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Northern Virginia Race Pits Transgender Candidate Against Conservative Delegate

(AP Photo/Steve Helber)

One of the most high-profile House of Delegates races is also the most historic. The election for House District 13 in Northern Virginia features the first transgender candidate and one of the most conservative Republicans in the General Assembly.

Open the door to Danica Roem’s campaign rental car and it’s clear this campaign is like no other in Virginia history. “As a candidate who is listening to Swedish melodic death metal and, you know, is trans I understand that I am not, you know, your cookie-cutter politician” Roem says

Yes. You read that right. A transgender candidate who listens to heavy metal. But Danica Roem doesn’t want to spend all day talking about transgender issues. On the campaign trail, or in this case the campaign road, she wants to talk about transportation. “My mother’s been commuting up and down Route 28 for more than 30 years, and she’s had to sit in this miserable traffic every single working morning  since the 1980s. That is so wildly unacceptable.”

Driving along the state highway, she points out three intersections she says would work much better with $80 million overpasses. Her opponent in the race is longtime Republican Delegate Bob Marshall, one of the most conservative members of the General Assembly. A candidate who has been outspoken in his opposition to transgender students using the bathroom of the gender they identify with. What’s his opinion of Route 28?  Marshall declined to be interviewed for this story. He asked that written questions be submitted. Then he declined to answer the written questions.

Quentin Kidd, a political analyst at Christopher Newport University, is puzzled by the silence. “It is completely uncharacteristic of Bob Marshall to be hiding," Kidd says. "Because that’s not the Bob Marshall that we’ve all known  in politics in the last two decades in Virginia.”

Credit (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
This Thursday Jan. 12, 2017 file photo shows Del. Bob Marshall, R-Prince William, in the House chambers at the Capitol in Richmond, Va. Marshall says he’s authored 60-plus bills and studies that have become law. Among them: prohibiting warrantless searches of cellphones and computers and streamlining the paperwork for doing business in Virginia. He’s also tangled with his own party, often over government transparency.

Marshall has never been shy about talking to the media before, and he usually loves the spotlight. But for whatever reason this year he is in hiding. Kidd says that’s likely to hurt him. “Certainly those moderate voters who aren’t sure whether they are going to support you or not, they don’t look at candidate who hide and think well of that candidate. So I don’t think it’s a winning strategy.”

Geoff Skelley at the University of Virginia Center for Politics says it’s one thing for a candidate to refuse talking to the media, especially a Republican candidate. But Marshall has also declined invitations to appear at debates with Roem. “It’s discouraging to see a public official not wanting to address the public. They’re elected representatives," Skelley argues. "They should have to answer questions about their performance in office and the positions they take.”

For Marshall, one of the sticking points may be as simple as grammar: Which pronouns to use. “Marshall may just be worried about saying anything too explosive about that subject when appearing in public, particularly with his opponent,” Skelley says.

Although he declined all debate invitations and almost all media requests, Marshall did appear on WMAL in Washington, where host Larry O’Connor asked him about his refusal to refer to  Danica as she instead of  he. “Why not just call her what she wants to be called so you can get it behind you and then talk about the very real and important issues instead of allowing this to become an issue,” O'Connor asked

Marshall responded: “Dan Anthony Roem, now Danica Anthony Roem, is called Danica by me. That’s fair. But I didn’t flunk biology. I’m not going to call a male a female.”

Back on road with Danica Roem, she says she's just trying to be herself. “I remember a quote from Saint Francis de Sailes because, you know, I did 13 years of Catholic schooling and his line was be who you are and be that well. And to me I’m just trying to be the best version of who I am that I can be.”

One thing about this race, it’s attracting lots of attention from across the country and money from outside the district. Roem has raised more than four times as much money, including donations from Emily’s List and People for the American Way. Marshall is backed by the Family Research Council and cigarette manufacturer Altria.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Michael Pope is an author and journalist who lives in Old Town Alexandria.