To run for Congress as a Republican in one of the most Democratic districts in the nation, a candidate has to believe he can be an exception. Micah Edmond has believed that most of his life.
He is an African American who grew up poor and converted to Judaism, the faith of the family who took him in as a teenager. He is a Republican who supports welfare payments and free school lunches, a fiscal conservative and former Marine trying to win the congressional seat that liberal Democrat James P. Moran Jr. is vacating after 24 years.
The question is whether Edmond’s unusual profile and months of energetic campaigning will gain him any traction among voters in Northern Virginia’s deep-blue 8th Congressional District, which encompasses Arlington County, the cities of Alexandria and Falls Church, and a big, diverse and Democratic swath of eastern Fairfax County.
Edmond’s Democratic opponent, former lieutenant governor and ambassador Don Beyer, has stronger name recognition, experience as an elected official and about 25 times more money in campaign contributions — $2.5 million, compared with $102,000 for Edmond. Even Republicans who publicly profess Edmond’s strengths do so with more than a hint of recognition of the challenge he faces.
“Micah is a tremendous candidate with a great life story, very bright and extremely hard-working,” said John C. Cook, a member of Fairfax County’s Board of Supervisors. “He’s one of the best candidates on the ballot, and we’re proud of him. Sure, he’s got a chance. Is it an uphill race? Of course.”
Edmond, 41, said he sees a path to victory. The 8th District is hungry for a moderate leader, he said, who will reach out to younger voters, people of color and military veterans — all categories that just happen to include him.
“Forty-three percent of this district are minorities,” he said. “African Americans alone could flip this race.”
Twice a week, Edmond shakes hands with potential voters at Metro stations. For months, he’s been making the rounds of black churches, Hispanic gathering spots, Asian American chambers of commerce and Jewish centers, asking voters for their support.
“What about all these young black men incarcerated — more often than not for a nonviolent crime?” Edmond asked a group of men waiting for a trim and a shave one day at the Pro-Style’n Hair Salon, an eight-chair barbershop in Alexandria. “We need to make sure they get a second chance.”
Michael Johnson listened closely. He usually votes for Democrats, he said, but he feels strongly that “we need to vote for people with our best interests at heart.”
“I have yet to see Don Beyer. I haven’t heard his plan for the black community,” Johnson said. “When somebody’s drowning, what hand are you going to reach for? The hand closest to you.”
On the stump, Edmond is poised and direct about his roots — and about issues of race and class. At a recent forum in Annandale sponsored by Asian, black and Hispanic chambers, he said: “Too often, we don’t talk about uncomfortable truths.” He noted that the panel of Democratic candidates was made up entirely of white men, while the Republican panel included himself and two women.
One Democrat who spoke on the condition of anonymity said Edmond would be a “dream candidate” for Republicans — in a more competitive district. In the 8th District, however, it will be much more difficult, particularly against Beyer, a longtime Virginia Democrat and owner of the car dealership that bears his name.
Beyer lost his last election — a bid for the governership in 1997 against Republican James S. Gilmore III. But in Annandale, his many years of campaign experience were on full display. He began his remarks with compliments to the multicultural community. He noted that two-thirds of his employees at Don Beyer Volvo were born overseas. “There’s enormous leadership ability in this room,” he said.
Falls Church resident and civil rights advocate Nikki Graves Henderson attended the forum and had considered voting for Edmond. But after hearing both candidates, she decided to vote for Beyer.
“I don’t see enough of a record [from Edmond]. I just couldn’t find a compelling reason to vote for him,” Henderson said. “Maybe 10 years from now, or 15 years from now.”
Edmond’s mother was 15 years old and unmarried when he was born. He was raised by his grandparents, devout Southern Baptists. But they died when he was in second grade. His mother retrieved him and they scraped by together, she working a series of low-wage jobs and he doing chores for whoever would hire him.
When Edmond was a senior in high school, his mother left. He went to live with the family of his friend Justin Smith. Their Jewish faith became a major influence.
“I liked the value system and doing things for other people,” Edmond said. At age 17, he decided to convert.
As a high school student, Edmond worked two jobs, read a lot and slept very little. “He was always trying to survive and get ahead,” said Jan Smith, Justin’s mother, whom Edmond describes as his adoptive mother. “Whatever he says he’s going to do . . . he does.”
Edmond volunteered for political campaigns and was elected to a top post in Boys State. He caught the attention of South Carolina Gov. Carroll A. Campbell Jr. (R), who arranged for him to become a page in Washington for Sen. Strom Thurmond (S.C.), the senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
It was 1991, the year that Clarence Thomas was nominated to the Supreme Court. Edmond vividly remembers walking the soon-to-be justice through the Senate halls on the days Anita Hill was testifying. The allegations of sexual harassment, in some ways, went over the teenager’s head. But he said the experience taught him two lessons.
First: “Anything’s possible.”
Second: Race still mattered.
“Clarence Thomas went from dirt poor in the South to an elite college in Massachusetts and then a very elite law school. We were reading everything this guy had written and talking about law and court cases, and ironically, we’re still talking about race,” Edmond said. “I couldn’t believe race was still an issue.”
The GOP message of smaller, efficient government and the importance of individual effort resonated with Edmond, as did some — but not all — of the party’s conservative social policies.
He says he’s not bothered by same-sex marriage — “a personal decision between two people” — and does not want to outlaw abortion, although he would ban it after the 20th week of pregnancy and block federal funding except in cases of rape, incest or the survival of the mother.
“Let’s talk about what providing a culture of life means,” Edmond said. “As someone who was adopted, my pro-life advocacy focuses on . . . promoting assistance for adoptions, foster care, and women and infant programs.”
Just before enrolling in Williams College, Edmond attended the 1992 Republican National Convention in Houston and met George W. Bush, son of the presidential nominee. Bush introduced him to one of his nephews, also a Williams student, who became a good friend and would later invite him to the Bush family home in Maine.
On campus, meanwhile, Edmond washed dishes and joined the Massachusetts Air National Guard to help pay the tuition.
Edmond graduated in 1996 and went to work at Citicorp Securities, the investment arm of Citibank. From Wall Street, he says, he felt a pull toward public service. He sought an officer’s commission in the Marine Corps, where his uncle and Jan Smith’s father both had served. After stints in Asia, he was sent to the Pentagon, where he became chief aide to the general in charge of the quadrennial budget review and the Base Closure and Realignment Commission.
He was briefly married, getting divorced in 2004.
The budget expertise Edmond gained in the Army served him well on Capitol Hill, when he worked as a staffer on the House Armed Services Committee and the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
He was appointed senior defense adviser for the Simpson-Bowles Commission — an attempt to address the sagging economy and growing national debt — and, later, the congressional Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction.
Simpson-Bowles proposed controversial reductions in spending and failed to reach consensus. The debt-reduction “supercommittee” also failed, triggering the automatic federal spending cuts known as the sequester. Edmond described both experiences as “heartbreaking.”
“Somewhere along the way,” he said, “ ‘moderate’ became a dirty word.”
Although he describes himself as a “strong Second Amendment supporter” who opposes bans on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, he adds: “In today’s world, you have to accept there should be some gun reform. Can’t we agree that crazy people shouldn’t have guns?”
He wants to cut personal and small-business tax rates but close tax loopholes that do not directly support job creation or target middle-class access to education, home ownership, business ownership and child care.
He would raise the minimum wage but also provide small businesses with an offsetting tax cut.
Edmond breaks immigration reform into three issues: border control, citizenship and the quandary of millions of undocumented workers already in the United States. The first and second topics are “incredibly complicated, and you can find almost no general consensus,” he said. But he added that giving legal status to undocumented workers is an achievable — and laudable — goal, one that would broaden the tax base.
It’s an unusual position for a Republican, but Edmond is fine with that. If GOP leadership in Congress were to order him to stick with the party line, he said, “You stand up. You just say, ‘No.’ ”