When I first met Danica Roem, she was schlepping stacks of flyers, clipboards, and a bulk lawn sign out from her car and down the block.
“Hey, you’re Danica,” I shouted out, “Can I carry some of that for you?” I went for the sign, and we exchanged some humor about how I’d be her attache for the afternoon. “How’d you know it was me?” she asked, with an unassuming air that makes her instantly likeable. Like me, she had been circling along the block now for a few minutes, struggling to find the entrance for the event we were both about to attend. Unlike me, she was the guest of honor: it was the site of her own, and very first, D.C. political fundraiser.
Roem, 32, is one of thousands of Democratic women stepping up to run for office in the wake of the November election. It’s hard not to be impressed by any woman my own age launching a campaign. But the investigative journalist-turned-political hopeful also happens to be, like me, a transgender woman. Earlier this month, she just made history as the first transgender candidate to win a primary for Virginia’s House of Delegates. If she wins in November, she could become the nation’s first openly transgender person serving in a state legislature.
To Roem, this election is about infrastructure and other policy priorities, not about her being trans. But crucial issues of trans rights are also at stake in her race. She faces Republican incumbent Robert Marshall, a hardline conservative who was unopposed in the primary, and who has the advantage of running in what has traditionally been a GOP district. Marshall’s claim to fame: He authored Virginia's own anti-trans “bathroom bill” — one that’s even stricter than North Carolina’s infamous HB2. It would have encouraged Virginians who encounter a transgender person in public restrooms to sue for “emotional pain and suffering.”
Given the stakes (and simply because she’s awesome), I contributed $20 to her campaign and volunteered the very next day to knock doors for her in her district. She picked me up at end of the DC Metro, and immediately put me to work, hand-writing her phone number and email address on each flyer before we handed them out. She’s not big on social media and doesn’t spend much time on sites like Facebook, other than for the campaign. She doesn’t carry a smartphone, but as she explained to me, it’s personal touches — not technology — that build human connections. Ahead, Roem opens up about her campaign and what being in a metal band taught her about running for office.
Let’s get right into it: I’d like to ask you more about your transition... in career that is. Tell us how you went from being an investigative reporter covering the issues to someone taking them on herself.
“I’m a lifelong Manassas resident. I was a lead reporter for the Gainesville Times and the Prince William Times for more than nine years from 2006 to 2015. I authored more than 2,500 stories about the greater Prince William County area. I spent 13 years in Catholic schools and my first job out of college was to work for the newspaper. Before that, the first job I had was working for minimum wage for the Potomac Cannons [baseball team].
“[Before I ran,] I had to make sure that my public policy knowledge was adequate enough so that I could have peer-to-peer conversations, as opposed to allowing people in office to just say whatever they wanted to me, and have me recite and regurgitate [it] without fact checking... or calling them on their BS when they were wrong. This is a directly transferrable skill set to the House of Delegates.”
“In terms of coming out and [gender] transitioning…
That wasn’t the transition I was actually going to ask you about, I only phrased it jokingly to highlight when writers do awkwardly focus on our trans status rather than ideas. If you are comfortable, is there part of that journey that has inspired your candidacy?
“At 21, I had known I was transgender for well over a decade. I had very few outlets of expression for that. I was afraid that if I were to come out in a community where Marshall is re-elected every two years, where we had so many anti-LGBTQ legislators, that my neutrality [as a reporter] would be called into question. I’d be considered as something different than a neutral, disinterested, third-party observer. I only changed my by-line in the newspaper in July of 2015. There wasn’t any negative reaction among our readers. I’m like, ‘Great, apathy is wonderful!’”
I was impressed by the detail you put into platform proposals, such as addressing traffic congestion down to specific stop signs you’d change. Can you highlight some of the goals you are running on for your district?
“I am running on traffic and schools. Congestion hurts every aspect of life and it’s a public safety hazard for fire, EMS, and police trying to get to their jobs. It’s horrible for economic development and getting people to set up businesses. Two thirds of the county budget is funded by property taxes, and of that 85% [is] homeowners and only 15% paid by [companies]. We lost the FBI Headquarters, and we were in the running for that, in part because we don’t have mass rail.
“Traffic congestion doesn’t care whether you are a Republican or a Democrat. Meanwhile our delegate, Bob Marshall, cares more about where I go to the bathroom than how constituents get to work. That was his top legislative priority this year. Why was Manasses the first battle of the civil war? Because of the railroad. Even 150 years ago, transportation mattered the most.”
Female and minority politicians like Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris being silenced by male counterparts has made major headlines lately. Have you experienced anything like this?
“The seventh day of my campaign, I got an email addressed to Delegate Marshall, the House Speaker, and my editors, saying that the reason I am transgender is because my dad died when I was a kid and my grandfather was an inadequate male role model. You know what I did with that? I fundraised off it. Any time someone wants to shut me down, insult me, or say something negative or nasty, I’m just going to flip the script.”
A lot of women (and everyone else) out there believe they don’t have the right background to run for public office themselves. Who are you when you’re not campaigning, and what does that part of you bring to the race?
“The difference between me campaigning and me in private is that I cuss more in private. I’m a vocalist in a metal band! From being in a metal band to running for office, word of mouth matters! Beyond direct mail and advertising, nobody is going to come out to see your band if they don’t like you or your music. Conversations matter the most. If you’re a musician, you have to be accessible, forming connections with people so that they’ll show up for your next show… [or campaign]!”