7 Questions with Delegate Danica Roem
Delegate Danica Roem serves as delegate for Virginia House District 13. Roem served as the first openly transgender in any U.S. state legislature. With a background in journalism and a passion for improving citizens quality of life, Danica was inspired to help solve the issues which she reported on everyday throughout her journalism career. Danica focuses on local issues in her area such as increasing food accessibility to students, increasing teacher pay, and fixing transportation in District 13. Danica recently released her new book Burn the Page: A True Story of Torching Doubts, Blazing Trails, and Igniting Chance, which you can find here.
Did you have reservations about running for office when you first were considering it?
Certainly! I received a call from State Delegate Rip Sullivan after ignoring a preliminary email asking me to run, and my first reservation was simply facing burnout after being a reporter for more than 10 years. Furthermore, at that point, I had spent my entire adult life being a reporter which required me to be a disinterested, neutral third party observer, as opposed to being a political activist. So going away from neutrality was going to be a thing that I was going to have to wrap my mind around. On top of that, I felt that I lacked the training to run for office and knew that, before committing to running, I needed to go through the Victory Institute’s Candidate and Campaign training program. And lastly, I was broke and feared losing my newspaper job. But ultimately, I had been getting engaged in politics, particularly to fight anti-LGBTQ bills at the time, including two from my predecessor, and realized that running for office should not be the sole domain of the rich and powerful, it’s for us too.
How do you use empathy to break the boundaries created by political polarization?
Well, especially in state and local politics, the closer you get to the people in terms of politics and the further away from the federal government you get, the more you start seeing that breakdown of inherent partisanship, because things start getting local and you start dealing with what is important to your community. It is about having meaningful conversations with constituents and remembering that it is about showing up, being willing to engage, and being respectful to a person, as opposed to simply looking to persuade someone’s vote. It is more so about convincing them that you, as a candidate, can do a good job and that you genuinely empathize with what they are going through. It is so important to find common ground and to notice that some things actually go beyond party lines. I like to really try to meet people where they are and always try to avoid coming across as detached by talking about our community, our roads, our schools, and other issues local to the area. Avoiding polarizing language altogether when discussing issues like feeding kids, is super helpful, too.
How were you able to get such a high volume of bills passed?
Important to note is that all of my bills were killed my first year as a freshman Democrat from a swing state. After this, I decided to drive down to Virginia Beach to meet with Republican delegates separately to talk about legislation. What I had decided to do was instead of just saying, “Hey, my bills were on the kill list and that means you were mean to me”, I was going to keep in mind what it was they actually said in the subcommittee. And I am going to give them the presumption that they really meant what they said about my bills and that I want to work with them on exactly what they were talking about. Next thing I knew after we worked that out, we got a one sentence addition to that bill and in the upcoming session he voted for it, co patroned it, and he was the biggest supporter in that subcommittee in terms of putting a defense on that bill. It still died on a tied vote in my second year, but I was making progress compared to it in the first year. But overall, what led to the actual passing of bills was this same strategy and I went out of my way to talk to these people one-on-one individually. And, this is the most important thing, be good on your word and do not break your word as a legislator.
How did you turn campaign ideas and rhetoric into actual legislative accomplishments?
Well, I never had to change my message from the primary to the general because the nature of hyper local elections allowed me to campaign about things like fixing Route 28 or expanding Medicaid as opposed to the more nationally contentious topics of gun control or abortion. I wanted to be straightforward in my campaign about the issues I was looking to tackle and make it clear that the bills I would propose would directly translate those issues.
Considering you have such a broad constituency, how do you effectively relay your message to your constituents and effectively make clear that you actually did what you said you were going to do?
Well, number one, on my day to day, I keep my Facebook and Twitter pages active. And I am not shy about telling anyone that I got my bills passed. I simply talk about how grateful I am to have worked with people who helped me get these bills passed because it expresses humility and it’s genuine. The other thing is, just because you get in office, doesn’t mean you should stop knocking on doors. Continue to be available to your constituents. The other part of this is doing the actual outreach and engaging with people. I often knock on doors to express the fact that I am running for re-election and explain my campaign’s platform and, importantly, I ask them what issues are most important to them. Public service in general is just about being happy to talk to people.
Is there anything, whether it was in the campaigns you ran or as an elected official, that you’ve looked back on and wished you’d done differently?
Absolutely, during my first campaign, one of the campaign finance restrictions I placed on myself was completely impractical in Virginia. And I found that out the hard way, because I was super idealistic and wanted to put a $500 cap on my campaign. The other Democrats and the incumbent did not. Because of this, I had the sixth most number of donors in the first quarter of 2017 of my first campaign. I was being outraised by more than $45,000 by two different candidates who were taking much larger donations than I was. Importantly, Virginia is a disclose only state with no campaign finance laws. Thus, the sky’s the limit and if you’re going to play by that rule, and no one else is, you better have a huge army; I did not. So, I decided to do away with that self-imposed restriction and decided to only not accept corporate money.
Do you have a book or publication that you read that you think would be great for our audience of operatives and activists?
In Virginia, we have the Virginia Public Access Project who send out their morning news blast as well as their own news aggregation. I am a reporter and so I definitely read a lot of news publications and newspapers (yes, I am still subscribed to physical copies of my newspapers)!
Thank you Danica for answering our questions! You can find her book Burn the Page: A True Story of Torching Doubts, Blazing Trails, and Igniting Chance here.
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