The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This lawmaker won’t debate his Democratic challenger. He says her supporters would call him a bigot.

Del. Robert Marshall (R-Prince William) is keeping a low profile in his reelection campaign. (Tracy A. Woodward/The Washington Post)

Longtime Virginia Del. Robert G. Marshall is refusing to participate in debates or candidate forums in his hotly contested race against Democrat Danica Roem, citing what he calls a divisive political climate in Prince William County.

“In the last few elections, there’s been a distinct lack of civility,” said Marshall (R), a 13-term incumbent who has participated in candidate forums in the past. “Prior to that, it wasn’t so bad. You weren’t automatically identified as a bigot, or a hatemonger or anything like this. That has changed.”

Marshall, 73, is facing an aggressive challenge by Roem, 32, who would be the first openly transgender person to win elective office in Virginia. So far, Roem has outraised the outspoken conservative by a 5-to-1 margin, collecting nearly $568,000 as of last month from both local and national donors, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. Marshall had raised nearly $97,000, the group reported.

Some of Roem’s supporters have added their voices to a chorus of derogatory remarks about Marshall on social media websites, where LGBT advocates refer to him as “Bigot Bob” because of his sponsorship of a “bathroom bill” that would have regulated transgender people’s use of restrooms in government buildings. That measure was unsuccessful. Marshall also sponsored Virginia’s constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage — which stood until the U.S. Supreme Court declared such prohibitions unconstitutional.

The delegate, wary of providing more ammunition to his opponent, has limited his public exposure during his reelection bid, preferring to interact with voters in small, private settings or through phone calls. He won’t allow reporters to accompany him while canvassing for votes and frequently asks that questions be emailed to him so he can reply with prepared remarks.

Roem, on the other hand, has received national media attention, including a flattering feature in Cosmopolitan magazine last week.

Earlier this month, the Prince William County chapter of the NAACP invited Marshall, Roem and the candidates in two other local House of Delegates races to participate in a Sept. 21 candidates forum.

The Democrats all replied yes, said Elle “E.J.” Scott, vice president of the NAACP chapter. Marshall and the two other Republican incumbents said no, although Dels. Jackson Miller and Tim Hugo cited scheduling conflicts.

Marshall told the group that he would respond only to emailed questions, Scott said.

She said the event was supposed to feature a moderator asking questions about issues affecting Prince William County, some of which would be submitted in writing from audience members and pre-screened for appropriateness.

The organization has offered alternative dates to Miller and Hugo, but Hugo again had a conflict and Miller has not responded, Scott said. Neither of those two officials returned messages for comment.

“We just feel it’s important that they get their views out to the African American community,” Scott said.

Marshall’s Republican allies say it’s smart for an incumbent to avoid engaging with a challenger in a public forum, especially if that opponent is capable of drawing a crowd of supporters eager to focus on issues they think will benefit their candidate.

“It would totally turn into Danica Roem supporters making it about their sexuality and gender identity,” said Prince William County Supervisor Jeanine M. Lawson (R-Brentsville). “They’re so fixated that they cannot help but make it about that.”

Bill Card, the former chair of the Prince William County Republican Committee, had a more tactical view.

“I think the general rule of thumb is, if you’re way ahead, there’s no reason to give the other guy a chance to hit a long ball in one of those things,” he said.

Roem, who when campaigning focuses strictly on traffic and other local issues, said she thinks Marshall is afraid to take her on in a one-on-one debate over how to alleviate congestion along Route 28 and bring more jobs to Prince William County.

“He’s trying to control the narrative instead of answering the questions that are most important to the people in his district,” Roem said.

Stephen J. Farnsworth, a ­political science professor at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, said Marshall’s aversion to public forums could backfire if the election is close.

“You generally see more people at these meetings than you do at their doors,” Farnsworth said. “It seems like a good way to lose swing voters.”

Read more on the race:

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Dvorak: Transgender candidate takes on Va.’s ‘minister of private parts’

She is transgender. He proposed a ‘bathroom’ bill. They are running against each other in Va.