When Del. Danica A. Roem sought in 2017 to become the country’s first openly transgender state lawmaker, the Republican Party of Virginia funded a political flier that referred to her as a man and speculated that she would teach “transgenderism” to kindergartners.
“Delegate Roem does not deserve to be subjected to Westboro Baptist’s vile protests” the state party tweeted about the Kansas-based group behind the attack. Pete Snyder, a one-time Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, added: “@pwdanica — Chin up, we all have your back.”
The change illustrated the extent to which Roem (D-Prince William) has become a force in Virginia politics: a first-term lawmaker largely focused on traffic and other bread-and-butter issues, but with a celebrity profile that opens pocketbooks and draws attention nationwide.
In a pivotal election year, when control of the General Assembly hangs in the balance and the outcome in Virginia could help set the stage for the 2020 presidential contest, Republicans are steering clear of personal attacks on Roem that could energize her vast network of supporters.
“She raises more money in small dollars than any other politician in Virginia,” said John Findlay, executive director of the Virginia GOP, referring to the 2,400 donations Roem has received of $100 or less.
He said the party will focus on Roem’s voting record this fall in supporting her Republican opponent, conservative activist Kelly McGinn, who launched her campaign in March and quickly raised $49,400, according to an April 15 campaign filing.
Roem, by comparison, has raised $280,200, nearly three times as much as the average hauls of the 15 other freshman Democrats in the House. Her campaign also has returned to the House Democratic Caucus about $107,000 in unused funds from two years ago, when Roem beat longtime Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Manassas), who described himself as Virginia’s “chief homophobe.”
That money is being steered toward incumbents in battleground areas and Republican-held districts that Democrats are targeting, a caucus spokeswoman said.
“The fundamentals are there for us to win this election and bring in a majority,” Roem said. “I want to make sure we get there.”
Roem, a 34-year-old former newspaper reporter, seems to occupy two parallel political universes. Some days, she’s talking about school boundaries, phoning colleagues to urge their support for more transportation funding in Northern Virginia or urging her 81,000 Twitter followers to “help flip Virginia.” On others, she’s at fundraisers with national Democratic leaders, buttonholing presidential candidates Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) or Pete Buttigieg, the openly gay mayor of South Bend, Ind.
“She’s one of those rare combinations of ‘good on all ends,’ ” said Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University. “And she happens to be transgender, which gives her more attention. That’s what makes her formidable in many ways.”
Breaking a path for others
Roem won her seat during a historic election that added 15 Democratic seats to the House of Delegates, leaving Republicans with a majority by just two seats. The GOP also controls the Senate by two seats.
Her 8-point victory helped inspire more than a dozen other transgender candidates to seek office nationwide, sometimes with Roem’s help.
She traveled to Colorado to rally supporters of Brianna Titone, who won a state House seat by 439 votes. From afar, she advised Gerri Cannon and Lisa Bunker, both of whom are now state lawmakers in New Hampshire. Last fall, Roem went to Massachusetts to help defeat a state proposition that would have nullified a 2016 law protecting transgender people from discrimination in public places.
“A lot of the ways I’m approaching this office comes from having conversations with Danica about her experience,” said Titone, a former geologist who has focused on flood control in her district.
As she traveled inside and outside Virginia, Roem tweeted constantly. There were posts about drivers who run stop signs, road closures, the town halls she was holding to discuss Route 28 congestion and the effects of a 2018 law that expanded Medicaid eligibility for an additional 400,000 low-income Virginians.
There were photos of Roem talking transportation with former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke during his visit to Virginia in April and videos of Buttigieg praising Roem in a speech at a Victory Fund luncheon in Washington and Harris speaking to her backstage at a Human Rights Campaign dinner in Los Angeles.
“You are meant to be where you are,” Harris said. “We need you there.”
Roem’s time in Virginia’s button-down capital started out rocky, with some conservative lawmakers looking askance at the lanky Democrat who arrived wearing her trademark rainbow headscarf and leading a trail of news cameras.
A decision by House Majority Leader Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) to do away with the traditional titles of “gentleman” and “gentlewoman” avoided some potentially awkward moments.
Roem tells the story of one Republican lawmaker, whom she would not name, asking her to step outside for some fresh air, then proceeding to “try and save my soul” by praying for her. Roem said she walked away, telling him the gesture was inappropriate.
On the House floor, Roem sometimes broke protocol, once drawing snide comments from colleagues when she sprinted across the ornate, filigreed hall to reach her seat in time to slam the “aye” button for a vote on transportation funding.
Another day, Del. Christopher P. Stolle (R-Virginia Beach) gently reprimanded Roem for firing questions directly at a witness during a meeting of the subcommittee he leads. Normally, questions are funneled through the committee chair.
None of her bills made it to a floor vote during her first legislative session, which is typical of freshmen in the House minority. In her second year, three of 13 bills were approved.
Del. Richard C. “Rip” Sullivan Jr. (D-Fairfax), who recruited Roem to seek office in 2017, called her “a very fast study.”
“She recognized almost immediately that, to be successful in Richmond, you’ve got to find ways to work with all of your colleagues,” Sullivan said. “Now, Danica is fearless when it comes to approaching other members.”
A focus on local issues
After the session ended, in March, came the protest by the Westboro Baptist Church, a Kansas-based group known for demonstrating at funerals of slain service members to show opposition to U.S. military policies on allowing gay people to serve.
Six demonstrators showed up. They were outnumbered by more than 100 of Roem’s supporters, whose jubilant counter-demonstration included a kazoo band. Roem raised $36,000 from about 1,000 donors after she asked people on Twitter to send a message to the Westboro group.
McGinn, 49, who worked as senior counsel to Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) when he was a U.S. senator, so far has avoided direct attacks against Roem.
However, in January, when McGinn was urging lawmakers in Richmond not to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, she noted that “the amendment doesn’t even use the word ‘woman.’ It uses the word ‘sex.’ ”
“And in 2019 . . . the word ‘sex’ doesn’t have a definition anymore,” McGinn said, according to a video posted to YouTube. “Our society is very confused about what that word means.”
McGinn declined requests for an interview about her candidacy. In a statement, she referred to the “drama and dysfunction” of the Democratic Party — an allusion to controversies involving decades-old appearances in blackface by Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark R. Herring and allegations of sexual assault against Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax. She promised, if elected, to focus on traffic, schools and other local issues.
“Our Commonwealth sorely needs leaders who are in touch with the day-to-day challenges facing families and working people in our District and who can work in a collaborative way with state and local leaders on real solutions,” the statement said.
Roem said such cooperation and pragmatic focus are, precisely, her mission.
On a recent day, she rang doorbells in a conservative section of Prince William County, carrying a clipboard and brochures for state Sen. George L. Barker (D-Fairfax), a second-term lawmaker who lost this part of the district by large margins in previous elections. Some people in the neighborhood had no idea who she was. Others recognized her immediately.
“Danica Roem!” a man on a bicycle called out from half a block away, just before a couple also wanting to chat pulled up in their minivan.
Tina Brugioni, who voted Republican in last year’s congressional midterms but backed Roem in 2017 and plans to do so again in the fall, looked up from her flower garden as the delegate approached.
“We finally have someone who is representing the life issues that everyday people experience, rather than their own personal agenda,” said Brugioni, 56. “That’s the job: to represent people in the district.”
Days later, Roem sat inside a Manassas diner, calling Democratic and Republican lawmakers to build support for a proposal for more highway funding.
As she prepared to leave, Jerry Deem, chief of a local volunteer fire department, walked over to complain about — what else? — Route 28. Backed-up traffic on the roadway, he said, was blocking his engines from leaving the station in the morning.
“You work on those roads for us,” Deem demanded.
“Every day,” Roem answered, before making plans with Deem for a ride-along. “I’m all in.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Brianna Titone’s election victory margin. The story has been corrected.