Virginia has a record number of openly lesbian, gay and transgender candidates running for house seats this November. It could offer a dramatic change of policy… if they can get constituents to come to the door.
It’s the rare beautiful day in late summer and despite having both hips replaced about a year ago, one Richmond resident is walking down a quiet West End street.
“Hello, I’m Dawn Adams, I'm running for the House of Delegates and I wanted to introduce…”
Adams is one of the 60 Democratic candidates running in contested races across the Commonwealth this year. She also part of the so called “Hillary 17,” her race is in one of the traditionally Republican districts where Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump. And to narrow her down even further, she’s one of five openly lesbian, gay or transgender candidates running across the state.
Much of the media attention has gone to Danica Roem, the Northern Virginia Democrat who is also transgender and is aiming to unseat ultra-conservative delegate Bob Marshall.
And while Roem’s LGBTQ identity has bolstered her campaign, Adams and others are still trying to put their own in context
“In this district, I think there’s mixed feelings, but I think there’s also a benign neglect of the topic because if you’re doing your job, that’s what people care about.”
That’s something Senator Adam Ebbin is all too familiar with. He’s was the first openly gay General Assembly member when he was elected to the Virginia House back in 2003.
“It’s about the voters, not just the candidate… It’s not about only what the candidate thinks is important.”
Back in Richmond, Adams is hoping to connect with voters on an issue she has personal experience with - healthcare. The nurse practitioner turned Head of Virginia’s Office of Integrated Health has been attending GA sessions for years to defend funding and try to expand healthcare access. But in today’s decisive political climate, for folks like Gerti Pellumbi, the guy who answered the door earlier, it’s about finding compromise.
“It’s become very clear the rhetoric on both sides is out of control”
Adams lets Pulumbi speak more, she listens intently. She never brings up her sexuality, but that is a strategy Ebbin understands.
“It’s part of who they are and they shouldn’t shy away from it, but they need to emphasize what they have in common with their voters, it used to be, in every story about me, Adam Ebbin, openly gay candidate… and I don't think they need to focus on that but it won't be helpful if they’re not authentic or try to hide anything”
That’s what Ben Hixon is doing out in Culpepper, about 90 miles northwest of Richmond. His partner of 13 years, Chris, is driving us through a suburban neighborhood near the city's bustling downtown. While Hixon’s door knocking pitch doesn’t open with a line about his sexual preference, it was one of the reasons he decided to run - his opponent, incumbent Nick Freitas, sponsored some religious liberty legislation that was vetoed by Governor Terry McAuliffe earlier this year.
“Ya know, people can hate me all they want but I shouldn’t have to pay them while they do it.”
Chris pulls over when we get to a target house - both candidates are using smartphone apps to target specific voters based on their voting history - we get out and get the door slammed on us a few times. Hixon says this happens sometimes, but he prefers speaking with voters who lean Republican because he thinks his message resonates with those on the right and the left.
“It’s like what FDR said, we’re for freedom of speech for everyone, freedom of religion for everyone but we’re also for freedom from fear and freedom from poverty. These are the four freedoms”
With only a few months until election day, both candidates have time to adjust their message, and perhaps that might include more forwardness about their orientation, but in the meantime, back in Richmond, Adams just hopes she can make a difference for those who come after her.
“The General Assembly has never had an open lesbian… That would be a history making event.”