LEESBURG, Va. (CN) — Virginia Representative Jennifer Wexton, a Democrat who represents the Commonwealth's Tenth District, announced her retirement Monday after being diagnosed with progressive supranuclear palsy.
"I've always believed that honesty is the most important value in public service, so I want to be honest with you now — this new diagnosis is a tough one," Wexton said in a press release.
Elected in 2018 after flipping a Republican-controlled district, Wexton said she will finish her term in office but will not run for reelection in 2024.
She has a short commute to the Capitol Building from her wealthy northern Virginia district, which contains all of Loudoun, Fauquier and Rappahannock counties and parts of Fairfax and Prince William counties.
Doctors initially diagnosed the 55-year-old with Parkinson's disease in April, a common misdiagnosis since the two disorders share symptoms. Wexton began treatment for Parkinson's but said she began questioning her diagnosis after attending a Parkinson's support group.
"I wasn't making the progress to manage my symptoms that I had hoped," Wexton said. "I noticed the women in my Parkinson's support group weren't having the same experience that I was."
Doctors described her new diagnosis as "Parkinson's on steroids," illustrating the severity of the brain disorder. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Strokes, the disease usually worsens rapidly, and most people with PSP develop severe disability within three to five years of symptom onset.
Damage to nerve cells in areas of the brain that control thinking and body movements causes the disease. Eye and vision problems are common, including trouble looking up or down and controlling eyelids. Difficulties with speech and swallowing are more common and severe in PSP than in Parkinson's and usually show up earlier in the disease.
PSP, like Parkinson's, does not kill patients but can lead to fatal complications such as pneumonia, choking or head injuries from falls.
"There is no 'getting better' with PSP," Wexton said. "I'll continue treatment options to manage my symptoms, but they don't work as well with my condition as they do for Parkinson's."
A William and Mary Law graduate, Wexton worked as a lawyer and Loudoun County assistant commonwealth attorney. As a state senator, she gained a reputation for her ability to work across party lines in a Republican-controlled Senate.
As a U.S. representative, Wexton founded the Congressional Task Force on Digital Citizenship, which aims to help people use technology and engage online responsibly, and the bipartisan Congressional Agritourism Caucus. She serves on the House Appropriations Committee and the House Budget Committee.
Jennifer McClellan, a fellow Democratic former state senator turned U.S. representative, shared her sympathy Monday.
"I am honored to call Jennifer a dear friend," McClellan said in a statement. "Jennifer now faces her toughest fight, which I know she will face with the same tenacity and dignity that has fueled her public service. I look forward to working with her as she continues to serve the Tenth District in the 118th Congress. We still have more work to do together."
Democratic Party of Virginia Chairwoman Susan Swecker echoed McClellan's sentiment.
"Her years of dedicated public service and tireless advancement of LGBTQ civil rights, gun safety reform, labor rights and affordable healthcare have immeasurably improved the lives of all Virginians," Swecker said in a press release. "Congresswoman Wexton's courage, strength and honesty in the face of her diagnosis underpin the long list of virtues she has carried with her to Capitol Hill."
Despite her days as an elected official coming to an end, Wexton said she plans on continuing to advocate for Virginians.
"I'm heartbroken to have to give up something I have loved after so many years of serving my community," Wexton said. "While my time in Congress will soon come to a close, I'm just as confident and committed as ever to keep up the work that got me into this fight in the first place for my remaining time in office — to help build the future we want for our children."
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