The new class

A Democratic wave shakes up the House of Delegates

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It’s a new era in the House of Delegates, with many firsts for the chamber this year.

The first Latina and Asian-American women.  Probably the first delegate to give birth to premature twins during her campaign.

And, in a race that made national headlines, the House will include the first openly transgender delegate.

Delegate-elect Danica Roem, a Democrat, defeated conservative Republican Bob Marshall, who last year had introduced a bill that would regulate the use of public bathrooms in schools and government buildings by transgender people. Marshall had represented the Prince William County district since 1992.

This year also will mark a major transition for the House of Delegates. During the fall election, Democrats gained at least 15 House seats. Two races still are not finalized. The Virginia State Board of Elections has scheduled a random drawing for Thursday to determine the winnner in the 94th district, unless a recount court intervenes. Republican Del. David Yancey and Democratic challenger Shelly Simonds are tied after the recount, and the race could determine control of the House. Democrats also are challenging the results of the 28th district, where some voters were given the wrong ballots. 

“It’s definitely a very new day in the House of Delegates,” says Del. David Toscano, D-57th, who has been the minority leader.  “We’ve got so many new people who are younger; [at least 11 Democratic] women were elected. We’ve got more people of color. There’s greater diversity in our caucus and with that, there’s new energy and new ideas that are interjected right away.”

But the changeover comes with a major learning curve. There will be at least 19 new delegates this session (16 Democrats and three Republicans). But they aren’t the only legislators learning the ropes. An analysis by the Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP) shows that 47 of the 100 House members have served four years or fewer.

“People need to find their way around Richmond, which has its own ways of doing things, and they are not particularly user-friendly,” says Stephen Farnsworth, director of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington. “And I don’t think this new crop of delegates is going to want to be seen but not heard. A lot of them will take a very vigorous approach to lawmaking.”

Toscano agrees. “Finding a way to accommodate all these new ideas, take the best ones and get them passed will be a challenge, not just for new members but for veteran members,” he says. “I think it’s a good challenge to have because I think we benefit by the influx of new ideas, and we benefit by having people with widely divergent perspectives and experiences in the world.”

Business leaders will need to work with the new wave of delegates to explain their issues, says Bob Holsworth, managing partner of Richmond-based consulting firm DecideSmart. Nonetheless, he told business leaders gathered at Williamsburg in December that economic development can be a uniting factor for Democrats and Republicans. “Despite the partisan fervor in Washington, what we’re seeing in Virginia is a strong emerging consensus around economic development issues,” he said.

Virginia Business reached out to Roem and the other 18 delegate-elects, asking them why they ran for office and what their legislative priorities will be. The profiles were written before recounts had been completed in December.

Dawn M. Adams, D-68th
Richmond, Chesterfield and Henrico counties
A Richmond health-care professional for more than 32 years, Adams made Medicaid expansion a major issue in her campaign. She has worked as a registered nurse, nurse practitioner, health-care access advocate and researcher, and professor at Old Dominion University. She most recently was director for the Office of Integrated Health for Virginia’s Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services.  Adams will be the first openly lesbian member in the House. Her race, which she won by 325 votes, was due for a recount on Dec. 20.

Hala S. Ayala, D-51st
Prince William County
The founder of the Prince William County chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW), Ayala had been encouraged by Democrats to run for elected office for the past five years. But the timing didn’t seem right for the single mother of two children, who now are in their early 20s. Then President Donald Trump was elected, and she feared discrimination against women, immigrants and gays. “Nobody wants to be separated, nobody wants to be excluded, and we certainly didn’t build this state or this country on those ideas,” says Ayala, whose father immigrated to the U.S. from El Salvador. Ayala was a cybersecurity specialist with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for 17 years, but previously had worked for minimum wage and was on public assistance. “Having access to a higher working wage would have meant I not only could have given back to my community but thrive,” says Ayala. She defeated incumbent Republican Rich Anderson.

Emily M. Brewer, R-64th
Suffolk, Franklin and Isle of Wight, Prince George, Surry, Southampton and Sussex counties
As a small business owner, Brewer says she brings to the General Assembly a commonsense approach to business regulation. She owns a wine and craft beer store in Suffolk and is a board member of Suffolk Business Women. One of her primary goals is to expand business opportunities throughout the region. Brewer is meeting with local leaders to learn their legislative needs. “I think what’s most important before deciding what legislation to support is really having a listening ear and seeing what the needs of the community are,” she says. Brewer, who was adopted, also wants to work on foster and adoption reform. She defeated Democrat Rebecca Colaw for a seat previously held by a Republican.

Lee J. Carter, D-50th
Manassas, Prince William County
In 2012, Carter was installing light controls for a Virginia company in Illinois when he was injured from an electrical shock. “The experience I had with the workers’ compensation system was so horrendous that I decided to step forward and run for office because I would not allow what happened to me to continue happening to other people,” he says.  Carter ended up paying out of pocket to cover his medical expenses. A North Carolina native, he moved to Virginia in 2011 after serving five years in the U.S. Marine Corps, where he completed tours in the Mediterranean and Middle East. His legislative priorities include increasing the mini­mum wage and Medicaid expansion. “I’m going to be fighting to make sure that all Virginians who work full time make a living wage because no one who works 40 hours a week should ever live in poverty,” says Carter.

Kelly K. Convirs-Fowler, D-21st
Virginia Beach, Chesapeake
Convirs-Fowler’s 8-year-old daughter was devastated by Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016. “That really struck me more than the [presidential] election itself,” says Convirs-Fowler. “I was worried about the framework of how she saw the world and how she saw herself and women in the world. I really wanted to make sure that I was actively changing that and the perception that she had.” A former public-school teacher, she started a business rehabbing homes in the Hampton Roads area. Eventually she earned her real estate and broker’s licenses and now leads a team of four women. Her legislative priorities will include promoting equality for women, addressing flooding and infrastructure issues in her district, working on consumer rights issues in real estate and easing the region’s transportation woes. Convirs-Fowler defeated Republican Del. Ron Villanueva.

Karrie K. Delaney, D-67th
Fairfax and Loudoun counties
Delaney’s interest in politics began with her first job after college working as a counselor for a group foster home in Florida. “I saw firsthand how much policy can fail some of our most vulnerable,” she says. Delaney also volunteered as a sexual-assault crisis counselor and was appointed to the West Melbourne City Council as a Republican. After moving to Northern Virginia in 2006, she became communications director of a nonprofit whose mission is to end sex trafficking. She now is chairwoman of the Fairfax County Library Board of Trustees and owns her own consulting firm for nonprofits. Her priorities include creating a “world-class” educational system and improving transportation. She also wants to improve economic development in Northern Virginia. “I think we have a very talented skilled workforce here, and I think we need to look for ways to really tap into this talent that is already living in our community,” she says. Delaney defeated incumbent Republican Del. Jim LeMunyon.

Jennifer D.Carroll Foy, D-2nd
Prince William and Stafford counties
Foy found out she was pregnant with twins just weeks after announcing plans to seek the Democratic nomination to fill an open seat. “I was knocking on thousands of doors while I was going through morning sickness, with swollen feet and ankles and multiple doctor’s visits,” Foy recalls. During the campaign, she was put on bed rest and then delivered the twin boys prematurely at 22 weeks in July. Foy is no stranger to challenges, however. She is a public defender and was a foster mom for eight years. Foy also runs a nonprofit for fostering children. She was a member of the third graduating class at Virginia Military Institute that included women cadets. “I contribute a lot of my success to my time at VMI because it gave me great time management and organizational skills,” says Foy. “It taught me to work with people who may not agree with you or maybe don’t even want you in the room.” Foy’s district was previously held by a Republican who retired.

Wendy W. Gooditis, D-10th
Loudoun, Clarke and Frederick counties
Last February, Gooditis attended a town hall held by Republican Del. Randy Minchew. She was angered by the recent election of Trump and her inability to find medical care for her 57-year-old brother, who suffered from alcoholism and PTSD. Gooditis looked at Minchew’s conservative voting record and was prepared to work for a Democrat running against him. At a meeting of Clarke County Democrats, a neighbor suggested Gooditis run instead. Two weeks into the campaign, her  brother died, and she almost dropped out. “Throughout the journey of trying to get him the care he needed, I met so many families and individuals who couldn’t get the care they deserved, and this is why the expansion of Medicaid is so important,” she says. Gooditis moved to Clarke County 25 years ago with her husband. An accomplished equestrian who at one point was short-listed for the U.S. Olympic team, she previously was a teacher. Since 2013, she has been a RE/MAX real estate agent.

Elizabeth R. Guzman, D-31st
Prince William and Fauquier counties
Guzman’s biography reads like a classic immigrant success story. She came to the U.S. from Peru as a 25-year-old single mother with a high school education. She worked three minimum-wage jobs to make ends meet. Eventually Guzman earned associate, bachelor’s and master’s degrees in becoming a social worker. Today she is the division chief for administrative services for Alexandria’s Center for Adult Services. Guzman was inspired by Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who encouraged his supporters to run for elected office. “I live in Prince William County, where people who look like me have been portrayed as criminals, gang members and people who came to do harm in this country,” she says. Guzman defeated eight-term incumbent Del. Scott Lingamfelter to become one of the first two Latina members of the House of Delegates. Her priorities include an increased minimum wage, universal pre-K education, Medicaid expansion and more funding for public education.

Chris L. Hurst, D-12th
Radford and Giles, Pulaski and Montgomery counties
Hurst found it too difficult to continue on as an anchor at Roanoke television station WDBJ after his girlfriend, Allison Parker, and cameraman Adam Ward were murdered during a live 2015 interview. Hurst began freelancing and wanted to find a way to serve the constituents who had supported him in the wake of the tragedy. His priorities include bringing economic prosperity to Southwest Virginia. “I’m primarily focused on ways that we can encourage rural economic development and policies that will help increase access to venture capital,” says Hurst. In Giles County, he points out, manufacturing jobs have been replaced with lower-paying services jobs. “We need to make sure we try to continue to redevelop some of our rural downtowns and provide better infrastructure to pave the way for more companies that want to locate in the district.” Hurst defeated Republican incumbent Del. Joseph Yost.

Jerrauld C. “Jay” Jones, D-89th
Politics is in Jones’ blood. His grandfather was the first African-American member of Norfolk’s school board, and his father held the 89th District seat for eight terms. Jones, 28, didn’t think about running for office until incumbent Del. Daun Hester stepped down to run for Norfolk city treasurer. “It was certainly something I’d thought about doing at some point in my life,” says Jones. “We were in a climate where things were very uncertain in December 2016, and it was a chance to serve the city that I was born and raised in.” Jones, now a civil and commercial litigation attorney, worked at Goldman Sachs before going to law school. His legislative priorities include addressing sea-level rise, reforming the criminal justice reform and improving transportation.

John J. McGuire III, R-56th
Henrico, Louisa, Goochland and Spotsylvania counties
A former U.S. Navy SEAL, McGuire thrives on a challenge. After his mother left him on a street corner when he was five years old, he bounced in and out of foster care. After graduating from Henrico High School, he joined a Navy Seal training program. McGuire was one of only 19 graduates out of 200 candidates. After 10 years in the Navy, he founded SEAL Team Physical Training Inc., an intense physical training program in Richmond, which now has 50 employees and offers motivational speeches around the world. McGuire won the seat left open by the retirement of Republican Del. Peter Farrell. “I want to support ideas that lower taxes, create jobs, better support our law enforcement and first responders, improve education, and I want to do something about the opioid epidemic,” he says. Disturbed by the nation’s anger and division, McGuire decided to run for office. “I wanted to get off the sidelines and get involved and use my leadership and team-building experience to bring people together,” he says.

David A. Reid, D-32nd
Loudoun County
Reid grew up with his father and four siblings in the Rockbridge County mountains in a home without an indoor bathroom. Eventually he moved to Richmond, where he lived for six years in a United Methodist children’s home. His foster parents moved Reid and his younger brother to Oklahoma, where through grants, scholarships and work study, he became the first in his family to graduate from college. Reid was an intelligence officer in the U.S. Naval Reserves for 23 years and has worked in the Northern Virginia business community for 30 years. He now is a chief strategy officer with Axiologic Solutions in Fairfax County. His legislative priorities include reducing Dulles Greenway tolls, extending Loudoun County kindergarten to full-day programs and reducing the cost of higher education. “Education allowed me to break the cycle of poverty that my family had lived in for generations, and so I think it’s important that we make an effort to invest in education so that it does not become a financial burden on graduates.” Reid defeated Republican incumbent Tag Greason.

Debra H. Rodman, D-73rd
Henrico County
For 13 years Rodman has been an associate professor of anthropology and women’s studies at Randolph-Macon College. Fluent in Spanish, she assists families fleeing Central America and often serves as a witness in U.S. federal courts for refugees seeking political asylum. Her priorities include Medicaid expansion, raising teacher pay, expanding job-training programs, addressing the opioid crisis through rehabilitation and protecting women’s health concerns.

Danica A. Roem, D-13th
Prince William County, Manassas Park
Roem has gained national attention as a transgender candidate who defeated a conservative Republican. But Roem, a former newspaper reporter and editor, is focused on the nuts and bolts of governing. She has detailed plans for easing congestion on Route 28, driving high-paying jobs to Prince William’s Innovation Park and using state incentives to help ease BPOL (business, professional and occupational license) taxes. Roem also has detailed knowledge of a problem many localities face: aging water infrastructure. “It’s so important, and it’s so boring that reporters won’t touch it, but [these issues are] the bread and butter of governing,” says Roem. She says her experience as a reporter at the Gainesville Times and Prince William Times gives her valuable insight into Prince William’s needs. “My ideas are the product of nine years, two months and two weeks of reporting about my home county and understanding how economic development works.” Equality also is important to her. She wants to see the Virginia Human Rights Act expanded to cover sexual orientation and gender identity and to ensure discrimination is prohibited in health care, employment and housing. “During the campaign, I said I’m running to make, and I’m now working to make Virginia, a more inclusive commonwealth.”

Robert M. “Bob” Thomas Jr., R-28th
Stafford County, Fredericksburg
A member of the Stafford County Board of Supervisors for six years, Thomas is familiar with issues affecting local governments. Many of his priorities address their concerns: providing funding for school nurses, changing tax incentives to encourage investment and not allowing developers to count stormwater retention ponds as open space in developments. “We think that kind of flies in the face of the whole point of clustering, which is to provide open space for the community,” says Thomas. He served in the Marine Corps for eight years. Thomas then worked for a government contractor for three years before founding an IT contracting firm, Capriccio Software, which now has about 25 employees. Thomas and his wife have eight children ranging from 4 years to college age. As a hobby, the family raises 50 Katahdin hair sheep. Thomas decided to run for the seat left open when House Speaker William Howell announced his retirement. His election was subject to a recount and has been under scrutiny since, due to an administrative error, 147 voters cast ballots in the incorrect delegate race.

Kathy K. L. Tran, D-42nd
Fairfax County
Tran’s fourth child was due on Trump’s inauguration day. Worried about the country’s direction, she and her husband named the baby Elise Minh Khanh. Elise for Ellis Island, where her husband’s family first arrived in the U.S. to escape antisemitism, and  Minh Khanh, which means “bright bell” in Vietnamese. “I decided to run a month after she was born,” Tran says. “I had given a very aspirational name to this tiny baby, and I realized I couldn’t just be on the sideline.” Tran was seven months old when her family fled Vietnam. After 13 months as refugees in Malaysia, they were granted asylum in the U.S. Tran has used her knowledge of immigrants’ struggles while working at the National Immigration Forum, an immigration advocacy group. She previously worked for 12 years at the U.S. Department of Labor. Tran won the seat left open with the retirement of Republican Del. Dave Albo.

Cheryl B. Turpin, D-85th
Virginia Beach
Turpin spent much of the past year campaigning. She lost a special election last year for the seat left open when former Del. Scott Taylor was elected to Congress. Del. Randy Holcomb and Turpin faced off again in November’s regular election. “That was trial by error,” Turpin says of her first campaign. She has been politically active for several years, volunteering on campaigns ranging from city council to school board to statewide and national elections. Turpin has been a high school AP Environmental Sciences teacher in Virginia Beach for 24 years.

Schuyler T. VanValkenburg, D-72nd
Henrico County
For years, VanValkenburg had been concerned about what he saw as General Assembly neglect on issues such as education and health care. “That’s what drove me to do this run and talk about these issues,” says VanValkenburg, “because for the last couple of election cycles, not many people had run, and these issues weren’t aired. I saw that as part of the problem.” A government teacher at Glen Allen High School, restoring school funding cut during the Great Recession is a big priority. “At the time that was appropriate, but 10 years later it’s not,” says VanValkenburg. He also wants to see school accreditation reform, with more focus on critical thinking, reading comprehension and analysis. VanValkenburg says he also wants to continue Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s transition to a new economy. “We need to be looking at things like: How do we move into clean energy? How do we move into this health-care market that is evolving? Into technological fields? And we need to continue that progress so we’re not as dependent on federal spending.” VanValkenburg won in a seat left open by the retirement of Republican Del. Jimmie Massie.

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