“I have a 2-year-old and a 5-year-old, and I used to work for the U.S. Navy. Believe me, I understand the importance of coffee,” began Alexandra Chandler, a transgender woman running for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. She was apologizing for the delay in having coffee available for the crowd of about 25 people settling in for her first campaign event at the Universalist Unitarian church in Haverhill, Massachusetts on the first Saturday of the new year. Chandler is vying to represent the state’s 3rd Congressional District after Rep. Niki Tsongas (D) announced last year that she would retire rather than seek another term. If she wins, Chandler would be the first openly transgender person elected to the U.S. Congress.
Before last November, only a smattering of trans people had been elected to state and local positions. Until Virginia Delegate Danica Roem (D-Prince William) was sworn in earlier this month, no openly trans person had been seated in a state-level elected office. In 2016, Misty Snow and Misty Plowright became the only two openly trans people ever nominated by a major party for a federal election, though both lost in the general election.
Now, with Republican President Donald Trump pushing policies that hurt many marginalized groups, candidates from those communities have risen to the occasion and are running for office themselves. The 2018 election cycle could see more women, more people of color, and more trans people on the ballot than ever before.
“It’s part of this shift on the progressive side where so many people that were resistant to politics because they saw it as dirty or they saw it as [a] compromise are now saying, ‘I’m tired of not being represented fully’ and so I need to change that myself, ” Chandler told Rewire.
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But that’s not the only reason why Chandler decided to run. “For myself it was much more, to paraphrase from a certain movie, I have a unique and specialized set of skills, so that’s what brought me in. It was these skills, this experience, this time, this seat, this moment. Any shift in these variables and I probably wouldn’t be [running].”
For Chandler to become the first openly trans federal legislator, she’ll have to find a way to connect with voters, just like Roem did in Virginia. In Massachusetts’ reliably blue 3rd District, what stands out this election cycle is the unusually crowded Democratic primary field which features more than a dozen candidates at present, many of whom boast impressive resumes. The race features a state representative, a state senator, a former U.S. ambassador, and the former chief of staff for Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, among others.
It’s a formidable field for any candidate, much less a political newcomer like Chandler.
Delegate Roem demonstrated last year that trans candidates can connect with potential voters with more than just a compelling personal narrative. Roem, who ran against virulently anti-choice and anti-LGBTQ incumbent Bob Marshall, focused much of her campaign on local infrastructure issues.
As she spoke at the event, Chandler, a self-described progressive moderate, seamlessly weaved the central priorities of her platform into her personal narrative as a mother, trans woman, and intelligence professional. She drew on her experience as a nuclear weapons proliferation expert to explain the importance of gun safety and explained how her time on the board of Whitman-Walker Health clinic in D.C. in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 financial crash gives her insight into how critical access to affordable health care is to families in the United States.
It’s a strategy also used on her campaign site, which notes that Chandler and her family “juggled student loan debt and day care costs because neither had paid family leave,” seemingly a motivating factor in her promise to fight for “universal health care and paid family leave for everyone.”
But it was her story about nearly losing her now-wife on 9/11 that seemed to make the connection to the crowd in Haverhill that she was hoping for.
Tears clung to the corner of her eyes as she recalled how she prayed for the safe return of her then-girlfriend who was in lower Manhattan at the time of the attacks. “I looked up at the heavens and said, ‘My god just please don’t take her from me.’ At that moment I said that if she could make it, I would serve at some level,” Chandler told the room.
“She walked home across the Manhattan Bridge covered in dust, but she made it home so I joined the intelligence community,” Chandler continued. During her time in the nation’s capital, Chandler transitioned to female and ended up supervising a task force responsible for controlling nuclear weapon proliferation.
When the question-and-answer period was over, she and her campaign manager made sure to have personal contact with each and every one of the folks who turned out on the frigid January morning in northeastern Massachusetts.
Chandler faces many headwinds in her electoral quest, perhaps none more important than fundraising. Some of her opponents are significantly outpacing her early numbers, headlined by Dan Koh, the former chief of staff for Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, who raised over $800,000 before Chandler even entered the race.
Chandler, coffee in hand, was nonplussed when Rewire asked her about the early disadvantage.
“Ask President Jeb Bush about early fundraising leads,” she quipped, seemingly referencing the Florida Republicans’ defeat in the 2016 Republican presidential primaries. She went on to explain that with such a crowded field, it’s possible to win the primary with a plurality, which means fundraising advantages aren’t necessarily automatic wins. Her campaign recently reported that she had raised over $50,000 in the six weeks after declaring her candidacy in November.
It’s still too early for polling data for the primary, but Chandler does have help on the way. She recently hired Lauren Young, who worked as deputy digital director on Democrat Doug Jones’ successful U.S. Senate bid in Alabama, as her deputy campaign manager.
It remains to be seen whether she can overcome significant political headwinds to break through with voters. But Chandler herself perhaps summed up the chances for a trans woman to someday represent Massachusetts within the halls of Congress: “Revolutionary change is in our blood.”