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The Unacknowledged Legislator

Danica Roem has been busy. Busy being a girlfriend and a stepmom. Busy writing the bills she campaigned on. Busy fielding endless media requests from outlets around the country interested in her story.

At 33 years of age, she has just won her first election, but it was an unusual contest. She defeated an incumbent who proudly brandished his antipathy to LGBT people, even as he tried to prevent his seat from falling into the hands of the nation’s first openly transgender state legislator. He failed, but now that the race is over, she refuses to say an unkind word about him—he is her constituent now.

Though the election is in the past, her schedule hasn’t let up. Fresh off a redeye flight from Los Angeles, where she accompanied Demi Lovato to the American Music Awards, she arrived home in time for a Prince William County, Virginia, School Board meeting at 7:30 am. A promise kept.  

“It was overwhelming in a different way than what I’m used to on the campaign,” she said of the red carpet. “The campaign was overwhelming because it’s a long term endurance test… Yesterday was overwhelming because it was sensory overload. I would compare the paparazzi to hyenas.”

Though she may be new to paparazzi, Roem is no stranger to the press. As a recovering journalist of 10 years, she has an affinity for reporters that stands in stark contrast with many other elected officials. “I will always be a reporter before I’m a politician,” she said. “The way that I envisioned my role as delegate, along with serving the people of 13th district, is to be the reporter’s liaison to the general assembly.”

For someone running on no sleep, the question of how her background has influenced her relationship with the press perks her up almost instantly. “Anytime a reporter actually asks me about being reporter, that completely makes my day,” she says. “The way that I see government is the same way that I think a reporter sees government, which is accessibility and accountability—making sure there’s transparency, making sure that the people understand what public policy issues you’re focusing on, they understand why you vote the way you do, why you introduce the bills that you do. Sunshine is the best disinfectant.”  

Rather than shy away from press scrutiny, Roem rolls out the welcome mat. On her campaign website, her personal email is listed alongside her campaign manager’s, and she’s made it a point to offer her personal cell phone number to every reporter who covers the Virginia General Assembly. “I’ve handed it out thousands of times,” she says, referencing the handwritten notes she left at the doors of constituents who weren’t home while she campaigned. To her, reporters are no different.

“I want to make sure that the public as much access to information as possible because it’s their information—they deserve to have it,” she says. “Now, this is what happens when you elect a reporter.”

She believes that this degree of openness with the press has mutual benefits. “If you have a good working professional relationship with reporters, that means they’re able to do their job of holding you accountable,” she said. “You’re gonna do a lot less things to fuck up.”

It seems simple enough in theory. But to those who say it’s all talk, Roem is putting her legislation where her mouth is. While she’s become known for running on an infrastructure platform, which she’s referenced everywhere from her viral victory speech to the red carpet of the AMAs, she’s quick to note that her next two priorities deal directly with the press.

Her first non-infrastructure goal is to implement a shield law protecting reporters in Virginia from jail time for not disclosing the names of sources—something that would particularly benefit reporters covering government agencies in Virginia. “Without a shield law, a lot of journalists feel vulnerable, and they’re more likely to cough up the source’s name or not do a story altogether,” she says. “I’m trying to make it easier for journalists to do their job.”

On top of the shield law, Roem has also prioritized public accessibility to information through the Freedom of Information Act. “The other bill I’m gonna champion hard this year is to create a [FOIA] ombudsman at the state level whose job it is to expedite lawyer requests, instead of hindering people’s access to FOIA. In Virginia in particular, we have one of the weakest FOIA laws in the country. We have, like, 170 exemptions to FOIA… and on top of that, agencies will often charge you $3700 just to pull up documents and to send them to you. All you need to do is control F and either print or email, you know what I mean?”

Seeking efficiency in infrastructure and information accessibility in her district is what won her the election, but those aren’t the only things she’s prioritized. Roem also plans to seek help from senior Virginia Democrats to pass legislation to protect Virginians from discrimination on the basis of gender and sexual orientation—something she herself has spent years dealing with.

Even before she ran against Republican Bob Marshall, who campaigned on an anti-LGBT platform, and attempted to introduce a bill that would have prohibited transgender people from using gender-matching public restrooms, Roem dealt with discrimination from her health insurance company, which told her they would not cover transition-related medical expenses under Virginia Group Plan. “I want a bill that will prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation within health insurance… I honestly don’t give a shit who gets the credit for the bill, I just want it passed.”

With all of these legislative goals, Roem certainly has ambitious plans at home, but she recognizes that her new platform reaches far beyond Virginia’s 13th District. It’s one that has landed her face on the pages of everything from The Washington Post to People magazine, and has her taking cross country flights to and from Hollywood.

“I have a tightrope to walk right now as a local elected official who’s dealing with the issues that the people of the 13th district elected me to deal with in the first place, while at the same time understanding that I have a national platform. And I very much intend to use it to promote inclusion, as well as promote infrastructure,” she says. “I think that has a chance with the platform I have right now to really shake the national dialogue around what politics should be versus what it is.

 

 

A transcript of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for length and clarity, is below.

Priyanka: How was last night? 

Danica: So. It—it was—it was overwhelming in a different way than what I’m used to on the campaign, like the campaign is overwhelming because it’s a long term endurance test. And…since the election, it’s been overwhelming because of all the media requests—literally thousands of messages coming into my inbox, so much social media while at the same time spending three days in Richmond, training with the Democratic Health Caucus and starting to put together the bills that I’m gonna be filing this year and working on legislation while also being a girlfriend, while also being a stepmom, so that is overwhelming because it’s sheer workload. Yesterday was overwhelming because it was sensory overload. I mean, I would compare the paparazzi to hyenas. 

Priyanka: So, how is that like the press you dealt with on the campaign trail? Is it comparable?

Danica: No, not at all. I would compare it much more to being in a band.

 

Priyanka: I know you used to be a journalist,  I was wondering about your experience being in that role and the relationship between the press and the government, and if that has influenced how you interact with the press.

Danica: Oh, that’s a great question. Oh. Anytime a reporter actually asks me about being reporter, that completely makes my day. One of the comments I made right after I was elected, was, and I said this during the campaign as well, was: the way that I envisioned my role as delegate, along with serving the people of 13th district is to be the reporter’s liaison to the general assembly. I will always be a reporter before I’m a politician. Now, of course, my colleagues, of course they can trust me. I’m never going to violate their trust. At the same time, I’m sure gonna make sure that I’m helping reporters if they have requests, if they’re having trouble tracking down documents, or they need a quote for their story. Every reporter who covers the Virginia General Assembly will have my personal cell phone number just like constituents of the 13th district doI leave my cell phone number on every piece of lit that I personally hand out, and I write a note, a handwritten note if I’m not there that says “I’m sorry I missed you, I’m the Democratic nominee for the 13th District of Virginia House of Delegates, I’d be honored to earn your vote this fall. Please vote November 7th at ___ Precinct….Danica Roem’s cell phone number.” First name and date because it’s like…that’s how I conduct myself as a reporter. The way that I see government is the same way that I think a reporter sees government, which is acceptability and accountability…and transparency. Making sure that the people understand what public policy issues you are focusing on, they understand why you vote the way you do, why you introduce the bills that you do, and that you know, sunshine is the best disinfectant. If you’re conducting yourself in an open, transparent manner, if you have a good relationship, a good working professional relationship with reporters, then that also means that they’re able to do their job of holding you accountable and because you know that you have this good, professional relationship with reporters, that also means that you’re gonna do a lot less things to fuck up. 

Priyanka: That is so different and refreshing to hear, as opposed to so many people in politics right now almost vilifying or demonizing the press.

Danica: On top of that, my top two priorities that aren’t about infrastructure both deal directly with the press. Number one is a shield law. Because Virginia does not have a shield law that protects credentialed news reporters from jail time for not disclosing the name of a source. My former boss at the Montgomery County Sentinel is one of fourteen American journalists or living American journalists who have been jailed defending the First Amendment. You know, this stuff is real. It isn’t just that reporters face jail time for protecting sources, but without a shield law, a lot of journalists feel vulnerable, and they’re more likely to cough up the source’s name or not do the story all together if they feel threatened by it. So I’m trying to make it easier for journalists to do their job. The other bill I’m gonna champion hard this year is to create a Freedom of Information Act ombudsman at the state level whose job it is to expedite FOIA requests, instead of hindering people’s access. In Virginia in particular, we have one of the weakest FOIA laws in the country. We have, like, 170 exemptions to FOIA, which is just ridiculous. And on top of that, agencies will often charge you $3700 just…to pull up documents and to send them to you. All you need to do is control F and either print or email, you know what I mean? That’s ridiculous.

Priyanka: Between these two bills and your infrastructure priorities, you sound like you’re going to be very busy when you take office.

Danica: Yeah, absolutely. And meanwhile, I also want a bill that will prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation within health insurance. Some of the more senior Democrats may be able to work with me to carry that because as a freshman, a bill like that for me could be difficult for me to get passed. I don’t care about the credit, I honestly don’t give a shit who gets the credit for the bill, I just want it passed. Because I know what it’s like personally to be discriminated against in health insurance, to have a health insurance company tell me transition-related medical expenses are not covered. It’s happened to me. The ACA in 2017 was supposed to require insurance companies to prohibit discrimination based on gender identity, but the Trump administration, HHS, they’ve already said that they’re not going to enforce that. So since that’s already part of federal law, let’s just make sure under any circumstance that is enforced.

Priyanka: I was wondering what the process was like for you. Deciding to run for office, if anyone pushed or inspired you to run, and if you had concerns being a trans woman running for this office.

Danica: Our 2015 nominee Don Shaw, he sent me an email on August 4, 2016 asking me if I would run, and he told me I would be a really good candidate. The next day delegate Rip Sullivan, who was the recruiting chairman for the Democratic House Caucus, he called me and said the same thing: “Hey, Don isn’t gonna be able to run again, would you consider running, you’d be a really good candidate.” So I was recruited, and I told them I’d need some time to make it through the election, I was the news editor at the Montgomery County Sentinel, so I needed to help my newsroom out. And, to answer the second part of that, dealing with the constraints of being a trans candidate, well...I then attended the Gay and Lesbian Victory Institute’s Candidate Campaign Training Program in Dallas, Texas, September 17-20, 2016, to prepare for exactly that. It was four days, intensive, it’s really fun, but you’re with like 35, 40 other LGBTQ candidates from across the country, or people who could be prospective candidates, campaign managers and stuff like that. And in fact, from that class, Andrea Jenkins, Phillippe Cunningham, and I all won as out transgender people on November 7.