In her bid to become Virginia’s first openly transgender lawmaker, Democrat Danica Roem is getting a major boost from a donor who lives 800 miles away. They’ve never met. She’s not even sure how to pronounce his name.
Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, a Democrat, has given $115,000 to Roem’s candidacy, nearly half of the money she has raised so far, and plans to keep contributing through the November election.
The six-figure investment in a race in the Washington exurb of Prince William County underscores the national interest in what is normally a sleepy, low-turnout affair. Abele, who is straight, sees a chance to make history by helping elect the first openly transgender candidate for a state legislature.
“She’s running because she’s an active citizen, and she cares and she’ll make a difference,” said Abele, who chairs the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund. “That said, she’ll also set a precedent and make it safer for a lot of other candidates to run.”
The Wisconsin politician said there would be a “bit of poetry” if Roem unseated Del. Robert G. Marshall (R), a 25-year incumbent who has gained notoriety for unsuccessful efforts to ban same-sex marriage and restrict which bathrooms transgender people can use.
But Roem has mixed feelings about Abele’s help.
The 32-year-old former journalist launched her campaign with a pledge to represent residents, not special interests. In a state without limits on campaign contributions, Roem declared her own cap and pledged she would not accept any donation greater than $500.
And then, during the spring Democratic primary race, Roem learned a hard political lesson.
She’d knocked on lots of doors but was badly trailing two rivals in campaign cash. She needed $14,000 to pay her staff and send out two additional mailers.
After seeing her opponents’ April fundraising reports, she rethought her vow. A short time later, Abele and other board members of the Victory Fund spoke with Roem in a conference call about her four-way primary race.
“I was really, really super idealistic, and then we were getting killed,” said Roem, who reluctantly agreed to take larger donations. “I wasn’t happy about it, and I’m still not super happy about it.”
Abele sent $10,000 after the conference call. The night before the June 13 primary, he chipped in $15,000. He has kept the money flowing.
Roem says his generosity allows her to spend more time talking to voters about local issues like transportation and congestion, instead of calling donors. And, unlike corporations with business before the state, Abele does not appear to be motivated by self-interest. Roem will not take money from companies seeking state contracts.
“I’ll certainly give Chris a hug, just like I’ll give anyone else a hug,” she said. “Does that mean I have to do what he wants? No.”
Marshall, in a statement, blasted Abele as a “multimillionaire radical sexual ideologue” who wants to “buy the election for Danica to impose laws penalizing those who adhere to the ‘Laws of Nature and Nature’s God.’”
So far, Roem said she has raised about $270,000, one of the largest hauls for a House of Delegates candidate. The last Democrat to come close to defeating Marshall raised $376,000 in 2013 — and still lost.
Roem is far from the only beneficiary of Abele’s largesse. He’s given nearly $500,000 to local Wisconsin campaigns, backed Tammy Baldwin’s (D-Wis.) successful bid to become the nation’s first openly gay senator, and donated about $600,000 to Hillary Clinton. He supports causes for minority groups, too.
“Every rights movement that has ever succeeded . . . succeeds precisely and only because it’s not just the aggrieved who are active,” Abele said. “My world is a better place when people who are not like me have every right that I have.”
Abele was elected county executive in 2011, succeeding Republican Scott Walker, who had become governor. The son of the co-founder of Boston Scientific, Abele’s fortune comes from his family and his own ventures in medical-waste disposal and real estate development .
U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), who is gay, recalls Abele being incensed in 2006 when Wisconsin voters approved a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. After a federal judge struck down that ban in 2014, Abele offered to pay overtime costs for extended court hours so couples could take their vows.
“He’s someone who also happens to be wealthy and tries to use his money to further social justice,” Pocan said. “Here, he sees a chance to break another barrier.”
Abele has fended off criticism from the left for actions he has taken as county executive, including his opposition to public-sector unions over pensions and his donations to and support for GOP state lawmakers.
His largest donation to Roem came on the day in late July when President Trump tweeted that he would ban transgender individuals from serving in the military. Abele happened to be at the White House that afternoon for the announcement of a new Foxconn factory in Wisconsin.
“While the jobs will be great for my state, please know that the $50K donation I made online earlier from the White House represents about as well anything else I could say my feelings regarding the President’s comments,” Abele texted Roem. “Get elected!”
Republicans are quick to criticize Roem’s dependence on an out-of-state donor, and political analysts say the contributions could spark a voter backlash.
“Some people will look at that as outsiders trying to meddle in a Virginia race,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington.
He said Roem’s near-exclusive focus on community issues may be “the best antidote to the claim some might make that this is a carpetbagger-financed election.”
John Whitbeck, chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia, sees national interest in Democrats running for local legislative seats as a sign of weakness. “They are having to go outside Virginia for people like this Milwaukee county executive to get the money to run these races,” he said.
But Roem counters that she’s also beating Marshall in raising money locally, with nearly 200 donations totaling almost $15,000. Marshall says he has not begun to ramp up his fundraising efforts.
Roem said that she doesn’t need to ask her biggest patron for money. Every contribution from Abele has come unsolicited.
“I’m treating him the same way I’m treating any of my other donors,” Roem said. “They all get thank-you cards.”