Richmonder of the Year: Abigail Spanberger

Part of an historic blue wave, this first-time Democrat is the face of the new, more progressive suburbs.

Urban centers like Richmond have long been progressive havens, blue dots in seas of red. But liberal rumblings in the suburbs have grown steadily louder over the last two years, and Richmond’s neighboring communities are no different.

Fueled by opposition to the Donald Trump administration’s divisive rhetoric and policies, left-leaning voters have taken to social media, the streets, the Capitol and the polls. They ultimately helped to flip the House of Representatives from red to blue, electing a tide of first-time female legislators in the process and sending shock waves through Virginia and the country.

Among these persistent, idealistic and game-changing new members is Abigail Spanberger, the representative-elect of Virginia’s 7th District, and our choice for Style Weekly’s Richmonder of the Year.

We know — Spanberger doesn’t live in the city. Raised in Short Pump, she and her family now call Glen Allen home, and she won’t be representing Richmond when she’s sworn in to Congress next month. But when it came to naming a person who embodies the sweeping change we felt in 2018, Spanberger’s fresh energy and sense of commitment left a strong impression on our editorial team, and on many others.

“When you meet her, you get that feeling that she’s sincere and genuine, which is really important,” says Kim Drew Wright, the founder of the Liberal Women of Chesterfield County. The grass-roots organization in the heart of central Virginia, which enthusiastically endorsed Spanberger, has connected women and families who once felt like they were the ony progressives in their circles, giving them a voice and new sense of belonging. “She’s also willing to do the hard work and have the hard conversations.”

Her story is well-known by now. A former CIA operative and mother of three young girls, Spanberger, 39, led a life of public service before launching her campaign in July 2017. She ran on a platform of health care affordability, Social Security and Medicare protection and gun-violence prevention, and her message during the race and after her victory was consistent: She told residents she wanted to work for them, whether they voted for her or not.

“Under no circumstances, in any district across the country, are all of a district’s people facing the same challenges and excited about the same things,” Spanberger says. “Despite the fact that it’s a relatively gerrymandered district, I think it presents a strong opportunity, frankly. Certainly I have a reason to talk about a variety of issues.”

From the start, the hotly contested race grabbed national attention. Spanberger would raise a whopping $7 million — more than double that of Republican incumbent Dave Brat — without the help of any corporate political-action committee donations, according to her website. Campaign finance reform is among her priorities. On Election Day, she ousted her opponent by a narrow 6,500 votes, flipping a district that many told her was unwinnable, having gone Republican since 1968.

“Our politics have become so nationalized that it seems like the national anti-Trump wave in the suburbs was the main reason Brat lost,” Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, says by email. “That said, the Democrats did not sweep every single district that looked like VA-7, and so some of the particular details — Spanberger’s strong candidacy, lingering resentment among some Republicans toward Brat after Cantor’s ouster — probably also were important.”

Supporters point to her relatability as one of her strongest attributes. On the night of Nov. 6, she was every bit the working mom, confidently delivering her victory speech after 11 p.m. while her husband, Adam, tried to keep their youngest daughter next to him on stage. One of the most memorable moments came after 4-year-old Catherine tugged away from him to clutch her mother’s legs beneath the podium. Spanberger hoisted the child from the floor, stuck her on her hip and carried on with her speech without missing a beat. The endearing moment sent the already exuberant election night crowd through the roof.

“If you’re a mom, that is so relatable,” Wright says. “If you’re a mom, you’ve had that moment where you just have to pick up your kid and keep going and do your business.”

Spanberger’s everyday life reflected Wright’s in a lot of ways. Here was a candidate whose political platform not only aligned with her priorities but who also leads Girl Scout meetings, drives car pool and plans an annual family Christmas card featuring matching sets of pajamas. Once Spanberger emerged as a candidate, Wright says, the decision to rally around her was a no-brainer. “Here we have all these old white men making the laws for the entire population,” she says. “You need the voices of the people it’s going to affect.”

Wright describes Spanberger as approachable and authentic. Her husband admires her for her optimism, extroversion and adventurous spirit. Childhood friend Amy Webster, who traveled from Northern Virginia for the election night celebration, calls her “one of the most kind, honest, hard-working people” she knows, and insists that she “really is the person she says she is.” Webster’s son, who’s the same age as Spanberger’s youngest, was heartbroken when he learned last month that he, as a minor and resident of Reston, would not get to cast a ballot for her.

Arguably more vital to Spanberger’s success as a first-time politician is her openness. Webster, whose friendship with the congresswoman-elect goes back to middle school, recalls a trip they took together to Costa Rica as teenagers. Already proficient in Spanish and eager to connect, young Spanberger spent much of that trip talking to “everyone she could,” according to Webster.

“She cares about what people who differ from her think,” she says. “I think she cares just as much about understanding where they’re coming from.”

That’s a quality that will serve her well in Washington, where she’ll represent a diverse district. With a population of about 790,000, the 7th District stretches from Culpeper to just north of Brunswick County, including the counties west of Richmond. According to Kondik, much of serving in Congress comes down to responding to “day-to-day concerns from regular people about their interaction with the government.”

“Being attentive to those matters can help Spanberger engender some good will,” he says. “Although these kinds of constituent services are probably less electorally important now than they were a generation ago, when politics wasn’t so nationalized.”

Style sat down with Spanberger about a month after her victory, when she had a few weeks of training, paperwork and meet-and-greets under her belt and carried her belongings in the canvas United States Congress tote bag that everyone received during the first week.

She describes the atmosphere in Washington as “unbelievable” and “electric,” especially among the freshman representatives. She recalls a woman in her 40s who’s been working on Capitol Hill since right after college, presenting at an orientation session. The speaker started the meeting by thanking all the newly-elected women in the room, because she had “never before been mistaken for a member of Congress.”

Spanberger likens the energy among the new representatives to the first few weeks of college, when throngs of freshmen flock together to the dining hall, buzzing with the excitement of getting to know one another. But she’s also ready to get down to business, and for her, productivity in Congress will hinge on what she calls “healthy, respectful debate” among people who don’t see eye-to-eye on policies.

“I think we’ve reached a point where the loudest voices are the loudest voices, and they’re usually on the extreme end,” she says. “And there’s a lot of blame, and a lot of anger, and that’s not productive in any way. I think there’s a lot that Congress can do to move into a better place to model that sort of behavior.”

She goes on to note how much has changed since Trump was elected, saying he’s “not a regular Republican” and that disagreements go far beyond policy. She didn’t always support the decisions of former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, but she was confident that they “were working to the benefit of this country.”

“Whereas I think this current administration is just such a departure from what’s normal. And it’s led to this polarization,” she says. “I think it’ll be hard for members of Congress to try and right the ship, but one of the things I’m really excited about is that, in general, most of the people that I talk to are really trying to be committed to doing that.”

Fulfilling an early promise to constituents, Spanberger has already looked Nancy Pelosi in the eye and confirmed that she will not cast a vote for her as speaker of the House. Pelosi, the current minority leader, will almost certainly win the title, despite more than a dozen Democrats calling for fresh representation. While steadfast in her decision, Spanberger says she’s “not looking to be a flamethrower.”

“Ultimately whatever the outcome is, I intend to be a very productive member of our caucus and focus on getting results,” she says. “And my district is a district that’s very different from some of the other districts in the caucus, and so I want to be a voice for needs of middle-of-the-road districts like mine, and an effective one. And an effective one comes with really working together. So while I won’t be casting a vote for you, if you win, count me in as one of the most engaged and ideally effective new members.”

Fellow Richmond-area resident Sen. Tim Kaine, who also celebrated a victory Nov. 6, endorsed Spanberger after she won the primary. Impressed with her experience as a public servant and her focus on national security, Kaine says she’ll be a welcome new member of Congress.

“Abigail’s background really helped people believe that she’d do a good job in keeping Americans safe,” Kaine says in a phone interview. He adds that being a good listener will be one of her biggest assets, pointing out that “one of the tests will always be how attuned you are to the needs and concerns of your district.” Her predecessor, who was quoted complaining about women being “in [his] grill” after the 2016 election, was widely criticized for his inaccessibility to constituents and refusal to hold regular town hall meetings.

Kaine echoes Spanberger’s sentiment that bipartisanship is crucial, and says it does still exist on Capitol Hill. He cites as evidence the lunch meetings he, fellow Sen. Mark Warner and the state’s 11 representatives have together every month, something he says not all elected officials prioritize. Next year’s lunches will include some new faces: Spanberger, plus Elaine Luria of the 2nd District and the 10th District’s Jennifer Wexton. All three first-time Democratic members, who each flipped a seat from red to blue, come to the floor with strong security backgrounds.

“Regardless of party, we try to figure out ways to help Virginia,” Kaine says. “I think these three new women will really be a great new addition to our caucus.”

Now that Spanberger has the 2019 calendar in-hand, she says around the time of her swearing-in she’ll announce the first three of 10 town halls. She plans on holding one in every county, plus additional roundtable sessions and other events for public input.

“Reading about an issue and looking at the data is something I like to do, but when you hear about a challenge in someone’s own words, when you hear it from their perspective, I think it’s just really a lot more powerful,” she says. “It’s incredibly important that people feel heard by their elected officials, and part of that really actually starts with giving people a venue to voice any concerns or celebrate any successes or anything in between.”

Spanberger and the cadre of new elects will convene with the rest of their colleagues for the first session of the 116th Congress on Thursday, Jan. 3. S

Go-to comfort food: Peanut butter and pickle sandwiches, and it’s gotta be Jif peanut butter and dill pickles. “I eat peanut butter every day.”

Favorite pastime: Biking, playing board games, or “snuggling up on the couch and watching a movie” with Adam and the girls. Movies with talking dogs are a big hit in the Spanberger home, particularly the Santa Paws series this time of year.

On her reading list: “I love reading nonfiction policy-oriented books, like ‘The Healing of America,’ but some people might not consider that pleasurable.”

Pet peeves: When meetings don’t start on time, overused reply-all emails, and the absence of an Oxford comma.

Guilty pleasure: Taco Bell, though she says she doesn’t “consider that a guilty pleasure, just a pleasure.” Her standard order is a chicken soft taco and a fresco-style bean burrito.

Ideal next vacation: Somewhere quiet, preferably in the woods or near a beach. Usually “do things, see all these cities and tour, tour, tour” travelers, these days she and her family dream of a more low-key vacation, where they can “sit still and just play in the sand or wander through the woods on a bike.”

Favorite Girl Scout cookies: Tagalongs and Thin Mints, especially when they’ve been in the freezer.


WHAT YOU WANT TO KNOW — straight to your inbox

* indicates required
Our mailing lists: