a New York state Senate seat.

"I said, all right, I need to just put all of this out there so people can see what people will try to smear me with," Carter said, his boyish face topped by a thatch of red hair. "Let people know about it now on my terms so they can see that I’m a normal person with a messy life like everyone else."

"Lee Carter’s weakness is his political philosophy," Card said. "This country has been against socialism since 1917. How anyone could come up with the idea that that is an acceptable direction is absolutely appalling."

Carter, as it happens, was raised "irreligious" and regards himself as "largely agnostic," something he felt compelled to reveal in the fifth of his 15 tweet confessional.

Mostly, though, politicians’ secrets are unearthed by rival operatives and reporters. Campaign strategists largely regard unprompted confessionals as a pointless form of political harikari.

He fell asleep as his words were re-tweeted and re-tweeted some more. The next morning, he awoke to more of the same.

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Erma Campos