With election win, Danica Roem becomes first openly transgender legislator to serve anywhere in the U.S.
The experience and knowledge Virginia Delegate-Elect (and former Montgomery County Sentinel News Editor) Danica Roem (D) gained while covering local politics in Montgomery County proved invaluable to her winning effort in Tuesday’s election, Roem told the Sentinel during an interview the morning after her historic victory, which will make her the first openly transgender individual to serve in Virginia’s House of Delegates.
“When I was news editor of the Montgomery County Sentinel, I was part of a team that did a five-part series on water infrastructure, and I talked a lot about that series,” Roem said. “I talked about water infrastructure a lot on this campaign.”
Such issues might be boring – “the kind of stuff that makes reporters zone out” – but are extremely important, she said. “You’ve gotta take care of your infrastructure.”
Roem’s experience as a reporter in Montgomery County also allowed her to recruit volunteers who traveled to her district to canvass, with volunteers coming from Takoma Park, Silver Spring, and Germantown.
“We certainly had a lot of help from Montgomery County residents and we’re really thankful for them putting in time, donations, and everything else to be part of the campaign,” she said.
Roem, 33, defeated Republican Robert Marshall (R) -- the Prince William County incumbent who’d held the seat for the previous 26 years – by focusing on local infrastructure issues, particularly the region’s notorious traffic problems, in addition to acknowledging her status as one of the first openly transgender candidates to run for office in the United States.
One of her strongest Montgomery County-based supporters was Takoma Park Mayor Kate Stewart, who said Roem’s infrastructure-focused campaign impressed her enough that she donated $200 to the campaign.
“Being the mayor of a city, I very much appreciated what she was prioritizing and what she was looking at,” Stewart said. “She knows these issues well, she knows the challenges we face in our region with increased growth and with making sure communities hold onto their values as change takes place.”
Stewart’s support for Roem also had a personal component, as she told the Sentinel that her oldest child is also transgender.
“My oldest is trans, and so to have Danica as a role model for young people is so important,” she said, adding that she wished that her own election hadn’t been at the same time so that she could’ve done more to help Roem’s campaign.
Looking forward to next year’s midterm elections, Roem suggested that her winning strategy can be a model for Democrats looking to retake more seats at all levels of government.
“If you are a Democratic candidate, whether you are running for county council, congress, state delegate, or whatever it is, always run like you are running for mayor,” she said. “Focus on improving your infrastructure, on traffic, jobs, schools or health care -- whatever the real important bread and butter issues are -- and make sure that while you’re doing it, you’re doing it in an inclusive fashion so you’re not discriminating against the constituents you’re running to serve,” she said.
The journalist-turned-politician also rejected the notion that running a campaign centered around such lunch pail issues means candidates can’t run an inclusive campaign or have to stop talking about social issues.
“Democrats need to start talking about infrastructure but that doesn’t mean we stop defending people who are being discriminated against or stop the pursuit of social justice and for equality and equity,” she said. “We can do all of that.”
But Roem wasn’t the only winning Democrat who won by doing the hard work of meeting voters and talking about the issues most important to them, she said, pointing to Democratic Socialist Lee Carter’s “incredible” victory as proof that candidates can win by going door-to-door and talking about the issues important to voters.
“Lee Carter’s victory was the most surprising thing of the night,” she said, because he was extremely outspoken about his support for single payer health care and opposition to right-to-work legislation, and still beat the sitting House of Delegates Majority Whip.
“He was outgunned by hundreds of thousands of dollars and still won as a Democratic Socialist,” she said. “That’s incredible.”
Roem also told the Sentinel she wanted to be an example of how to win graciously, and was reaching out to her Republican soon-to-be colleagues to see how they can work together to solve Virginia’s infrastructure problems. She also expressed compassion for her defeated opponent, and acknowledged that come January, he will be one of her constituents.
“That defeat is probably monumentally difficult for him, his family, and his supporters, and I have to represent them too,” she said.
But as much as the workaday infrastructure and “bread-and-butter” issues were important to her victory, Roem said that the campaign’s outcome is also an indication that voters are fed up with the kind of negativity fearmongering that characterized Marshall’s campaign against her.
Marshall – who referred to himself as Virginia’s “chief homophobe” – authored an anti-transgender “bathroom bill” and ran ads that referred to Roem – who began living as a woman years ago – as “he,” while suggesting that she wanted “transgenderism” (which is widely considered a derogatory term in and of itself) taught to kindergarteners after she said that she’d support teaching children of all ages about gender identity in an age-appropriate manner.
“When you’re an elected official and you’re making your constituents feel bad about themselves that’s not helping anyone,” Roem said. “I’m not here to do that, I’m out to be a good delegate…and make sure we get rid of the corrosive atmosphere of hostility and hate.”
Such an atmosphere of racism and xenophobia – which was endemic to Virginia’s elections at all levels – resulted in defeat for Republicans across the Commonwealth, she added. “There was a lot of race-baiting and dog whistles on the Republican side, and they got their asses kicked.”
Roem also offered a warning for the next Virginia politician who might think such a strategy will be a winning one in 2018 or beyond.
“The way that I see it, if you’re running with dog whistles or a bullhorn on racism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, or anything that singles out and stigmatizes your constituents, if you’re in Northern Virginia, your days are numbered in terms of being in office,” she said. “No one has any time to put up with that bullshit.”