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During her victory speech earlier this month, Danica Roem dedicated her historic win to the “misfits,” the marginalized, and those who have felt that “they didn’t have a voice of their own.”
The remarks captured the spirit of a campaign that could become a blueprint for LGBTQ candidates in 2018 and beyond.
Roem’s race is significant, yes, because of the historic nature of her candidacy — she’s the first transgender person elected to a state office. But it’s also nationally significant because of the anti-LGBT incumbent she defeated and the larger cultural context this race played out in. In this environment, conservative candidates should take stock: fight the trans community at your peril.
The right has felt the opposite true for too long. Their side’s focus on same-sex marriage is giving way to a more niche target: trans people. The new strategy aims to alienate the “LGB” from the “T” and in doing so divide and conquer public opinion. So-called bathroom bills prohibiting trans people from using public facilities that correspond with their gender identity had by July been put forward in 16 states. President Trump, earlier this year, filed an executive order banning trans military members from the armed forces.
Anti-LGBTQ legislation used to pay dividends for the GOP. Now, at the ballot box, it seems to be costing them real wins. Virginia Delegate Bob Marshall, whom Roem defeated, proudly self-identified as the legislature’s “chief homophobe.” He authored a bill similar to HB2, the bathroom bill that controversially passed in North Carolina. And he ran his campaign against Roem with explicit criticism of her trans identity. She responded with an ad called “Inspire” which shows her injecting hormones and going about her daily life.
This moment has been coming. Gov. Pat McCrory (R) was defeated in North Carolina in 2016, in a rare bright spot for Democrats that year. He presided over the passage of HB2, now known as the “bathroom bill,” which sparked months of controversy and nationwide boycotts of North Carolina costing the state some $600 million.
Weeks before his election, some national observers noted that if defeated, McCrory’s loss would represent “a watershed moment for gay rights.” Beyond that symbolism, McCrory also made history for being the first sitting governor in North Carolina history to lose his seat. His opponent, now-Gov. Roy Cooper, ran on an unequivocal anti-HB2 platform.
Embrace Identity Politics and Solve Local Problems
Post-Trump inauguration, pundits and elected officials were marshaling a dangerous argument. The Democratic Party lost its way, these folks surmised, because it too narrowly focuses on the issues of under-represented women, people of color, LGBTQ, and immigrant communities. This niche focus comes at the expense of a broader economic message appealing to the newly coveted white, rural voter, believed to have punched Trump’s ticket in key battleground states.
From Virginia to Washington State, Americans voted in droves ushering in one of the most diverse slate of candidates in recent memory. Here are a few highlights:
Eight transgender candidates in total, including Virginia’s Roem and Georgia’s Stephe Koontz, were elected to state and local office. Seattle elected its first woman Mayor since 1920 and its first lesbian mayor ever in Jenny Durkan.
In Virginia’s House of Delegates, women won 28 seats, nine of which were won by challengers.
Moreover, Virginia elected Justin Fairfax lt. governor, only the second black man to a statewide office. North Carolina’s largest city Charlotte elected its first black woman in Vi Lyles. Sheila Oliver became the first black woman elected as lt. governor in New Jersey.
Kathy Tran came to the U.S. as a refugee from Vietnam when she was an infant. She became the first Asian-American woman elected to the Virginia House of Delegates.
GOP practitioners in Virginia noted that their side turned out more voters in 2017 than they did in 2013. It just wasn’t enough because Democratic voters turned out at higher rates.
May this surge lay to rest the notion that we have to play favorites with demographics or choose smart policy. We can do both. Roem and transgender candidate Koontz embraced their identity, but also focused on solving problems for their community.
For many Northern Virginia voters, traffic congestion is a day-to-day battle. Bi-partisan support can be found among commuters who simply want to get home and to work faster. Roem, a Prince William native, made transportation a central focus of her campaign. Solving traffic woes along Route 28 figured prominently in her messaging.
Stephe Koontz, one of the eight trans candidates newly elected in November, will serve on the city council in Doraville, Georgia. A small business owner, who owned multiple auto shops at one point around town, Koontz talked credibly about how best to attract new businesses to town, while also keeping the downside of gentrification at bay.
Let’s Continue Resisting and Reinventing
Few people a year ago would have realistically imagined (though many, many would have hoped) a trans woman with a rocker background would serve as the face of politics in 2017.
Yet, here we are. Who will be the face of politics in 2018 and beyond? What we know for sure is that the old mold of who can and should run for office, and where they can run for office and win, is crumbling. Both parties should take heed and plan accordingly.
The misfits, as Roem noted, are having a moment. Let’s hope it continues.
Leigh Ann Smith is the founder of BRAVE, a political digital strategy and marketing agency. She is a national campaign board member with the Victory Fund. You can connect with her @Leigh_Ann_Smith.