RICHMOND — Jill Vogel was just getting her legal career off the ground — still a "baby lawyer," as a friend tells it — when she went to work for the Republican National Committee.
Before long, she was chief counsel. Then a top lawyer for President George W. Bush’s Energy Department. From there, she built one of the nation’s most prominent GOP elections law firms and won a seat in the state Senate.
Now Vogel, 47, is running for lieutenant governor of Virginia — in the drain-the-swamp style of President Trump.
“We are going to take back Virginia the way this president is going to take back this country!” Vogel declared at an August rally in tiny Marion, in southwest Virginia.
If it takes a certain chutzpah for a longtime GOP insider to adopt the president’s anti-establishment mantra, Vogel has it. That’s especially notable because the man at the top of her ticket does not.
Ed Gillespie, the former Bush aide and RNC chairman running for governor, can look uncomfortable with any association with Trump. When the president endorsed Gillespie via Twitter last Thursday, the candidate did not promote it or even acknowledge it until asked by reporters the following day.
But Vogel is all in. Gillespie squirmed when news leaked that he had hired a Trump operative to help him round up rural votes. Vogel hired two of them — and trumpeted the second in a news release.
Hers could be a risky strategy in the only Southern state that Trump lost, a place where the president is deeply unpopular. Her Democratic rival, former federal prosecutor Justin Fairfax, played up her ties to Trump as a negative during their debate last week .
But some Republicans praise Vogel’s gutsy style and predict she will lead the GOP ticket.
“She is fearless,” said John Fredericks, a conservative radio host who helped run Trump’s Virginia campaign and criticized Gillespie’s response to the president’s endorsement. “She takes positions immediately. She’s not going through a focus group. . . . She’s a shot of oxygen in a room occupied with stale air.”
That is not to say Vogel is all Trump, all the time.
In a TV commercial, Vogel is shown soaking up the great Fauquier County outdoors with her husband and their gaggle of beautiful children. It could be an ad for L.L. Bean. Or the return of Camelot. Indeed, the Vogels live on part of the Upperville estate once owned by Listerine heiress Bunny Mellon, who entertained her friend Jackie Kennedy there.
The ad’s message is as soft as its optics: Vogel is for women and families.
“The big issues of our time are not partisan issues,” she says in the spot, which notes her work to help children with autism and to ban child marriage but never mentions her party affiliation.
She struck a more partisan note in an ad aired during her hard-fought primary battle, though softened with pretty domestic visuals. She pitched herself there as a do-it-all working mom – she has four children, plus two stepchildren – for whom fixing toaster waffles and fighting Obamacare are all in a day's work.
“Jill has managed to balance normal policies that appeal to moderate Virginians while embracing the concerns of Trump voters,” said Ben Marchi, a longtime Virginia GOP operative. “Jill understands how to talk to normal people.”
Democrats speak less admiringly of her balancing act, which in the course of the campaign has included distributing rainbow stickers at LGBT pride events while also teaming up with E.W. Jackson, a lawyer, Christian minister and critic of gay rights who ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 2013.
Vogel gained notoriety — and the ire of abortion rights activists — in 2012 for a bill that, as originally proposed, would have required most women seeking abortions to first undergo a vaginal ultrasound and be offered a view of the fetus.
“She is intentionally different things to different people,” said Anna Scholl, executive director of Progress Virginia. “When she is with moderate swing voters, she is trying to sell herself as a mom who’s just working hard for families. But you get her into a room with the base and she’s right there with E.W. Jackson. . . . I think it’s a little bit of, don’t look at the woman behind the curtain.”
Vogel, who declined to be interviewed for this story, was born in Roanoke and grew up in the Shenandoah Valley.
She is the daughter of William B. Holtzman, founder of Holtzman Oil, a longtime GOP donor who has given $1.8 million to his daughter and other Virginia Republicans over the past 10 years.
She attended the College of William & Mary, earning a bachelor’s degree in government and religion. She went on to DePaul University School of Law in Chicago, then started the law career that took her to the RNC, the Bush administration and then her own firm: Holtzman Vogel Josefiak Torchinsky PLLC.
One of her partners is her husband, Alex, who also is co-founder of a Wall Street and corporate research firm.
Vogel is managing partner at HVJT, as the 13-lawyer firm is known. It is headquartered in Warrenton, 50 miles from Washington. But it is a powerhouse. Specializing in elections and campaign finance law, it represents some of the nation’s largest super PACs and their related “social welfare” nonprofit organizations, which are allowed to shield their donors. Among them are Americans for Prosperity, part of the “dark money” political network established by the billionaire Koch brothers, and American Crossroads, the super PAC co-founded by Gillespie and GOP strategist Karl Rove.
“She’s done a pretty amazing job over the last 20 years,” said Cleta Mitchell, a longtime friend and prominent Republican elections lawyer at Foley & Lardner LLP. “She’s done it while starting her family and raising her kids and getting herself elected.”
Vogel often has a child or two in tow on the campaign trail, especially her youngest, 5-year-old Olivia. Vogel worked through early labor pains to help Republicans pass the state budget a week before Olivia arrived in April 2012, then returned to the chamber not three weeks later to vote on the governor’s amendments.
Mitchell said Vogel brings to mind what former Texas governor Ann Richards once said about Ginger Rogers: She did everything Fred Astaire did, just backwards and in high heels.
“Frankly, if she were a left-wing Democrat, she’d be a national darling of the New York Times,” Mitchell said. “But because she’s a conservative woman, that doesn’t happen.”
From her perch atop the go-to GOP elections firm, Vogel seeks what looks like a demotion: Virginia’s lieutenant governorship is a low-profile, part-time job with just two constitutionally mandated duties: presiding over the state Senate and taking over if the governor cannot serve. It pays a little more than $36,000 a year.
But the post can be a steppingstone to higher office and if Vogel wins, many Republican insiders expect her to run for governor four years from now.
Vogel narrowly won the nomination for lieutenant governor after a mudslinging battle with Sen. Bryce Reeves (R-Spotsylvania). During the primary, Reeves turned up digital records linking Vogel to a pseudonymous email that falsely accused him of having an extramarital affair. Vogel denied any involvement and suggested her family’s electronics had been hacked.
Vogel has racked up a mostly conservative record over 10 years in the state Senate, where she serves on the powerful finance committee.
Her campaign website boasts that she has introduced “more pro-gun bills than any other state senator.” Though she voiced support for greater gun control immediately after the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, she later dismissed her remarks as a momentary, emotional reaction. There was no wavering after the Las Vegas mass shooting, even after the National Rifle Association on Thursday unexpectedly supported a review of regulations on “bump stocks,” devices that allow a semiautomatic rifle to mimic the rapid discharge of an automatic weapon.
“I’m not running for lieutenant governor to take anybody’s rights away,” she said when bump stocks came up in the debate.
Vogel has a sunny, approachable style but also sticks to her conservative principles, said Jeff McWaters, a former Republican state senator from Virginia Beach.
“She’s the kind of person who brings out the right chemistry in powerful people,” he said. “She’s a tough, tough human being, and selfless, and really wants good government in Virginia.”
Critics say her winning personality masks her hard-line politics.
“She comes across as very moderate, very nice — a soccer mom,” Sen. Barbara Favola (D-Arlington) said. “Because of that persona, voters are really tricked because they can’t imagine she’s as strident as she is.”
“It is easier for me to deal with Dick Black,” Favola added, referring to the Loudoun Republican who is perhaps the Senate’s most conservative member. “He doesn’t make any pretense and he tells me right up front how he’s going to vote.”
Vogel has been to the left of her caucus on some safety issues — spanning sports fields to the grocery aisle— that fellow Republicans resisted as "nanny state" measures. She has broken with her party by backing nonpartisan redistricting and tougher ethics rules.
Vogel voted this year to ban discrimination against gay and transgender people in housing and public employment. She took heat from her Republican primary opponent for supporting the appointment of an openly gay judge.
But ahead of her primary, Vogel raised all-caps alarms with a mailing about the Obama administration’s order to allow transgender students to use the bathrooms of their choice: “DO YOU WANT BARACK OBAMA TO SET TRANSGENDER BATHROOM POLICIES AT YOUR CHILDREN’S SCHOOL?”
Vogel has said she was objecting to a heavy-handed federal mandate, not protections for transgender students.
Admirers say Vogel is adept at walking such a fine line.
“She has a unique ability to connect across voter demographics,” Fredericks said. “You can see yourself having a glass of wine with her at the high-end bar in Fairfax. I can also have a beef-and-cheddar sandwich with her at the Buchanan Arby’s. She’s comfortable in the high falutin’ setting, but she can also get down and dirty, man.”