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“You can’t just say, ‘I hate Trump, vote for me’”: Danica Roem on her historic win

Roem campaigned on rebuilding a road. Then she made history.

AP Photo/Steve Helber, File

Danica Roem made history two weeks ago as America’s first openly transgender state lawmaker, and she already has a lot on her mind.

She won’t take office in the Virginia House of Delegates until January, but requests from her new constituents are already coming in. She’s concerned about an upcoming planning commission meeting that could approve a new housing development in her local area. As someone who made local issues central to her campaign, Roem said she was worried about the development’s impact to already congested northern Virginia roads.

“I’m getting right into legislating, right into governing, right into public policy,” she said.

The fact that Roem and dozens of other minority and LGBTQ candidates won state and municipal elections made Election Day 2017 a historic one. But the centerpiece of Roem’s campaign was fixing Route 28, a highway that has been prone to traffic jams for decades.

Her Republican opponent, incumbent Del. Robert Marshall, didn’t hesitate to try to turn Roem’s gender identity into a campaign issue. He once called himself Virginia’s “chief homophobe” and refused to debate Roem. In the runup to Election Day, the Virginia Republican Party paid for campaign flyers repeatedly referring to Roem with male pronouns and displaying a header that read: “Danica Roem, born male, has made a campaign issue out of transitioning to female.”

Roem said she was of two minds about the ads. As a transgender woman, they were hurtful. But as the head of a campaign, the Republican attacks were a gift.

“That was their closer, and I’m like, ‘Okay, I can win that fight. That’s easy,’” Roem said. “So message to Republicans: Discrimination will backfire in your face. Stop doing it and start focusing on infrastructure.”

It’s a fitting summary of her campaign: a history-making candidate who tried not to dwell on the ways she’d make history, focusing exclusively on local issues in a race that captured the nation’s attention.

“You can’t just say, ‘I hate Trump, vote for me,’” Roem said. “That doesn’t win you the House of Delegates. If you can’t speak fluently about your local issues, you’re just not going to win, period.”

As Roem prepares to take office, I called her to talk about the aftermath of her victory, what she heard knocking on doors, and what she thinks about the success of the diverse slate of candidates elected in 2017. Our full conversation follows, edited for length and clarity.

Ella Nilsen

I’m sure it feels like a long time ago, but I was wondering if you can walk me through your election night, and what it felt like for you.

Danica Roem

I would say, the immediate responsibility of everything.

First, when Joe Biden broke the news to me first, that’s overwhelming. Then, it’s defiant — as in, we just did this when we were always counted out as the underdog the entire campaign. Then it was elation, and then it was, “Let’s get to work.”

I only slept for about 45 minutes in between Tuesday and Wednesday. I was really sick on Wednesday, I threw up in my driveway. I’d been out in the rain the whole day on Election Day; I was just miserable.

At the same time, my house phone was ringing off the hook, my cellphone was ringing. Literally, at one point, I had an Associated Press reporter come to my house unannounced. Here I am, I’ve got an AP reporter sitting across from me on the couch, my cellphone is buzzing, my house phone is buzzing, and I have 2,700 unread messages in my inbox. That was my reality on Wednesday. I have media literally in front of my face, in my left hand and my right hand. It was way past overload. I’m a reporter, so I want to be accommodating, but at the same time it’s just like, how many things can I possibly do right now, while dealing with the flood of messages.

I will never be able to receive another text message for the rest of my life. There’s been hundreds of them floating out in the ether that I’m not going to be able to see because my inbox is full. Plus, now I’m dealing with constituent service requests. I’ve been working extremely hard on one of them in particular. It’s very, very, very important. I’ve got all of these hats.

Ella Nilsen

I wanted to back up and talk a little bit about your campaign. I was really interested in the amount of door knocking you guys did: 75,000 doors. As you went around and knocked on doors, I’m curious what issues came up.

Danica Roem

Well, in Manassas and Manassas Park, without question, Route 28 was No. 1. Polling showed that health care was No. 1, but at the doors, by far and away, without question, Route 28 was a top issue. In Haymarket and in parts of Gainesville, it was Dominion Energy’s proposed power towers that would basically go right through people’s back yards, and nobody wants it, to connect to the Amazon data center over in Haymarket.

I made Route 28 the centerpiece of my campaign, I could talk fluently on that. That’s where I’m from. My mom’s been commuting up and down it for more than 30 years, and it’s just as bad now as it was in 1992, if not worse because we have more cars. That was very obvious that I needed to make that my top issue.

Obviously, a lot of people were concerned about health care for sure. We are on the precipice of being able to pass Medicaid expansion, and for the 13th District, we have 3,700 uninsured residents ... who would qualify for it. We can literally save lives; people literally die without this. It is so important. And look, I’m not insured right now; I don’t have health insurance. I know what it’s like to live without health insurance, and it sucks. I was uninsured the whole campaign.

Ella Nilsen

So much of the Virginia’s race, especially the governor’s race, claimed a lot of the national spotlight, and I feel like it turned into this referendum on national issues. As someone who was going door to door and talking to people, do you think that Virginia voters cared about the national aspect? Or do you think it came down to local issues?

Danica Roem

The volunteer and donor base, national issues certainly affected them being involved in the race, no question. Some doors I would hit and I would ask the question, “What issues are most important to you?” Every now and then, someone would say something along the lines of, “Oh, just getting Trump out of office,” or, “Just sending a message to Washington.” Typically, if a federal issue came up, it was regarding health care.

But the other thing that’s unique in the 13th District is that we have a lot of federal workers and federal contractors who live here. So when Trump was floating the government shutdown, for example, that disproportionately affects the residents of the 13th District. No one should have to worry about how are they going to pay their bills, how they are going to pay their mortgage, whether they can take care of paying for dinner for the night because the federal government can’t do its job. That is fucked up. And that’s unacceptable.

Ella Nilsen

Looking at the number of seats that flipped in the Virginia House of Delegates, a lot of pundits are saying that’s a reaction to President Trump. What do you think?

Danica Roem

Well, here’s the thing. Voters are engaged with what’s going on at the federal level, for sure, but that doesn’t mean, inherently, that they’re going to take it out on their local representatives who they like, unless there’s a reason to do so.

Keep in mind, Del. Marshall was in office for 26 years. He had gone through Democratic waves, Republican waves, and everything in between. You have to make a compelling case, and you’ve got to speak fluently on the issues that directly affect the office that you’re seeking. You can’t just say, “I hate Trump, vote for me.” That doesn’t win you the House of Delegates. If you can’t speak fluently about your local issues, you’re just not going to win, period.

Ella Nilsen

Like you said, your opponent [Del. Robert Marshall] had been in office for more than two decades and had weathered political changes. What changed this year?

Danica Roem

Like I said the entire campaign, he had never run against me before. Just being real about it. I knew how to run a race; I knew exactly what I was getting myself into. Just to put a fine point on how well I knew my district and knew the race, when we won the Democratic primary, I set our win number for the general election at 12,161 votes. We won 12,077 votes, okay? That margin of error (is) less than 0.1 percent.

When you’re talking about that, you’ve got to know what you’re doing, and I knew exactly what I was doing, I knew the messaging, I had covered politics for 10 and a half years. I wrote for the Hotline, which is part of the National Journal, for three and a half years covering federal and state politics. Probably the untold story of the campaign was the fact that my training covering politics for the Hotline had influenced how I think about politics and think about campaigns, whereas my experience as a local news reporter in Prince William County influenced how I think about policy and, to a smaller degree, politics locally.

But I had observed Del. Marshall for 26 years. I had been a constituent the whole time, so I knew his record inside and out. I understood who I was running against.

My strategic assumption during the Democratic primary, when I was facing three other people, was that field was the most important thing — whoever knocked on the most doors would win. Whoever had the most quality conversations at the doors would win. The volunteers that we had come out, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people knocked doors for us. That’s how you win.

We set out to knock 20,000 doors during the last four days of the election for get out the vote. We made a full pass through our universe of our targeted doors the first day, which means that over the next few days, we hit every single door again — whichever doors hadn’t responded.

Ground game comes first. You have to physically talk to voters one on one, person to person. Because of the unique nature of the campaign, particularly in my case, and because of my journalism background, I had nonstop earned media coverage the whole year, so by the time summer came around, my name identification was already equal to Del. Marshall’s. We knew at that point that we were well-positioned to win.

Ella Nilsen

Your win was historic, and there were a lot of other really historic wins for diverse candidates across the country. What do you think that means for the future of politics, both in Virginia and across the country, in terms of the diversity of candidates that were elected?

Danica Roem

What is means is that you, the reader of this article, can succeed because of who you are, not despite it, and not because of what other people tell you you’re supposed to be. You can succeed because of who you are. And that goes for no matter what you look like, where you come from, how you worship or who you love.

If you’re well-qualified for office, if you’ve got good ideas, bring them to the table, because this is your republic too; this is your representative democracy within a republic. You have every right to bring your ideas to the table and to champion them, not just sit in the back, not just donate to candidates because you personally would never be able to do it.

If we can do this, so can you. Go run.

Ella Nilsen

What did it mean to you to be part of such a diverse slate of candidates?

Danica Roem

Instead of being a barrier to access, there are now just obstacles that you need to overcome to gain that access. It is no longer the barrier — the barrier keeps you out. Obstacles you can get around, you can get over, you can defeat. And that’s the difference. There’s still disenfranchisement; there’s still problems that so many people have to overcome in order to succeed.

But with this class that we just elected, oh, my goodness. I mean, people from as diverse walks of life as you can think of. We all won because of who we are. And by the way, a lot of us are broke. A lot of us don’t have money. We did this out of sheer hard work.

Ella Nilsen

I wanted to ask about the ads that the Virginia GOP ran targeting you specifically on your gender identity. What did it feel like to be on the receiving end of some of those ads?

Danica Roem

As I said on election night, discrimination is a disqualifier. One of my mantras for the campaign was, “Flip the script.” Anytime anyone did something negative to me, I would flip it and turn it into a positive. And when they went all in on gender, when they used an anti-transgender slur, “transgenderism,” which isn’t even a word, it’s just made-up bullshit.

When they started going all in on that, and I was messaging on [Route] 28, I loved that contrast, as a candidate. Now as a person, that’s horrible, that’s abhorrent. Picking on trans [people] just makes you a terrible person. That said, as a candidate ... I am here to take care of your public policy issues, I’m here to help alleviate your awful commute, next to, “Oh, my god, transgender people are horrible and scary and they’re going to teach transgenderism to children, blah, blah, blah.” So that was their closer, and I’m like, “Okay, I can win that fight. That’s easy.” And that’s what we did. So message to Republicans: Discrimination will backfire in your face. Stop doing it and start focusing on infrastructure.

Ella Nilsen

Since you won the race, have you received any messages from other trans people or trans youth that want to run for office someday?

Danica Roem

Yes, a lot.

Ella Nilsen

What have those messages been?

Danica Roem

The general theme is, “I believe I can do this. I didn’t always believe I could, but you showed me that it’s possible.” I think being able to inspire anyone to be who they are ... what better gift could I give to anyone in the world than to inspire them? That’s incredible; I’m beyond humbled and flattered. It’s incredible. I will never even be able to quantify to you how many messages from trans people all over the world I’ve received.