Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) accused lawmakers like Spanberger of being part of a “Child Abuse Caucus.” The chief of staff for Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) said their vote would “enable a racist system.” On Facebook, Spanberger was labeled “too late” and “clueless.”
She was stunned. It was the first time the freshman congresswoman could not make sense of what was happening.
Reflecting on the late June episode, Spanberger said she learned a hard lesson she did not anticipate in 2018, when she unseated Republican Dave Brat and helped Democrats win the House majority: Sometimes your biggest foes will be in your own party.
“That week showed me that for some people, ideology matters more than putting food in the mouth of a child,” she said. “And that was stunning to me.”
In the eight months that Spanberger has served in Congress, she has been a lawmaker in the middle. She comes from a historically Republican district that just five years ago replaced House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R) with someone more conservative. But she won office last year thanks in large part to left-leaning groups like the Liberal Women of Chesterfield County.
Still, Spanberger beat Brat by just 2 points in a year when Democrats were motivated to send a message to President Trump. Republicans are already targeting the district in preparation for the 2020 race.
As she steers through the political divisions within her swing district, Spanberger is also trying to navigate conflicts inside her own party.
Disturbed by reports about migrant children sleeping on floors in unsanitary, overcrowded holding facilities, without access to adequate health care or food, she sought out party leaders on the House floor, days before a border funding vote.
“Just so we’re clear . . . under no circumstances will we leave town while there are children who are being held in detention centers in these conditions with no food,” Spanberger said she told Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s staff. Hoyer and Bustos confirmed the conversations.
The Senate had passed a $4.6 billion humanitarian aid package, but Pelosi and liberals wanted legislation with stronger protections for migrant children and limits on how the administration could use the money.
“This administration has given us no reason to trust that they will protect immigrant families and humanely address this humanitarian crisis,” said Rep. A. Donald McEachin, a fellow Virginia Democrat who staked out a position opposite to Spanberger’s.
Spanberger and other moderates thought an alternative bill had little chance of getting through the Senate; Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had said as much. They joined with Republicans to pass the Senate bill and hand Pelosi and the liberals a defeat.
Still, the National Republican Congressional Committee routinely attacks Spanberger for voting most of the time with Pelosi and “socialist leader AOC,” referring to Ocasio-Cortez of New York.
The humanitarian aid package was just the sort of hard-fought accomplishment that made it worth it to leave a good-paying job at an education company and upend a stable suburban family life, Spanberger said.
“There’s still a tremendous problem,” she said, referring to the border and immigration. “But we have delivered the immediacy of aid to kids.”
Then she read the torrent of insults directed at lawmakers like her.
As a mother of three who had worked on child abuses cases while a Postal Service investigator, Spanberger was particularly stung by the suggestion that she backed a measure that harmed children.
“That was the first time that I had been so surprised by the disconnect between what people were saying out there in the ether and . . . reality,” she said.
Bridging the gap in D.C.
Back in her district last month, the break gave her a chance to reflect. Spanberger said she realized colleagues from the left flank of the party may not understand how her life experiences before she came to Congress shaped her perspective.
“If I’m going to try and bridge this gap — because that’s what I do every day in my district is bridge the gap of people who are on the political spectrum — then maybe I do it in my whole caucus,” she said.
Democrats gathered on July 10, their first closed-door caucus meeting since the border vote. Spanberger stood up.
Most people knew she had been a CIA officer, she said, recounting the speech. But in her 20s, she worked in the law enforcement arm of the U.S. Postal Service, on narcotics and child exploitation cases.
As the only Spanish speaker during most arrests, she said she told them, “I was the one walking in the door. I was the one yelling, ‘Put your hands up.’ . . . I was the one dealing with crying children, telling them that we were taking their Daddy away. . . . I was the one talking to a crying wife, saying why we were arresting her spouse.”
She wanted her colleagues to know she had experience easing children through difficult moments and was trying to act in their best interest.
She also understood that officers whose duties require them to enforce the law in difficult circumstances often carry the psychic burdens of those responsibilities.
Members of Congress have the power to try to fix the underlying policies that created those conditions, she said.
After Spanberger spoke, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), a liberal who voted against the Senate bill that she supported, was impressed.
“She did a very good job of trying to appeal to all sides of the caucus by being very raw and personal and authentic,” he said, confirming he emailed her a note of support. “It showed people in caucus whether progressive or Blue Dog or Problem Solvers, we shouldn’t demonize [fellow Democrats] over one vote.”
When it came time for Congress to pass a defense spending package, Ocasio-Cortez submitted an amendment that would have prohibited the detention of undocumented immigrants in Department of Defense facilities.
Spanberger considered the measure shortsighted and voted ‘no.’ If the military cannot house kids, they could be sent to even less hospitable facilities, she said.
Later, Spanberger visited the border with a bipartisan group, a trip that confirmed her position that the situation can improve only by addressing the root of the problem.
For example, she favors adding more immigration judges to eliminate the backlog of migrants seeking asylum.
She joined Rep. Will Hurd (R-Tex.), another former CIA case officer, to sponsor a measure that would beef up efforts to combat drug trafficking and human smuggling in Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico and to better understand how these conditions contribute to migration to the United States.
A centrist goes home
Spanberger brought her balancing act to a middle school auditorium in Chesterfield last month. It was a town hall, and hundreds of residents gathered, days after former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III had testified before Congress about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential race and whether Trump had obstructed justice.
A woman stood up and asked, “How can your constituents support you in making efforts toward impeachment of this president?” Most of the crowd cheered.
One of three men wearing red pro-Trump hats, sitting side by side, said to his friends, “Beating a dead horse.”
He was voicing the frustration some conservatives feel over how much attention impeachment is getting in the media and among liberals.
She does not support impeachment and wants Congress to continue investigating the Trump administration.
“Congress has the role of asking questions because we should want to get to the bottom of things,” she said.
She’s focused on preventing future foreign tampering in elections and is part of a freshman task force studying the issue, she said.
The constituent was not satisfied.
Spanberger tried again. “If you are making a case for something so serious, you want to have every single fact available to you,” she said.
Linda Higgins, the pastor at St. John’s United Church of Christ, was in the audience. She wants Congress to impeach the president. She also worked to get Spanberger elected.
“Would we have loved to put a progressive up? Yeah,” Higgins said. “Would they have won? No. There is some reality in politics. We knew who she was. But she is wonderfully who she is.”
At the end of the town hall, a man asked how to improve the quality of discourse in Washington.
“I’m measured. I have low blood pressure,” she began, drawing chuckles. She went on to vent her frustration with the devolution of political debate into snipes on Twitter.
“I don’t think that’s professional, and I don’t care who you are,” she said, earning the biggest applause of the afternoon.
“Tell that to the president, Abigail!” a woman in the audience yelled.
“I don’t tell that to the president by fighting with the president on Twitter,” Spanberger responded. Then she thanked people in the audience who did not vote for her for coming.
“I don’t care if people think it’s optimistic and naive. I think we are better than what we have seen in recent years, and I want to be a part of restoring that.”
Almost everyone stood and clapped.
This is part of an occasional series of stories about Rep. Abigail Spanberger’s first year in office.