This year, unlike 2016, is not slated to be a blockbuster election year, but the state of Virginia has attracted outsized attention. Former President Barack Obama, for example, spoke at a rally last week for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ralph Northam, lamenting divisiveness in politics and urging voters to support “the whole ticket” of 54 Democratic candidates in the state's House of Delegates.
One of those candidates is Danica Roem, who has perhaps received more attention than most — if not all — of her fellow Democratic hopefuls in Virginia. Roem even scored a high-powered endorsement from former Vice President Joe Biden.
"I’m proud today to endorse Danica Roem’s historic candidacy, because I know her emphasis on improving transportation infrastructure is critical to improving the quality of life for thousands of Virginians,” Biden said in a statement.
"There is no doubt about it, the 13th House District in Virginia has become the world’s most famous state legislative district this year."
Roem’s candidacy is indeed historic. If elected, she would be the first openly transgender state legislator to be elected and seated in the U.S. But to accomplish this historic feat, she first has to beat 11-term incumbent Republican Bob Marshall — a longtime opponent of LGBTQ rights.
Marshall introduced four bills in 2016 that Roem characterized as "anti-LGBT,"including a so-called “bathroom bill” that aimed to restrict transgender people's use of public facilities. “That shows you what his legislative priorities are,” Roem said. “My legislative priorities will be fixing our transportation infrastructure.”
Roem, however, will not be able to challenge her opponent face-to-face to debate their differing legislative priorities, because Marshall has refused to debate her in public. According to reports, Marshall's refusal stems from fears that Roem’s supporters would call him “Bigot Bob," fears Roem said are unfounded.
“Delegate Marshall says my supporters would turn it into a fracas…That’s not true," she said, adding, “I only refer to him as Delegate Marshall, because I respect the office.”
Roem said she believes Marshall has a different motivation for avoiding public debate. “When your own party kills 27 of your own bills in one year, you don’t have much of a record to run on and defend,” she said.
Roem, who was born in Manassas, Virginia, and spent nine years as a local government reporter, said it is disappointing that Marshall did not allow his constituents to see “their candidates, standing side by side, debating the issues most important to them.”
Roem is sharply critical of Marshall’s campaign for other reasons as well. “He has been misgendering me for months,” Roem said, meaning Marshall has been using male pronouns to refer to her. She also accused Marshall's supporters of sponsoring "robocalls" in the district that "attack transgender kids."
Delegate Marshall did not respond to repeated requests for comment. He did, however, release a campaign ad on Tuesday stating Roem "has no record of public service but does have a record of bad judgment." The ad also accuses Roem of “promoting transgender education in public school for children as young as 5 years old."
Roem called Marshall's ad "absolute hypocrisy" and said when it comes to her education policy, she's "opposed to bullying" in school and said "kids need to understand who their classmates are ... to make Virginia more inclusive."
All Politics Are Local
Roem said the biggest difference between her and Marshall is her willingness to address local issues.
“Delegate Marshall is more focused on where I — as a transgender woman — go to the bathroom than how you get to work," she said.
“I’ve spent nine and a half months talking about Route 28," Roem added, referring to one of the state's primary highways. "I’ve spent the entire campaign talking about stuff that doesn’t get a lot of press.”
“I am focused on this core quality-of-life issue as our community has grown over the past few decades," she said of her focus on local transportation.
"I understand the national implications of this race. I understand who it is I am running against. I understand what being the first elected, out, transgender delegate would mean."
Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia, said Roem's locally focused strategy is a good one.
“To run as a 'cause candidate' would be a mistake,” he said. “It is far more effective to win over voters when you talk about roads and schools and economic development.”
“Roem has wisely focused on those community issues that would convince voters who are not reflectively Democratic or Republican in their loyalties,” Farnsworth added.
Roem has been called a policy “wonk” in the press, suggesting an obsessive focus on policy minutiae — and that doesn’t bother her. “I am very OK with that,” she said.
A Flippable District?
Currently, Republicans hold a 66-34 majority in the Virginia House of Delegates, which is one of the two parts of the Virginia General Assembly (the other being the Senate of Virginia). Democrats need to gain 17 seats to take back the chamber.
“The key races to watch are in Washington suburbs,” Farnsworth said, including Roem’s race in the 13th District, a district where Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump last November.
“The Republicans are almost certain to retain control of the House of Delegates in the election next month. Many of those seats are gerrymandered to be very friendly to Republican incumbents.” To win six or more seats, Farnsworth said, “would qualify as a good night for Democrats.”
Higher turnout tends to favor Democrats, Farnsworth noted. “The governor’s race is going to dramatically increase turnout. On the other side, it will be significantly lower than the presidential election. The challenge that Democrats consistently have is to motivate people who would show up in a presidential year but not [an off-year]."
“Both candidates have been very aggressive in terms of door knocking and getting out in the community, and that’s the way to win people over," he added. “I think that Roem’s chances are roughly 50-50. Roem is well-funded and is talking about the correct issues on the campaign trail."
“There is no doubt about it, the 13th House District in Virginia has become the world’s most famous state legislative district this year,” Farnsworth said. The “wide ideological gulf between the candidates has attracted a lot of public attention.”
Despite her insistence on sticking to the issues, the press has focused on Roem's gender identity to the exclusion of other concerns, she said. “Transgender candidate, transgender woman … I don’t have a name in these headlines," she lamented.
Roem summed up the bind she is in when it comes to talking about her gender. “If Danica doesn’t talk about her gender, then she's accused of trying to bury it. If she does, then she’s accused of making it the focal point of the campaign.”
“It’s a catch-22," she said.
Roem conceded that her race highlights major issues at stake in national politics, including what she characterized as the Trump administration’s “hostility" toward LGBTQ people.
“I understand the national implications of this race. I understand who it is I am running against. I understand what being the first elected, out, transgender delegate would mean," Roem said.
And what it would mean, Roem added, is that “people across the country are going to know that they can succeed because of who they are, not despite it.”