Jack Trammell looking to beat David Brat, replace Eric Cantor

Political pundits nationwide have their eyes on this mild-mannered Randolph-Macon professor.

This profile of Jack Trammell originally ran back in July.

Original — July 17, 2014

“It was a crazy night,” said Jack Trammel. “I think people all over Virginia, and all over America…were stunned, amazed, surprised, and in some cases very excited about that news for us.”

That news came just after 8:00 PM on June 10th when the Associated Press reported David Brat defeated 1 House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the Republican primary for the 7th District.

Trammell2 was campaigning at an event in Louisa County when the AP called the race. “My life changed that night,” he said. “I had 644 emails on my iPhone within the first hour. I had 29 voicemails within the first 30 minutes. So this thing,” he said, while holding up his phone “kind of melted that night.”

Two days prior, the 7th District Democratic Committee had nominated Trammell to run against the Republican nominee, who most thought would be Cantor. Now the Randolph-Macon College associate professor will face Brat, a fellow Randolph-Macon professor, this November in what will likely be a nationally scrutinized race.

College professor and author of numerous books (both academic and fiction), this 50-year-old has waited over a decade for his chance at a political run. And he just might make it into Congress.

“I became indignant for them”

“Part of it stems from my basic instinct to be angry about social injustice,” said Trammell one late afternoon inside his Shockoe Bottom campaign headquarters. It’s hard to imagine Trammell trembling with anger. Just five minutes with him and you recognize his calm, thoughtful demeanor. But what piqued Trammell’s anger decades ago was the state of special education in public schools.

Trammell graduated from VCU with a master’s degree in social studies in 1992, which he earned so he could teach history in public schools. “My first year of teaching, I made a deal with Lunenburg County [in Victoria, Virginia],” he explained. “They said…if you teach special education this first year, we’ll [talk about you teaching history] the following year.”

What he soon saw distressed him.

“Special education wasn’t special for many of those students,” he said. “They felt isolated, they felt neglected, they felt angry, and their parents mirrored these feelings. And as a 27-year-old rookie in the public schools for the first time full-time, it opened my eyes. And I became indignant for them. Not because the schools were doing anything wrong, but because I could see something systemically wrong. It was wrong everywhere. Not just in one place.”

Over the years what he’s found wrong is an education system built around the idea of one-size-fits-all, a catch-all term for standardized models of learning. “The one-size-fits-all model doesn’t work for gifted education. It doesn’t work for special education. And it [doesn’t] work for all the other kids either.”

Trammell’s first year in special education was meant to be a bridge to an eventual career as a history teacher. “I never went back to being a full-time history educator again,” he said. “I became a full-time special educator in the public schools for nine years. And then when I moved into higher ed working with students with disabilities, I took up the same work at the university and college level.”

But it would be his relationship with a longstanding member of the General Assembly that would begin his slow drum beat into politics

Service learning, at the Congressional level

V. Earl Dickinson represented localities within the Fredericksburg area in the General Assembly for 30 years. “V. Earl was very respected in the community,” said Trammell, who once rented a Mineral, Virginia farm Dickinson owned. “And when he retired from the General Assembly [in 2002], I actually thought for the first time, seriously, about getting into politics.”

Others encouraged him, believing Trammell’s amicability and education would serve him well. “But my children were very small at the time, knee high at best, and it just didn’t seem like I could devote the time to that that I needed to,” he said.

“Later on, when Eric Cantor was the representative for the 7th District, people approached me in Louisa, and [also] some Democrats, and asked me about running because, as a consensus person, and as a person who was likely to reach across the aisle and connect to a lot of different people and different constituencies, I was approached,” he said. “And again I just felt that I still had kids at home. It wasn’t quite the right time. I wasn’t ready to commit myself to that.”

But six of his family’s seven children3 will be in college this year. Now Trammell’s family life is open to a political run. Yet as someone with an extensive education, one broadened by his teaching experience and the books he’s written, it’s clear Trammell’s a smart guy.

So why go into politics?

“I come from a family of educators, and there is a notion in my family and through a lot of circles in education, that the more education you receive, the more obligation you have to make your work meaningful to other people,” Trammell said. “I felt that each step I took [in education] obligated me more to use my expertise and my knowledge and my education to help others.”

His commitment to service learning also motivates him. “Service learning is the notion that an academic curriculum doesn’t exist in a vacuum by itself. It’s not just theory. It’s also practice,” he said. One practiced by helping your community. “Running for Congress is a chance for me to model all that as service learning.”

Trammell said his history in special education makes him comfortable with the political gamut. “Disability doesn’t not respect party lines. Disability does not obey any sort of specific demographic. Every family in America, practically, has a disability story that’s impacted their family,” he said.

Government inaction is also something that motivates him to run. He and Audrie experienced that first-hand after the 5.8 earthquake that originated in their home county of Louisa in 2011.

“Our house was damaged and our representative came and suggested to us that the politics of the budget in Washington were more important than us getting aid through FEMA, or suggested that maybe it was our fault that we didn’t have earthquake insurance,” he said. Government inaction also affected local children, and some of Trammell’s kids. High schoolers graduated “from a trailer park instead of a high school because their high school was totaled.”

Last month, a political earthquake shook the 7th District. With luck, Trammell will create another one in November.

“Like everyone else, I was quite surprised and shocked” by Brat beating Cantor, Trammell said. “But I also was encouraged…even though the district has been designed to be a Republican district for a while, and people have considered it to be Eric Cantor’s district, the results of the primary showed that the people are not monolithic. They will vote based on ideas. They will vote on change. And I think that holds promise for the election this fall.”

Up for grabs

Not only are Brat and Trammell relative political unknowns, and not only do they work at the same college, but Trammell says the two have a friendly past.

“Dave is a really nice guy. He’s a family guy. He’s a very smart man. And I have a lot of respect for Dave the person,” Trammell said. The two were once teammates on the same basketball team.

“When it comes to the world of ideas, Dave and I have had debates before in the lunch room about various things,” he said. “But Dave the opponent is someone who I’ll be putting my ideas up to the public to compare against his in the next few months. And there will be qualitative and quantitative differences in those views.”

One thing Trammell wants is education reform. In particular, he’d like greater public access to education, student loan reform, fairer K-12 accountability, and more support for special education.

He also wants to push for clean energy initiatives and carbon footprint reduction, but also push for high-speed rail and enhanced transportation networks.

Unemployment and under-employment are other issues he wants to help change. “Our employment rate is not a true indicator,” Trammell said about the 7th District. “I know many college students working two, three part-time jobs. I know many people my age who’ve reached a glass ceiling: they can’t be promoted. They don’t feel like they can move on to another high paying job without leaving the district.” Trammell hopes to keep them there.

But before he can help people in the 7th District, people in the 7th District will have to help him. Two months ago it seemed impossible for a Democratic to win the 7th District. But then it also seemed impossible that Eric Cantor could lose the nomination. That unpredictability just might bode well for Trammell.

“This is a district that’s up for grabs and nobody knows for sure what’s going to happen this fall,” he said.

photo courtesy of Jack Trammell for Congress

  1. Brat earned 56% of the over 65,000 votes cast. 
  2. Trammell’s mother was seven months pregnant when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Trammell was named after the president: John Kent Trammell. “And my nickname, Jack, became a nickname like Kennedy,” Trammell said. 
  3. Trammell said he and his wife Audrie have a “blended family.” Four of the children are hers, three are Jack’s. 
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Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

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