Virginia’s History-Making New Delegate Prepares to Tackle Down-to-Earth Concerns

Delegate-elect Danica Roem on the grounds of Virginia’s Capitol building during the 2017 General Assembly. Photo by Brad Kutner

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) – After spending Sunday night as singer Demi Lovato’s date at the American Music Awards, Virginia Delegate-elect Danica Roem flew back to her district in time to attended a 7:30 a.m.  school board meeting.

She admitted she hasn’t slept much since she left for the AMAs on Sunday, but she also hasn’t slept much since she defeated her Republican opponent, 26-year-incumbent Bob Marshall, by about seven points on Nov. 7.

Her status as a transgender woman, and Marshall’s history as a vocal anti-LGBTQ legislator, proved to be a uniquely powerful narrative that dominated the news cycle following her win.

That night she gave an interview with MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell and when asked about her opponent’s negative comments about her gender identity, she quipped “Starting next year, Del. Marshall will be one of my constituents. And I’m not going to attack my own constituents.”

Now, weeks later, she’s getting down to business. There was the aforementioned school board meeting — “I keep my promises and I promised to attend,” she said with surprising energy – and next she’s got to start drafting legislation ahead of the Virginia General Assembly which starts in January 2018.

A former journalist who entered politics for the first time this year, Roem spent much of the last 11 months hitting the pavement, knocking on doors, and spreading the gospel about the importance of fixing traffic problems in her DC-suburb district.

It’s hard to have a conversation with her without the delegate-elect bringing up the notorious slowdowns that plague a main road running through her district.

“Delegate Marshall’s legislative priorities are more focused on where I go to the bathroom, as a transgender woman, than how you get to work,” she repeated on the campaign trail, in interviews leading up to election day, and in an interview on Monday. Marshall had sponsored a “bathroom bill” earlier this year. It, much like his bid for reelection, failed.

It was this phrase, in her eyes, that flipped the script on Marshall and compared his priorities to hers in a stark way. And while she’s proud of her title as the “first transgender state legislator” she still finds it a bit disheartening that it’s taken this long. To that effect, she’s hoping to inspire others like her.

“If someone is wasting their time attacking you for your gender then they are not focused on the core quality-of-life issues of the people they are supposed to be serving,” she said about the importance of being upfront with voters about her identity while also being able to connect with their everyday problems. She’s also aware that while the campaign wasn’t easy, her work next year will actually define her.

“We are now being judged more on our merit and the qualifications we bring to office then our gender,” she said.  “That’s a great step in the right direction”

Ravi Perry, chair of Virginia Commonwealth University’s political science department, watched Roem’s race carefully, and he wasn’t surprised she won. In fact, he thinks her gender identity might have helped her in the end.

“Identity politics are not the only way to win as a democrat in 2017, but it’s the main way,” he said. “You can’t win without winning metropolitan areas. And who wins those areas? People involved in identity politics: white women, millennials, people of color.”

And the state Democratic party, which supported Roem financially and with volunteers, had high hopes for her as well. A party rep said she was personally recruited by Don Shaw of the Prince William County Democratic Committee, and though the committee says it didn’t recruit her because of her gender identity, they believe her win will reverberate.

“I have no doubt that Delegate-elect Roem’s candidacy has saved lives,” said caucus chair Charniele Herring. “Her ability to succeed because of – not in spite of – who she is has given transgender children across the world a role model in politics that they’ve never had.”

Still, with Virginia’s House of Delegates either split 50/50 or staying majority Republican, the question remains if she’ll be able to keep her campaign promise to fix traffic problems and be the nation’s first “two-time elected transgender state legislator.”

“She has already, at the very least, succeeded with [the traffic issue] because she’s brought attention to the issue and that in of itself,” Perry said, noting Marshall’s focus on social issues instead of tangible problems played a heavy role in his loss. “Even if it doesn’t solve the problem, it will shine a light on it, which is an accomplishment.”

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