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How to Win An Election, According to Danica Roem

Jezebel: How to Win An Election, According to Danica Roem

By Ellie Shechet

Last Tuesday, the election of Danica Roem to Virginia’s House of Delegates—part of a wave of progressive electoral wins across the country—lit up the internet. A local journalist, proud metalhead, and the first openly transgender person seated in a U.S. statehouse, Roem defeated her loudly transphobic opponent, incumbent Republican Bob Marshall, with 54 percent of the vote. While she was open about her identity and her passions from the get-go, her campaign, unlike his, was rooted in basic quality-of-life issues like fixing Route 28, a maddeningly clogged thoroughfare in northern Virginia.

Since November 7, a relentless and repetitious swarm of media attention has followed her, focused largely on her triumphant win over a man who campaigned on hate. But one of the most unique things about Danica Roem, as a political figure, is that she isn’t boring, despite (or even because of) her focus on the intricacies of Prince William County’s water infrastructure. She talks like a real person, and comes armed with tangible, actionable lessons for how to win elections—lessons that may be of note to Democrats seeking office in 2018 and beyond.

“You can be inclusive in how you campaign and you can focus on the bread and butter issues of governing,” Roem said during our phone interview.

“When you’re focused on improving people’s quality of life issues, then you’re not discriminating against them, and then you stop getting into these fights between like, ‘Well my progressive principles say, my conservative principles say,’ blah blah blah. How about just do your damn job?”

JEZEBEL: How are you feeling right now? It’s been a week since you won your seat—

DANICA ROEM: I feel like I’m drinking from the fire hose. Like, congratulations on winning, here are all of your new calendar assignments, and by the way, your calendar will be populated from now until forever! You know, it’s just like, it’s pretty intense. I’ve got media requests from around the world, obviously not all of which I’m going to be fulfilling. I had more than 2,700 messages in my inbox on Wednesday or Thursday morning last week, and that is just my campaign email—let alone my gmail, let alone the campaign inbox. It’s absolutely overwhelming all the time right now, and I’m just trying to keep everything together and make sure I can stay lighthearted while doing it.

What are some of the things in your life that have shaped the person you’ve become and driven you to run for office?

When I was in sixth grade I would be in school until 6:30, 7:00 at night waiting for my mom to come pick me up because she was [stuck] on Route 28 for two hours, and twenty some-odd years later, it hasn’t gotten any better. I decided to run for office to do something about it, and instead of focusing on discriminatory social issues that single out and stigmatize constituents, I focused on infrastructure. I made fixing Route 28 my number one issue, I made dealing with water infrastructure and the sort of stuff that doesn’t get a lot of attention unless you have something as severe as Flint—but you often have still 50, 70, 80, sometimes 90-year-old water pipes that are cast-iron that are literally corroding and breaking apart and causing all these problems, that are still supplying water to people in communities large and small—and so I made updating our water infrastructure a top priority by replacing cast-iron pipes with ductile iron pipes.

I’m really trying to focus on the back-to-basics emphasis on governing, and that’s based on my experience having lived in Prince William County my whole life. I’m a lifelong Manassas resident from Prince William County, I was the lead reporter at the Gainesville Times covering the community for nine years, two months and two weeks, so I know the public policy issues inside and out because I’ve lived them, I’ve covered them. That first-person experience has absolutely influenced my worldview, while, at the same, time, I never forgot that I had the capacity for empathy. Even though I’ve never been homeless, I did a lot of stories about people in my community who are homeless.

So that’s why I’m a big champion of Housing First policies to prevent homelessness, where you literally put people in housing. And some people say, whoa, you’re just gonna give them housing? I have to spend my hard-earned dollars to afford rent... [but] it actually costs us more money in social services to provide for people who are living on the street, because they end up in the hospital, they end up in jail. Housing creates the level of stability where you can get your life back together. 

Making sure that we’re taking care of people is a really fundamental part of my life, and it’s part of my public policy. Part of that’s probably based on 13 years of Catholic schooling—making sure that we’re taking care of the people that need it the most. That’s why I’m a big proponent of expanding Medicaid, because we have 3,700 people who live in the 13th District who can’t afford health insurance but they don’t qualify for Medicaid, and they earn up to 138% of the federal poverty line, which is still less than $18,000 a year. And in Northern Virginia, you can’t pay rent on $18,000 a year. 

I was just watching the Broadly documentary about your campaign, and there was this great moment towards the end with a young trans girl named Clara expressing how inspired she was by you. Did you see yourself in her experience? 

She, as a child, is more brave than I was. Actually, she’s still more brave than me. Yeah, I put myself out in public, but I’m a 33-year-old adult, you know? I can take care of myself. For her, when she decided last year that she was finally going to start presenting as the little girl who she is at school, and then she gets the crap kicked out of her, according to her mom, you know—to go back and keep being herself, that takes so much bravery. As soon as I got into that parking lot at the victory party, I quite literally picked her up, looked her in the eye, and told her, you can be president. You can be whatever it is that you want to be. 

Was there anybody who played that role for you when you were growing up? 

No.

How did you learn to believe in yourself in the way that you do? 

If you’re talking about being trans, I didn’t talk to anyone about me being trans when I was a kid. I didn’t talk to anyone about it. It wasn’t until I got to college before I started talking to anyone about it. Once I got to college, I had a lot more freedom to, basically, go figure my shit out.

Delegate Bob Marshall ran an aggressively transphobic and intolerant campaign against you. Had you run into people like that before in your life who prepared you for dealing with something like that? 

Well, I interviewed him for nine years, two months, and two weeks, all throughout my time at the Gainesville Times. I was well aware of what I was getting myself into. I mean, of course I’ve encountered discriminatory rhetoric before, but at the same time, like I said in a lot of other interviews, come January, Delegate Marshall will be my constituent and I won’t attack my constituent.

By the way, the quote that went viral about me, the “Bob is my constituent” thing, I didn’t actually say that, that wasn’t my direct quote. The quote I said was, I’m not in the business of attacking my constituents, and come January Delegate Marshall will be one of my constituents. And someone dumbed it down into those phrases—I intentionally used the phrase “Delegate Marshall.” I respect the office, even if I disagree with the person who serves in it. So I’m not sure where that came from, but that’s basically the quote that’s attributed to me now, whether I like it or not, so I’ve gotta live with it. Right now is probably a very hard time for him, I’m not looking to attack him.

Something a colleague was interested in asking you was whether you ever worried, watching the kind of campaign he was running, whether Bob Marshall’s transphobia was an accurate reflection of your community. Was there any point where you felt gaslit into believing that your community was more discriminatory than you’d realized? Or were you always kind of confident—

No. Anytime that I was attacked during the campaign [for that], it’s extremely easy to dismiss the people doing it because they weren’t working with vetted facts, they were working with alternative facts, or what we in the newsroom call “bullshit.” So, you know, I just didn’t care. Some stuff would piss me off, but in general, the stuff that got under my skin was attacking trans kids. When you attack trans kids and you try to single them out, that’s the sort of stuff that will really get me going.

What I figured out very early in the campaign was that people attacking me based on my gender identity and basically trying to make the concept of being transgender scary in and of itself, I realized that that had nothing to do with who I am as a person, even if I was attacked—“Oh, your hands are too big, your voice is too deep,” whatever stuff people were screaming about, it had to deal with other people projecting their insecurities about their lack of understanding about what gender dysphoria is and what the transgender experience is like. And so I basically became the blank wall for people to project whatever preconceived world-views, biases, prejudice, what have you, and once you detach yourself from that, then you realize it’s like, yeah, people are attacking you because of your aesthetics, because whatever, that’s just based on their own interpretation of gender, and basically just trying to make people feel bad about themselves instead of working to better society.

So I summarily just dismissed it and just kept focusing on Route 28, that’s what I kept doing. When Delegate Marshall said “Why do you call Danica a female? Did Danica’s DNA change?,” then I put out the “Inspire” video, the digital ad where I’m literally taking my hormones and saying that this is who I am—if you watch the video, the kids who were in there, that video was for them, and that video was for every other kid like them. After that video came out, a trans woman who I know gave me a call and she said, I wish I’d had a video of this to see when I was 14. And that was exactly the intended point of it; I was able to give this upbeat inspirational message about being yourself and how important it is to be yourself while at the same time not even acknowledging the name or words of the people who are attacking me. Like Michelle Obama said, when they go low, we go high, and that’s what we did during the campaign.

You never saw me take personal shots. The most aggressive thing that I could do is, I don’t like hypocrisy—I mean, no one does, of course, but as a reporter in particular I was very aggressive about calling out hypocrisy throughout the campaign, that I did a lot. Calling BS on a lot of stuff, too. So, alleging hypocrisy, is that inherently personal? Eh, you could argue one way on the other, but it was done so based on public policy and based on rhetoric and based on job performance. I think the most nasty thing I said during the campaign was “You are awful at your job.”

I’m sure calling out hypocrisy did resonate with voters, who are looking at the Trump administration in particular and seeing a lot of that. How did you feel the day Trump was elected?

I was the news editor of the Montgomery County Sentinel at the time, so I was in a newsroom and my job was to be a neutral, disinterested third-party observer, and my reporting reflected that. Personally, you know, when I was done with deadline, when I filed my stories, when everything else was done, I shed a couple of tears and said out loud, “Thirty million people are going to lose their healthcare.” I was just really, really worried about that. Fortunately Republicans in Congress haven’t quite figured out how to govern yet after 10 months, so they don’t really know how to deal with health care and I don’t think they will. So I’ve been really aggressive about saying, hey, Donald Trump’s campaign promised last year that he was going to deliver this trillion-dollar infrastructure bill. Where the hell is that bill? Ten months later, where the hell is that bill? You don’t see it, it’s not here. The same exact shit that I was talking about at the local level, about focusing on infrastructure and building up our infrastructure instead of tearing each other down, applies at the federal level, too. My god, imagine if we didn’t waste $15 billion on a southern wall that is literally, and I mean literally, impossible to complete from coast to coast.

Likewise, what if we took $15 billion and, instead of wasting it on a lie like that, we actually put it towards a dedicated funding stream for the metro in Washington, D.C.? The same exact stuff that’s happening on the local level, the people at the federal level need to take a strong look at and say, let’s get back to the basics of governing. What is the most basic thing that we provide in government? Making sure that people have safe and clean water pipes. Making sure that people have adequate public transportation. Basic stuff, here. Of course governing is complicated, it is inherently complicated, but these concepts in and of themselves are not complicated. We shouldn’t be discriminating against our constituents, and we should be taking care of their quality of life issues. Like traffic, jobs, schools, and health care.

Is there any political wisdom you picked up on the campaign trail that’s worth sharing?

Yeah. On April 1st, at Equality Virginia’s commonwealth dinner, to my left was State Senator Jennifer Wexton, and to my right was State Delegate Mark Levine. And I was talking to them, and Delegate Mark Levine told me that one of the most important things I heard in the entire campaign: “Nothing beats hard work.” The concept for that basically being that, when I was getting my butt kicked in fundraising over the first quarter this year during the Democratic primary, the one thing that was in our control—I couldn’t control how much money other people were contributing, but I could control what I was doing, I could control how hard I was working. And I made sure that no one would knock on more doors than our campaign, both in the primary and in the general election.

This year, we knocked on 75,000 doors. And obviously, that means that you knock the same doors repeatedly. You have to, because not every person answers the door the first time around, and people need to be reminded to go vote. So you have the persuasion knock, then you have the reminder knock, all that sort of stuff. The way I see it is, the thing that was in my control was how aggressively I would knock on doors, and the other thing that is so important is how many quality conversations you have at the door. It is not enough to just leave literature, a flyer, at someone’s door and hope that they vote for you. That’s not how it works. You have to actually have conversations with people.

The most important conversation happens between the candidate and the voter, a direct conversation between the actual candidate and the voter. The second-best is someone from the campaign who knows your issues inside and out and who can talk about your platform and vouch for you—and that can be your family, your best friends, stuff like that, that’s fine. And third is your volunteers. Our volunteers won the campaign for us, there’s no question in my mind about it. We had hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of volunteers knock on doors and make phone calls for us. People from within the 13th District, and from all over the country. That sort of grassroots politics is what allows someone like me to come into office owing nothing to anyone. We took in more than 12,000 donations between $1 and $100. That is absolutely incredible for a House of Delegates race, this is untrod territory that we’re talking about here. And it’s because of how hard we worked and how hard our volunteers worked.

It was a total team effort, and some other stuff went our way along the way—there’s a conventional wisdom that comes with, oh, you should only talk to reporters sometimes here and there, but you should have someone who sits next to you, blah blah blah. Every bit of advice that was ever given about how to handle the media I threw right out the damn window, because I am a reporter, I know how to talk to reporters! That doesn’t change just because I’m running for office, I’ll always be a reporter before I’m a politician. So I took part in way more than 100 news interviews throughout the year. And Delegate Marshall declined to speak to a lot of news reporters—I mean, like, dozens and dozens of them. And so that was that was a huge difference right there, being able to get my name ID up, to get my message out to voters, while also at the same time allowing reporters to do their jobs by holding me accountable. By saying, all right, I’m here, ask me whatever. That’s the sort of stuff that candidates and elected officials need to be doing. We need to have an independent, thriving free press in order for our representative democracy within a republic to function. And I actually value the role that reporters play. I know, what a concept!

Do you think that these are lessons that the national Democratic party is learning also?

Well, one, I hope so, but the other thing that I hope the National Democratic party really takes from this is the idea that you can be inclusive in how you campaign and you can focus on the bread-and-butter issues of governing. Anytime you run for office, whether you are running for Congress or you are running for city council or state legislature or governor, whatever you’re running for, always run like you’re running for mayor. Because mayors have to deal with the very very local issues that affect people directly, immediately, day in, day out, from safety and schools to potholes on the roads to making sure there is safe, clean drinking water, to making sure that public works are up to speed.

Always run like you’re running for mayor, and then govern like it, too. While obviously understanding, of course, there’s a separation of power, of course, let the mayor be the mayor, your job is to partner with the locality, but the basic idea of that is when you’re focused on improving people’s quality of life issues, then you’re not discriminating against them, and then you stop getting into these fights between like, “Well my progressive principles say, my conservative principles say,” blah blah blah. How about just do your damn job? Take care of our infrastructure.

Yeah, bring it back to concrete issues.

Literally, bring it back to concrete! That’s it right there.

So this is a bit of a shift, but I do really want to ask—what do you like about metal?

Metal is rebellion. I love the intensity of heavy metal. There’s a lot of other genres of music that have the technicality of metal—jazz, for instance, classical; there’s a lot of music that has the technical aspect, but what I love with metal is that metal is basically audio rebellion. Metal is inherently intense, and I cannot think of another genre of music that is as diverse as metal. You can have bands like Bloodbath, and Lacuna Coil, and The Gathering, and Dark Tranquility, and they all have completely separate sounds, and yet they all fly the same heavy metal flag. It’s so expansive, so I never feel like I’m pigeonholed when I’m listening to metal, you know? I love the diversity of it, I love that you can go to a show and see a folk metal band with traditional Middle Ages instruments and then you can see Slayer be Slayer, you know? It’s awesome.

How old were you when you first got into metal?

I got really into it my first year of high school, so like 1998, but I’d been listening to Black Sabbath since I was a kid, you know, since my mom was driving me in the car. My mom was always a big Led Zeppelin fan, she’d have the classic rock station on when I was a little kid. 105.9 WCXR! Long gone, but we would listen to that, and when I was a kid I used to take the little cassette tapes and I would record my favorite songs off the radio on them. And sometimes when I didn’t have the two cassette tapes thing, I would hold a little cassette tape recorder up to the speakers.

The first cassette tape I ever got was Quadrophenia by The Who. My grandparents on my dad’s side of the family bought it for me at The Wall, which was an old store in the Manassas mall. I was like five years old and into The Who and Dire Straights. I grew up on a pretty steady diet of classic rock, so it wasn’t much of a stretch to get from Black Sabbath from Metallica to where I am now, you know?

That’s awesome. I was listening to like, Michelle Branch when I was a kid [Ed note: no offense to Michelle Branch].

Oh, I had my share of terrible music too. You know, it’s funny, of all the things I’ve had to out myself for, I’m going to try to make my previously shitty music taste not one of those [laughs]. I listened to some country, you know, just like pop country and some other stupid bullshit.

Who hasn’t?

When I was in fourth grade, I had an Ace of Base cassette tape, you know?

Of course!

Guilty as charged, it is what it is.

Could be worse...

Once I got a driver’s license, that’s when I was hooked on live music. Like, in 2001, I probably went to literally 100 concerts that year. I was just like, whoosh! That was my passion, seeing live heavy metal. You’ll notice, I just won a campaign as an out transgender metal-head journalist stepmom—as one of my trans friends put it, an adjective soup!

What’s important, and what your readers would be interested in, is that I never ran away from my identity. Ever. I owned it immediately, and I celebrated it, and by doing that I took something that could have been an issue—I put everything out there as soon as I got into the race. Everyone knew I was a heavy metal vocalist, everyone knew I was transgender, everyone knows I’m a local journalist, everyone knows I’m a stepmom, I just put it out there and was like, yeah, this is who I am. You establish that from the get-go, and now let’s talk about policy, let’s talk about the stuff that actually affects everyone’s lives. And it was a winning message. So if there’s something to be replicated there, it’s take control of your own personal narrative and put it out there. Let people know who you are, and then go win your election