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WASHINGTON (AP) — Lonely, poor and quite lost, Danica Roem thought she had nothing going for her back in 2016 except toned calves from toting kabobs up the stairs of apartments in Arlington, Virginia, in her dead-end food delivery job.
“Picture it," Roem, now a groundbreaking politician who also was a journalist back then, wrote later about that time: "a five-foot- eleven, long-haired brunette metal-head trans lady reporter wearing a rainbow bandana, an A-line skirt, and a black hoodie ... screaming obscenities behind the wheel of her four-door ’92 Dodge Shadow America."
Not the usual gauzy pitch to voters. But in Tuesday's election, the onetime scribe and heavy metal singer scored her fourth election victory, breaking through to the state Senate and overcoming a pitched effort from Republicans and their allies to use her transgender identity as a cudgel.
In one of the latest battles in America's culture wars, Republicans across the country tried in this year's voting to make the embrace of trans rights a powerful, emotional argument against Democratic candidates who they said had violated social norms. Against Roem, it didn't work.
Roem, 39, already had two comfortable reelection victories in her northern Virginia House of Delegates district. Now, Roem has helped Democrats achieve full legislative control in an election that broadly repudiated the far right and promises to stall the social conservative agenda of Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin.
“The only difference between this campaign and my three campaigns for the House of Delegates is they put a lot more money into promoting a transphobic message that lost as opposed to a moderate amount or a little amount of money into a transphobic message that lost,” Roem told The Associated Press. “They will keep losing by doing this over and over and over again.”
Despite the limited races in the off-year elections, the LGBTQ+ Victory Fund lists 148 openly LGBTQ+ candidates who won across the country Tuesday. The lesson from this “rainbow wave,” said Annise Parker, the fund’s president and a former Houston mayor: “Equality wins elections — not culture war scare tactics.”
Roem “faced an unprecedented deluge of anti-trans hate on the campaign trail, but she was not fazed nor distracted," Parker said.
That deluge included some 30 negative mass mailings, several “fake positive” ones and ads accusing of her of wanting to allow “boys to play in girls' sports.” One national organization distributed mass mailers giving out her personal cellphone number and imploring people to use it to “put the heat on Danica Roem."
No flood of hostile callers followed, she said. Only two folks who saw the mailers phoned her and she’s having lunch with one of them to talk things through.
“The other side decided that their closing message was going to be to double, triple and quadruple down on transphobia,” she said.
But she had brought to the campaign her secret sauce for success, learned from days reporting on local politics: “No matter what office you run for, always run like you’re running for mayor. That’s what I did.”
By 2016, Roem had slept in more than 60 parking lots across the country from meandering road trips and gigs as a moonlighting metal rocker with day jobs in local journalism.
In that time she carefully ranked the 40 best lots for free overnight parking, choosing a Delaware rest stop off Interstate 95 as tops because of the always open bathrooms, the vending machines and lights that weren't too bright for sleep.
“Nothing about my life screams ‘electable’ (or even ‘hygienic’) on paper,” she observed in her 2022 memoir, “Burn the Page: A True Story of Torching Doubts, Blazing Trails, and Igniting Change.”
Yet she had caught the eye of Democrats and activists in her frequent trips to the Capitol in Richmond to advocate against anti-gay bills from Republicans, and they sounded her out about running.
While engaging a variety of lawmakers in Richmond, she judged the deeply conservative delegate from her own district, Bob Marshall, a lost cause. After all, he had once proudly called himself Virginia’s “chief homophobe.”
Instead of lobbying him, she defeated him. Her victory in a 2017 House of Delegates race made her the first openly transgender candidate to win and take a legislative seat in the United States.
HER INNER MAYOR
As a trailblazer for trans politicians, Roem is celebrated in Democratic and cultural circles. But as a legislator with a solid record of writing bills and getting some big ones passed, she is known for her passion for the prosaic, such as traffic congestion.
Perhaps channeling the road rage that once made her unleash swear words from her 24-year-old Dodge, Roem has been in the thick of the debate over roads since she first ran. She calls Route 28, snaking through her area’s suburban sprawl past Dulles Airport, an obsession.
Her slogan for the 2023 campaign was “Fixing roads, feeding kids.” Much of Roem’s social media feed reads like a transportation diary — or the work of a mayor.
“Update,” she says in a typical post, “all three of the southbound lanes are now all open in Centreville from 29 to just before the Bull Run bridge, so if you’re taking Route 28 home to Manassas from I-66, you won’t get stuck in that right turn lane in front of the movie theater.”
This year, pushing initiatives she's already fought for as a delegate, she pitched voters on improving storm water management. On keeping the tech sector’s data centers away from parks and homes. On putting new transmission lines underground. She counts Virginia's expansion of Medicaid under the former Democratic governor as a key accomplishment.
It’s a long way from her kabob-shop days and from her short-lived mobile yoga studio venture, where clients did their moves to a head-banging Swedish metal soundtrack.
DIGGING FOR DIRT
Many U.S. campaigns employ an “opposition research” team to poke through an opponent’s past. In her first two campaigns, Roem had her own past investigated, to avoid being blindsided.
Oh that hurt, she writes.
“For those of us who grew up in the age of social media, it can be an exercise in demented self-loathing to figure out just how much of your history the public can truly stomach.”
Sure enough, Marshall's 2017 campaign surfaced a suggestive music video from Roem's metal band, Cab Ride Home. “Lewd,” Marshall told voters.
Insisting on calling his opponent by male pronouns, he also played up Roem's comment in a radio interview when asked if she would support teaching kindergarteners about gender identity. Yes, she said, if the instruction were age-appropriate.
She defeated Marshall with 54% of the vote to his 46% and posted similar margins in the next two elections before taking a narrower victory Tuesday over a former police detective, Bill Woolf III, with 52%.
In a phone interview, Roem rattled off a heavy list of legislative priorities. They include free school meals for all public school students, earmarking 10% of general fund surplus dollars to transportation safety projects, five bills to control data-center sprawl, and an initiative to secure rights for people to be buried in family cemeteries that are located on private property.
She also chronicled her sad history of car ownership. There was the ant-infested Subaru Outback given to her by her mom — “almost killed me twice in one day,” she said of the vehicle. And the “dirty Dodge” she bought from her drummer's dad for $700.
Now life for the senator-elect has improved.
“I'm driving a sweet, sweet 2004 Nissan Sentra,” she said.