Progressive politics in rural Virginia: Former Student Assembly member Liam Watson launches bid for county supervisor

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COURTESY PHOTO / LIAM WATSON

Almost every weekend when he was a student at the College of William and Mary, Liam Watson ’20 spent eight hours traveling roundtrip on Interstate 64 back to his home in Pilot, a small town in Montgomery County, Va. Now, as a freshly graduated College alumnus, Watson is seeking to serve his community in the best way he knows how: politics.

Watson, who graduated from the College last May, is currently running to become Montgomery County’s youngest-ever elected county supervisor. Home to Virginia Tech, Montgomery County is governed by seven county supervisors. Thanks to partisan gerrymandering, the board is closely divided between four strong Republican seats and three Democratic strongholds. Watson is challenging incumbent supervisor Sara Bohn in the Democratic primary election for District A, which will take place June 8.

Watson first became passionate about politics in 2007, when Montgomery County bore witness to the Virginia Tech shooting that killed 32 people. Watson’s family knew students and family friends who died in the event, and Watson saw in the aftermath of the shooting how politics could work to heal communities after tragedy — and how it could make situations worse.

“It showed me what happens when politics works, and what happens when it doesn’t,” Watson said. “It showed me the calming impact that of all people, George W. Bush could have, when he came to campus to speak. But it also showed me what happens when politics fails people, and what happens when people own guns who shouldn’t have guns. It inspired in me a desire to contribute to my community.”

That nearly lifelong interest in public service led Watson to pursue several leadership roles within his home community. In Montgomery County, Watson has served as a county parks and recreation commissioner, a vice-chair of his district’s Democratic committee, a voting precinct captain and a notarized elections officer. He is also an active member of St. Mary’s Catholic Church as a parish administrator and parishioner.

Through his persistent journeys on I-64, Watson juggled many of these roles while attending classes in Williamsburg. However, Watson also took on responsibilities on campus as well, serving a partial term as a Student Assembly senator and assisting his friend Caleb Rogers ’20 during his successful bid for Williamsburg City Council last year.

“We started talking one day after class and we noticed we both had a passion for local government,” Watson said. “I think, as far as I understand, I was one of the first people he told about his desire to run for city council, and he’s one of the first people I told about my desire to run for Montgomery County Board of Supervisors. It has been, and continues to be, an excellent, fruitful partnership.”

“We started talking one day after class and we noticed we both had a passion for local government,” Watson said. “I think, as far as I understand, I was one of the first people he told about his desire to run for city council, and he’s one of the first people I told about my desire to run for Montgomery County Board of Supervisors. It has been, and continues to be, an excellent, fruitful partnership.”

After graduating, Watson initially struggled to decide what opportunities to pursue after his time in Williamsburg. Ultimately, he reflected on what experiences had been most meaningful to him as an undergraduate. That reflection brought him back to Montgomery County.

“At William and Mary, like most people, I was struggling to think of what comes next,” Watson said. “… Something I really had trouble grappling with for a while, and it was staring me in my face, what’s the place I care about the most? It’s my hometown … you only have one hometown. You might have a million opportunities, but you only have one hometown. I wanted to come back and serve the people I grew up with and serve the people that had been my neighbors my entire life.”

If elected, Watson has proposed multiple legislative initiatives designed to promote social justice and bolster economic development. When Watson sat down with The Flat Hat, he touched on three policy areas — affordable housing, broadband access and access to quality schools – as core issues guiding his campaign. Broadband access has become an especially important area for Watson as students and teachers have had difficulty adjusting to distance learning because of poor Internet access.

“Broadband access is pitiful in Montgomery County,” Watson said. “At a time in history when it’s more important than ever for us to be connected virtually, it’s a travesty that people are unable to participate simply of a consequence of where they live or what their income level is.”

Watson’s experiences as a young person living in Montgomery County are partially responsible for spurring these policies within his campaign. At 21 years old, Watson is less than half the age of the county’s current youngest supervisor — and he said that the age gap shows in the way that sitting board members govern the county.

“I see increasing problems in rural America,” Watson said. “… There is an increasing divide between rich and poor and a widening gap between those two groups. The rural parts of Virginia are desperately under-served, and it’s a pity, a heartbreak, really, that these parts are not served by competent leadership, broadly speaking.”

“I see increasing problems in rural America,” Watson said. “… There is an increasing divide between rich and poor and a widening gap between those two groups. The rural parts of Virginia are desperately under-served, and it’s a pity, a heartbreak, really, that these parts are not served by competent leadership, broadly speaking.”

Watson’s campaign is being run by several of his childhood friends. While in-person campaigning is limited because of COVID-19, Watson’s team has successfully hosted multiple online town halls and events — one recent virtual lunch attracted more than 1,000 attendees.

As Watson continues campaigning in the run up to June’s primary, he is excited to continue connecting with voters and share his visions for Montgomery County with them. Most importantly, he’s excited to give his neighbors a platform for speaking up about what matters most to them, a priority he hopes to bring to the Board of Supervisors soon.

“We have to find innovative, new ways to meet with people and make them feel heard,” Watson said. “The biggest challenge with this campaign is making sure that we’re able to interact with our neighbors and do so safely.”