The second and final debate in Virginia s closely watched governor's race had been underway for about 10 minutes when a woman started shouting from the audience.
“I worked very hard to be on the ballot. I should be up on the stage!" she yelled, as Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin stood by awkwardly and NBC News moderator Chuck Todd eventually called for security and went to a commercial break.
For Princess Blanding, disrupting the debate was all in a day's work. Blanding, a Black activist and educator known for her dogged advocacy for racial justice and police reforms, is making a long-shot third-party bid for governor. She’s determined to make her presence in the race known, despite the structural hurdles of a two-party system.
When the debate sponsor told her she could sit in the audience but wouldn't be allowed to participate — citing a long tradition of inviting only major party candidates — Blanding said it felt like she was being told, “Yes, you can come and get on the bus like everybody else ... but you’re going to sit in the back of the bus.”
“I came, I sat, I clapped and played right along, and when the time was right, I made my voice heard,” she said.
Blanding, 39, may not need to be on stage to leave her mark. Polls show the race between McAuliffe and Youngkin is tight, leaving Democrats worried that Blanding may siphon off enough votes to help Youngkin win.
Blanding says she's not concerned with Democrats' anxiety: “I’m their worst nightmare, but guess what? I’m my ancestors’ wildest dreams,” she said.
Blanding's activism came to the forefront in 2018 after her brother, a 24-year-old high school biology teacher named Marcus-David Peters, was fatally shot by a Richmond police officer. Peters was experiencing a mental health crisis and ran naked and unarmed into rush-hour traffic. He ran toward an officer, threatening to kill him, before the officer shot him.
Blanding maintains that the officer — who said over his police radio that he was dealing with a “mentally unstable” man — should not have used lethal force. She led protest marches and pushed for criminal charges against the officer, but prosecutors found that the shooting was justified.
Blanding went on to push for legislation to establish an alert system to dispatch mental health providers along with police to help stabilize people in crisis situations. She also was a leading voice in the protest movement and demand for police reforms after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020.
But neither the “Marcus Alert” law, named after her brother, nor the reforms went far enough for Blanding. She said it was then that she decided to start the new Liberation Party and run for governor as a third-party candidate.
“It was the continuous failure of the two-party system, especially the Democratic Party,” Blanding said in an interview with The Associated Press.
She rails against Democratic lawmakers who she says passed weak reforms after Floyd's killing and rejected a bill that would have eliminated qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that shields police from most lawsuits that stem from work performed in the line of duty.
During a ceremonial bill-signing for the Marcus Alert, Blanding slammed legislators for a law she believes gives police too much power when responding to calls involving people with mental health issues.
“Please take a moment to pat yourselves on the back for doing exactly what this racist, corrupt system ... expected you all to do, make the Marcus Alert bill a watered down, ineffective bill that will continue to ensure that having a mental health crisis results in a death sentence,” she said.
None of the three main sponsors of the legislation — Del. Jeff Bourne, Sen. Jeremy McPike and Sen. Jennifer McClellan — returned calls seeking comment on Blanding’s candidacy.
Phil Wilayto, a community organizer and activist with the Virginia Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality, says Blanding's style is “passionate, at times, dramatic."
”She’s motivated by an intense desire for justice for the people who have been denied justice, historically and in the present. That's what her strength is; people see that. She's the real thing," Wilayto said.
Running for political office was not something Blanding envisioned for herself. Raised by an aunt in Newburgh, New York, Blanding was one of 16 siblings and grew up wanting to become a pediatrician.
During college, she had her first child. After she graduated with a bachelor's degree in biology, she worked three jobs, including as a substitute teacher, an experience that would lead her toward a career in education. She taught middle school science and later became an assistant principal.
Gyna Jones, a friend who attended Morgan State University with Blanding, said she was a fierce advocate even then as a student, recalling a time when a multiday power outage caused the food in her refrigerator to spoil. Jones, who had two young children, said she was receiving public assistance and called the local social services agency to see if she could get additional food stamps to replace the spoiled food, but was told she'd have to wait until the following month.
Blanding took over.
“She called them right up and said, ‘My sister lost all her food during the outage, and she needs her food back,’” Jones recalled. “They replaced the food stamps that we lost."
Blanding, now a single mother of three daughters, ages 20, 13 and 5, works as a science teacher at a middle school in Alexandria, about 140 miles (225 kilometers) from her home in Middlesex County on Virginia's Middle Peninsula. Her round-trip commute through metro Washington traffic congestion in northern Virginia often takes about eight hours a day, but she said the driving and long days are worth it so she can earn a livable salary to support her family.
Blanding contrasts her life experiences with those of her opponents, McAuliffe, Virginia's former governor, and Youngkin, a former top executive at a private equity firm.
“I’m watching and I’m listening to these two privileged millionaires speak about how to address the issues that are felt in our most marginalized communities, and they can’t relate," Blanding said. “You haven't been here. You don’t know what it’s like.”
Blanding has raised a small fraction of what her opponents have — about $30,200, compared to nearly $44.5 million by McAuliffe and $42.3 million by Youngkin. But she appears to have built up a loyal following among college students and people who participated in last year's racial justice protests in Richmond.
She said she's taken a three-month leave of absence from her teaching job to focus on the campaign, “meeting people where they are” by knocking on doors and attending festivals, outdoor markets and other events. Her audiences tend to be on the smaller side, from about 30 to 75 people.
Lawrence West Jr., founder of the Richmond chapter of Black Lives Matter, said he wouldn't be surprised if Blanding is able to capture 5% of the vote.
“I see her as a leader of the new age, what America is moving toward,” West said.
“She is somebody who kind of says, ‘Look, it's not about Democrats, it's not about Republicans ... let's try to build some equity, let's try to create some diversity, let's try to include people.' She really believes that, and she really stands behind that," he said.