The culture wars recently hit a sleepy parade in the Prince William County town of Haymarket. Along with school bands and kids’ dance troupes, this year’s march featured two candidates locked in an atypically high-profile race for Virginia’s House of Delegates: Bob Marshall, the 13-term Republican incumbent, and his Democratic challenger, Danica Roem.
The race is notable because Marshall is known as one of the legislature’s leading social conservatives—and Roem is a transgender ex-journalist who moonlights as a heavy-metal singer. Not surprisingly, things have gotten nasty, with Marshall belittling Roem and repeatedly referring to her as “he.”
Talking to Roem, as we did over lunch a few days before the parade, it’s clear she wants to be thought of less as a trans candidate than as a transportation one. She isn’t eager to talk about Marshall’s efforts to introduce a “bathroom bill” or ban gay marriage. Instead, she wants to discuss roads. Particularly Route 28, the area’s main thoroughfare, about which she has many detailed thoughts that are, let’s just say, of limited interest to anyone who sees the race as a referendum on trans rights, bathroom laws—or, for that matter, heavy metal. “Traffic, jobs, schools, and health care,” she says. “You can’t fool people by [distracting with] social issues.”
Roem fostered her wonkish tendencies at Northern Virginia’s Gainesville Times, where she covered local government and, yes, traffic issues. At the same time, she fronted a band, Cab Ride Home, that played in area clubs. (It released what it’s calling its final album in April.) She began transitioning from male to female in 2012. But while Roem is happy to be an advocate, she doesn’t want that part of her story to define her. “I’ve never gotten paid for my LGBT activism,” she says. “I’m proud of it, but it’s not my life’s work.”
The 13th District race has attracted unusual outside attention, and Roem has raised four times as much money as Marshall, largely from non-local donations. Despite its decades of support for Marshall, the district voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, making it an obvious Democratic target this year. Roem would be garnering notice even if she weren’t a trans candidate challenging a far-right opponent.
But during the Haymarket parade, it was clear that her connection to her would-be constituents was genuine. Wearing a purple dress and rainbow bandana, Roem handed out fliers, high-fived a yoga-studio owner, and took every opportunity to talk up her plan for Route 28. “At the end of the day,” she told me, “all people give a shit about is what you’ll do to help their commute.”
This article appears in the November 2017 issue of Washingtonian.