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House elections bring new diversity to Virginia

RICHMOND, Va. — Danica Roem, a transgender woman whose defeat of an outspoken, socially conservative lawmaker has made news around the world, is just one of several women making history in this week's Virginia elections.

The state House is also getting its first Latina members, its first Asian-American woman delegate and its first openly lesbian member.

Altogether, at least 11 new Democratic women will be joining the 100-person House, which previously had only 17 female members. With three races still too close to call Thursday, that number could still increase by one. Observers say the new diversity could represent a sea change for the chamber, control of which was still up in the air Thursday.

"The General Assembly will truly look more like this state than ever before," said Julie Copeland, executive director of Emerge Virginia, which helps prepare Democratic women to run for office and trained nine of the winners.

Among Emerge's trainees are Elizabeth Guzman and Hala Ayala, who will be the first Latina members of the House, representing northern Virginia districts. Though the state's population is about 9 per cent Hispanic, the House currently has only one Latino delegate. Both Guzman and Ayala unseated incumbents.

Kathy Tran, who defeated Republican Lolita Mancheno-Smoak to win an open northern Virginia seat, will be the first Asian-American woman delegate. Dawn Adams became the first openly lesbian state lawmaker Thursday after she was declared the winner of a Richmond-area district over the Republican incumbent, G.M. "Manoli" Loupassi. Loupassi conceded defeat Tuesday, but The Associated Press did not declare Adams the winner until Thursday.

Charniele Herring, chairwoman of the House Democratic Caucus, said the diversity will play out during the legislative session on issues like health care and paid family leave.

"We're looking forward to making progress on these issues with a more diverse chamber," she said.

Roem said that with Democrat Ralph Northam in the governor's mansion and what may be a Democratic majority in the House, lawmakers shouldn't even think about introducing discriminatory legislation.

"Don't bother," she said. "Don't even try. It will be dead on arrival."

Roem graduated from St. Bonaventure University in New York and spent about a decade working for the Prince William Times and the Gainesville Times, both local newspapers in Virginia. Working as a reporter taught her how to listen and understand people and complicated issues, she has said.

Her opponent, Del. Bob Marshall, was a lightning rod for controversy, sponsoring a bill this year that would have restricted which bathrooms transgender people could use. He also authored a now-void constitutional amendment that defined marriage as between a man and woman, and sponsored a bill banning gay people from openly serving in the Virginia National Guard. On the campaign trail, Marshall and other Republicans repeatedly misidentified Roem's gender.

Roem's win was the most high profile of what the Human Rights Campaign says was at least seven transgender candidates nationwide Tuesday.

"2017 will be remembered as the year of the trans candidate — and Danica's heroic run for office the centerpiece of that national movement," Aisha C. Moodie-Mills, president and CEO of the Victory Fund, a political action committee that works to get openly LGBTQ people elected, said in a statement.

At least two transgender people have been elected to state legislatures in the past, but Roem will be the first openly transgender person to campaign and be seated. One transgender woman was elected to the New Hampshire Legislature but resigned before the term started. And in Massachusetts, a transgender woman served in the Legislature but did not campaign as an openly transgender person. She came out while in office but didn't win re-election.

Gavin Grimm, a transgender Virginia teen who filed a landmark lawsuit over being denied access to the boys bathroom at his school, said he had been following Roem's race closely and rooting for her.

"It is so important for young trans people to look up and see that they can do that and they can be that, and her win is a big win for the trans community," he said in an interview Wednesday.

Hope Vella, another Roem supporter, called the diversity of candidates who got elected Tuesday amazing.

Vella, who is gay, first met Roem while she was canvassing over the summer. An AP reporter spending the day with Roem saw Vella moved to tears.

She said she got that feeling again Tuesday night at a victory party for Roem and several other northern Virginia candidates, including Guzman, Ayala and Jennifer Carroll Foy, who is black.

"I remembered the chant from the women's march: 'Show me what democracy looks like.' And this was it," Vella said.


Associated Press writers Matthew Barakat in Fairfax, Virginia, and Ben Finley in Manassas, Virginia, contributed to this report.

Sarah Rankin, The Associated Press

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