By now, anyone with any knowledge of politics knows about Danica Roem. She is the first transgender person elected to the Virginia House of Delegates in history, and that accomplishment still less than a year ago turned her into a national celebrity virtually overnight. The 30-something hails from Manassas in a district not far from Falls Church that includes a high school in the same Bull Run District as Falls Church’s George Mason High. She herself attended nearby Paul VI and made the cover of Time magazine this past year.
Having been elected in a huge upset and completing her first year as a delegate in Richmond, navigating between a spate of national TV and speaking appearances that continue, she’s now campaigning for fellow Democrats in the upcoming critical midterm elections, and based on her formula for her unexpected success last year, has a lot to say about her party’s pathway to its hoped-for takeover of the U.S. Congress this fall.
It is less a matter of ideology than hard work, she said in an interview with the News-Press, and that goes for hard work the old fashioned way, the kind that gets candidates and their message face-to-face with voters.
That doesn’t cohere exactly with what the political pundits have been saying since her election, since the spate of Democratic victories across the U.S. in the wake of the Trump presidency, and most recently in the upset victory by a young upstart, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, in a Democratic primary against a powerful and popular incumbent in New York.
Does all this mean the party needs to be more responsive to a more leftist current to capture the new ferment sweeping the land, or should the party resist that temptation and stay the course with its established leadership? The goal is the real opportunity to win majorities in both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives in the midterm elections this November.
Frequently, commentators like the New York Times’ Frank Bruni, in his column this week, “The Center is Sexier Than You Think,” argue that the choice facing party loyalists is between those lured by a leftward trend and those who think the best pathway to success is in the political middle. Ocasio-Cortez represents the temptation of a left turn to this view, and the same would hold for Roem, whose victory was over arguably the most conservative member of the Virginia House of Delegates last year.
But maybe the contrast represented by those alternative paths for the party doesn’t really exist so much, especially for those like Roem who’ve been more visible for their differences from the norm in their electoral success.
Certainly for Roem this is true. She was recruited to run in the first place, her first ever bid for public office, by an experienced party establishment type because of her activism in an unsuccessful campaign before hers. She was pointed out, and urged to run by State Del. Rip Sullivan of Arlington “just as she is,” a proud transgender person.
But what Roem had going for her was her familiarity with the district in which she ran, and knowledge of the issues important to the voters, due to her years working as a journalist for a weekly newspaper in her district.
She knew that solving the problems associated with the traffic congestion on Route 28 in her Manassas district was vital to what was on everyone’s mind, that that was a problem that she was determined to solve if elected.
That approach, coupled with a passionate resolve to get out there and work the neighborhoods, going door to door and engaging voters with a straightforward message of who she was and what she wanted to accomplish if elected, was the key to her winning, she said. “A key is to contrast your candidacy to any one that is backed by institutional power and money, rather than universal truth.”
In a guest commentary she wrote for the News-Press in May 2017, before she’d even won her party’s primary, she stressed, “Nothing replaces human interaction and dialogue between the candidate and the voter.” She concluded at that time, “With the soles of my shoes worn to a flat surface, I think I can make history and win June 13 (the Democratic primary –ed.) and November 7.” As we know, she did both.
As much as many reporters tended to overlook it in favor of her leftism, the message of Ocasio-Cortez was surprisingly similar. Lots of worn-down shoe leather made the difference for her.
So maybe the real lessons for this fall election will be passion and, well, the implicit contrast to Trump that women candidates represent (in his column Bruni quoted Dave Wasermann of the non-partisan Cook Report saying, “The real story…isn’t left or right — it’s women.”)
But another key, Roem told the News-Press, is that party loyalists shouldn’t worry so much about ideological purity or pedigree. If Sen. Bernie Sanders wants to run for president again, why shouldn’t he, she argued, “as long as he directs his supporters to back the Democratic nominees when the time comes. Why not? They’re Americans, too.”
Others don’t agree, usually steering the more centrist approach. Sanders is anathema to many of them for deluding votes in 2016 even though he threw his support to Hillary Clinton after the primaries.
“Among the many decisive factors are how well a candidate connects with the voters,” Roem offered, and stands on the right side of the national direction. “Too often, our opponents lack compassion and a will to understand something they don’t.”
By contrast, Roem has been very humbled, she said, by her impact since getting elected, including what it has meant for countless LGBTQ people, who’ve been telling her they feel empowered to come out of their closets and to run and engage the political process openly.