September 29, 2010 News & Features » Cover Story


Cobb's Web 

From grassroots nonprofit to political powerhouse: How Victoria Cobb's Family Foundation became the gatekeeper to Virginia's conservative coalition.


IN THE LAND of childhood Halloween memories, some people remember their best-ever trick-or-treat costume, or the hustle for the biggest haul of candy.

Victoria Cobb recalls doing door-to-door “lit drops” when she was 6, lobbying for sweets and votes for Ronald Reagan's 1984 re-election campaign.

In the land of sixth-grade memories, some remember the cutthroat hierarchy of lunchroom cliques, or that awkward first crush.

Victoria Cobb recalls writing an essay in which she imagined herself a fictional judge overturning Roe v. Wade.

It was in the sixth grade, too, at an independent Christian school in Media, Penn., when Cobb decided to change her position on abortion. She was already pro-life, but a classroom speech swayed her to oppose abortion also in cases of rape or incest, a belief she still holds today. “I believe it's a life no matter what the circumstances were,” she says. “That life still has value and there are some amazing people in this world that are here as the result of a rape.”

Given her early, entrenched conservative positions on social issues, it's not surprising that Cobb, 31, is the energetic, sometimes controversial president of the Family Foundation, Virginia's formidable, biblically based, social conservative lobby. The group was founded in 1985 by conservative political activists Walter Barbee and Anne Kincaid amid a groundswell of Reagan-era grass-roots groups such as Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority, James Dobson's Focus on the Family and Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition. It's survived two and a half decades of political seesawing, asserting its influence powerfully in the last two election cycles.



Cobb, now 31, at her Main Street office, assumed leadership of the Family Foundation in 2004 at 26. Photo by Scott Elmquist.

Specifically the group's platforms promote pro-life, anti-gay marriage, anti-pornography, anti-no-fault-divorce, pro-school-choice, pro-limited government, pro-tax policies that create incentives for mothers to stay at home, and pro-religious expression in public places such as courthouses and state schools.

The foundation regularly combats the American Civil Liberties Union, Planned Parenthood and the Virginia Education Association on a battery of bills each General Assembly session. Its 2010 legislative report, while registering a mix of wins and losses, is littered with references to God, thanking providence for such boons as the absence of pro-choice legislators in subcommittee meetings.

Virginia Tomorrow blogger and state political analyst Bob Holsworth says the Family Foundation's constituency is “crucially important not only in Virginia, but in fact nationally to Republican Party nominating contests.”

While many of the Family Foundation's supported bills reach roadblocks in the Democrat-controlled state Senate, the group's ability to rally smaller grass-roots GOP groups, conservative religious leaders and traditionalist families has garnered new energy following the election of three social conservative Republicans: Gov. Bob McDonnell, Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling and Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, whose controversial legal opinions on gay rights and immigration since taking office in January have revived Virginia's legacy of conservatism.

“I was struck by how many prominent political figures on the kind-of GOP side … take them very, very seriously,” Holsworth says of the Family Foundation. “They've become in some way kind of institutionalized.”

Cobb has been the public face of the group since 2004, having assumed leadership at 26. Quick, articulate and fast-talking, often punctuating her speech with lists and staccato gestures, Cobb is also approachable, friendly and, especially in public, constantly smiling. Her bobbed haircut, freckles and pulled-together suit-and-dress ensembles — makeup subtly matching her outfit's dominant color — give her the look of a relatable and savvy spokesperson.

“She has a lot of energy, a lot of activity, [and she is] very disciplined,” Holsworth, says, adding that Cobb is “a very talented person” and could be “a viable future Republican candidate.”



Cobb spends time at home with her 2-year-old, Timothy, and Elizabeth, 4. They attend a Christian preschool several times a week, with Cobb working from home some days.  Photo by Scott Elmquist.

FOR NOW, COBB is happy where she is. While she's an established face among GOP political circles, Cobb's family life — she has two young children with her husband, lawyer Matt Cobb, who serves in Gov. Bob McDonnell's administration — mirrors the tenets of her organization with its mix of faith-based conviction, publicly expressed beliefs and visible work-family balance.

The blend shows on a recent Thursday morning, while Cobb shuffles her daughter, Elizabeth, a bright and opinionated 4-year-old, and her son, Timothy, an inquisitive 2-year-old, through the morning routine before heading off to a local church preschool.

Photos of the Cobbs with Mike Huckabee and Kenneth Starr and books on Christianity, the Founding Fathers and the Civil War line shelves in the five-bedroom West End house the family settled for after a summer-long battle for their dream home: “[The owner] decided he negotiated the house too low, and he decided he was going to try to nickel us and dime us for things we had never agreed to,” Cobb explains. After praying about it, the couple walked: “Only God could have gotten us out of that contract,” Cobb says. “We're in the right place.”

The Cobbs say a prayer in the car while they rush to school, which Elizabeth and Timothy attend a few days a week in the mornings; in the afternoon, they'll return home to be looked after by a favorite nanny, a member of the Richmond Outreach Center who has a toddler son of her own. Cobb splits her week working in the office or traveling and spending days at home, sometimes looking after other children among a group of friends who swap home-based child-care and car-pool duties. “The kids love it,” she says.

Later in the day, at lunch with Mary Doug Enghauser, one of the Family Foundation's donors, Cobb talks about the options she's considering for Elizabeth's and Timothy's primary schooling and asks for help with flowers for the foundation's 25th anniversary gala in October, featuring Indiana's Rep. Mike Pence, who won the presidential straw poll at this month's Values Voters Summit in Washington. Other planned topics: faith-based education, the arts, Christian theologians, school choice, free market economics and politically active churches.

“If the churches were doing what they were supposed to be doing, Victoria would not have a job,” says Enghauser, a former home-schooling lobbyist.

That sentiment's on display during a recent Monday afternoon at the Family Foundation's Pastors Summit, an annual convention held by Pastors for Family Values, a Family Foundation group that presses Christian ministers to take public, socially conservative positions on hot-button political issues. Before a hotel dining room crowd of about 250 pastors, Cobb hypes “The Truth Project,” a DVD training series produced by Focus on the Family, the national group founded in 1977 by evangelical psychologist James Dobson.



Cobb keeps a notebook of Bible verses on her office desk. Photo by Scott Elmquist.

A promotional video for the series flashes opposing words such as “truth” and “lies,” “good” and “evil,” “light” and “darkness” across a screen, exhorting Christians to arm themselves for a “battle of worldviews” and to inject Biblical principles into topics such as government, history and science. Cobb tells the audience she's embarked on “Truth Project” training with her husband. (The couple also teaches Bible study together at the Baptist church they attend in Henrico County.)

Bishop E.W. Jackson, the Family Foundation's Chesapeake-based chaplain, takes the stage and launches a spirited speech, Bible in hand, while the Family Foundation logo — silhouettes of a man, woman, girl and boy clustered against a map of Virginia — watches over the proceedings.

“You hear ministers who are saying to their congregations …  ‘It's wrong to get involved in the political life of the country, it's wrong to get involved in the tea party,'” Jackson says. “If everybody else can come out of the closet, I think it's about time that pastors, and we as Christians, come out of the closet,” he intones to widespread applause.

“We're being told we are the largest Muslim nation in the world,” Jackson says. “We cannot afford to keep silent.”

Lining the dining room and hallway outside are tables paid for by Concerned Women for America, the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation, local pregnancy resource centers, and a ministry for men called Noble Warriors. Brochures with titles such as “The Family Manifesto,” “Dealing with Pornography” and “The Other Side of Tolerance: How Homosexual Activism Threatens Liberty” are on display. Author William J. Federer, whose titles include “What Every American Needs to Know About the Qur'an,” holds court behind a booth selling his books.

COBB GREW UP in Media, Penn., and attended an academically rigorous Christian school from the first grade through her senior year of high school. Her competitive streak manifested in team sports — softball, basketball, tennis and field hockey — and membership on a brain-bowl trivia team sponsored by Scott tissue. “God was involved” in science class, she says, and evolution “was discussed with all the facts, with all the flaws in the theory.”

She traces her roots blending faith and public policy to her maternal grandmother, whose mail and bookshelf contents, she says, were either political or religious. “I remember her as somebody who was inspired by her faith to engage on the issues,” Cobb recalls.

Cobb also watched her mother engage in a political battle over a public school closing, a struggle she characterizes as nonpartisan. Born Lutheran, raised Presbyterian and married to a Southern Baptist, Cobb says she shies away from denominational categories and is drawn to principles and issues, not candidates — just like her organization: “I'm just not someone who gravitates toward people,” she says.

Cobb met her husband at the University of Richmond through their mutual affiliation with Christian groups on campus. She interned at the Family Research Council in Washington during college before marrying at 22 — while her husband was in law school in Georgia. “I liked it because I'm very independent, and so for me it was great 'cause I kind of had to ease into, like, you know — ease into marriage, ease into living with someone,” she says of the Cobbs' early commuting days.

The Family Foundation hired Cobb soon after she graduated with a degree in political science and leadership from UR's Jepson School of Leadership Studies, but not immediately — at the time, the organization could not afford to hire her. Cobb recalls a telephone conversation with the group's then-executive director: “He said, ‘As the executive director of the Family Foundation I want to tell you to hang out and wait, and we're gonna come up with the money.' He said, ‘As a brother in the Lord, I'm gonna tell you to go get a job.'”

Her arrival a few months later dovetailed with the group's move into its office in a Main Street high-rise less than a block away from Capitol Square, a symbolic step for a group that started rallying conservatives with alerts sent over fax machines out of the Northern Virginia basement of former Navy pilot Walter Barbee.



A photo in Cobb's office shows the family during the successful 2006 referendum campaign to amend the state constitution to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Photo courtsey Victoria Cobb.

After she joined as a lobbyist, Cobb spearheaded a formalizing of the group's issue areas — officially they are life, marriage, parental authority, constitutional government and religious liberty. Cobb also bolstered the group's no-holds-barred lobbying style. Under Cobb's leadership, the Family Foundation celebrated its most publicized victory, the 2006 voter referendum amending the Virginia Constitution to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Cobb was pregnant with her first child, Elizabeth, during the campaign; a framed photo in her office shows her family, newborn strapped to Cobb's front, holding a yes-to-marriage rally sign.

Although the Family Foundation doesn't endorse candidates formally and says it does not have an official membership roster, political observers say it has significant grass-roots rallying ability — it claims a database of about 80,000, an e-mail list of about 12,000, a million voter guides and a spirited statewide network of volunteers, pastors and churches.

“They've built the Family Foundation into a force down there,” says Ray Allen Jr., a state Republican strategist and adviser to U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor.

The group's influence is particularly remarkable because its financial resources are relatively slim. With three full-time registered lobbyists, the foundation donated $110,879 to political causes between 1996 and 2008, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, with most of that money going to and the rest going to the Republican Party of Virginia. According to the nonprofit's federal tax return, the Family Foundation received $2,185,449 in donations from 2005 to the first half of 2009.

“There are Family Foundation people in every county and every district of the state,” Allen says. A highly touted score card distributed by the group ranks the “pro-family” rank of state legislators, breaking down lawmakers' votes and assigning senators and delegates numerical grades. “Rural Democrats in particular watch their score cards because … it's not a sign that they're crazy liberals,” Allen says.

On a recent Thursday, the hub of the group's Main Street offices is a giant square table around which a retired home-school teacher, a stay-at-home mom and a young volunteer veteran prepare mailings against white-board walls tracking bills by issue.

“Their gauge is a sort of moral compass of where our family voters are,” says Republican state Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel, who represents Clarke, Frederick and parts of Fauquier and Frederick counties and Winchester. Vogel scores 92 out of 100 on the group's 2008-2009 report card.

“They're big enough that they're on my radar screen even though I disagree with most of what they advocate for,” says Democrat state Del. Jennifer McClellan, who represents parts of Richmond and Henrico County. “There are a lot of conservative Republicans who want to have a high score with the Family Foundation.” (McClellan scores a 13.)

For Virginia, a state ranked low for the number of women in elected office, Cobb is a mainstay figure who's navigated politics through the more traditional route, for women, of grass-roots advocacy.

“She's clearly an up and comer,” says Dierdre Condit, an associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University's L. Douglas Wilder School of Government who studies women in politics.

Condit suggests women who lobby for traditionalist family structures experience a paradoxical situation when they leave the private sphere to advocate for it. But on the flip side, socially conservative women can translate public activism into an authoritative message of “doing what's best for my family,” Condit says. She notes that one historically traditionalist ideal of women views them as the in-home moral centers of family life, charged with raising God-fearing future leaders.

“For Christian conservative women and women throughout the Christian evangelical movement, this is a natural extension of what women should do,” Condit says. “The personal is political has really had resonance.”



Students at the University of Richmond protest Victoria Cobb's Jepson Leadership Award. Cobb, a 2000 graduate of the university, received the award in April “for exemplifying achievement and reflecting the mission of the school.” Photo by Tanveer Ahmed.

FOR COBB AND the Family Foundation, that hasn't come without controversy — most recently manifested in student protests over Cobb's Jepson Leadership Award, which the University of Richmond gave her in April “for exemplifying achievement and reflecting the mission of the school,” according to the framed certificate in Cobb's office.

The campus erupted in protests and editorials in the school's newspaper, The Collegian, decrying Cobb as a choice for the award, arguing the Family Foundation's positions against gay marriage and gay-straight alliances in schools were at odds with the university's principles, and criticizing the Family Foundation's blog for a biting tone in its coverage of the event. Many of Jepson's professors, the Collegian reported, disagreed with the choice.

For Cobb, it's all part of the job — there's a top-10 list of hate mail circulated in the office. But she wants to convey a difference between advocating for public policy, and personal belief, and the ability to cultivate across-the-aisle relationships. Even though she says it doesn't matter whether homosexuality is genetic, environmental, or a choice — lots of ex-gays get married and have families, proving they can change no matter what the origin of their homosexuality, she says — Cobb stresses that she has gay acquaintances and friends who don't agree with her.

“When you have a real relationship with someone, you don't have to agree and you can still be really close,” she says. “Those are some of the most interesting relationships.”

She doesn't appreciate stereotypes that have her preferring one kind of friend over another, or being close-minded, or loathe to question her beliefs. “I think there is that stereotype, especially of conservative Christians, that we just think we have all the answers … that we don't think about these things,” Cobb says. “That's just not the case.”

If one of her children were, in the future, to tell their mom he or she was gay?

“You love your kid. You love your kid,” Cobb says. “Everybody ends up finding out that your child is uniquely gifted by God to do something totally different. … I wouldn't dare to advise someone and I wouldn't, you know, tell you what I'm going to do.”

“What I do and why I do it, it isn't important to me that everyone in the world agrees with me.”



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