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Danica Roem seeks Virginia Senate seat

person speaks into microphone
Crixell Matthews
Del. Danica Roem (D-Prince William) speaks at a 2019 event. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Del. Danica Roem (D-Prince William) announced on Monday that she’s running for an open seat in the state Senate next year, pitching herself as a problem solver and a bulwark against attacks on the rights of LGBTQ people.

In 2017, Roem became the first openly transgender person elected to any state legislature in the U.S. when she was elected to Virginia’s House of Delegates. Roem’s win was widely celebrated as a major moment in LGBTQ rights. Five years later, Roem says those rights are at risk as Republicans push legislation curtailing the rights of transgender youth.

“To me that is the antithesis of constituent service,” Roem said in an interview. “You can not serve your constituents by attacking them.”

Roem says a successful run for a Senate seat anchored in Prince William County would help ward off similar bills in Virginia in the face of a Republican governor and a GOP-controlled House of Delegates.

She brings national fundraising heft to what’s likely to be one of the more competitive races in the 2023 Senate elections. An analysis from the Virginia Public Access Project shows the district has tilted Democratic in recent elections, but the margin was narrow in last year’s statewide races. Republican Ian Lovejoy, a former Manasas City Council member who lost his seat in 2020, is so far the only other candidate to announce a bid for the district.  Less than half of the district identifies as white, with high numbers of Black, Asian and multiracial voters, according to VPAP.

“A district like this may very well determine which party is in the majority after 2023,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington.

Roem has focused much of her legislative attention on transportation and child hunger. The former metal-band singer is known in the House as a transportation wonk whose initial run spurred headlines like “ Transgender candidate just wants to get rid of traffic.” Roem helped lead efforts to fix congestion on Rt. 28 in Northern Virginia, with crews now working to widen the road. She also earned the nickname “lunch lady” for her legislative work addressing inequities in school lunches. That included a law that requires schools to provide meals to all students regardless of their ability to pay.

“I know how to get the job done,” Roem said, pointing to 32 bills she says she’s shepherded into law. “I'm very effective in state government.”

Roem said her decision to run was spurred by the fact that her current House district was split by the once-a-decade redistricting process, while the new Senate district covers many of the same precincts she currently represents.

Youngkin’s ability to pass some of the more controversial elements of his agenda hinges on Republicans’ ability to win back the Senate in 2023. They’ll compete on redrawn maps that in some cases have paired incumbents against each other. Republicans are also defending their hold on the House, which is also set for elections in 2023 unless a judge rules in favor of a lawsuit seeking to move the vote to this fall.

GOP candidates have seized on transgender rights as an issue to galvanize their base ahead of this year’s congressional midterms. At least a dozen states have passed legislation prohibiting transgender students from playing women’s sports. Youngkin endorsed the concept of a ban on the campaign trail, but a bill on the topic failed to clear the Senate. Democrats – and one Republican, Del. Carrie Coyner (R-Chesterfield) – also rejected legislation seeking to roll back bullying protections for transgender students that the General Assembly had previously passed.

Other states have gone farther. Alabama’s governor signed a new law that criminalizes gender-affirming treatments for transgender youth. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott wrote a letter claiming that gender-affirming medical treatment “constitutes child abuse” under state law.

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.