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What a difference a year makes

by BAR Editorial Board

A year after Donald Trump shocked the world by winning the presidency, voters in local and state elections across the country sent a message: now is the time for the next generation of leaders. In race after race, non-traditional candidates who had never held elective office were victorious - a takeaway from these off-year elections was that transgender candidates can not only succeed, they can impart powerful messages of change.

Eight out trans people won last week, the most high profile being Danica Roem, a trans woman who was elected to Virginia's House of Delegates. A Democrat in a purple state, Roem wasn't given much of a chance to defeat her opponent, Bob Marshall, who'd held office for 26 years. But several factors worked in her favor. She outraised Marshall by a margin of 3 to 1, and focused on local issues, most notably traffic congestion along a state highway that runs through her district. Marshall generated headlines when he described himself as the state's "chief homophobe" - and the campaign turned ugly when Marshall and his supporters intentionally misgendered Roem in election ads, but she got the last laugh when she won by nearly nine percentage points. Roem now becomes the first out transgender person to win and serve in a state legislature and the only out transgender state legislator in the U.S. She had broad support from national LGBT groups, including the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund and the Human Rights Campaign.

In Minneapolis, two trans candidates won seats on the City Council. Andrea Jenkins and Phillipe Cunningham are the first openly trans people ever elected to the City Council of a major U.S. city, according to the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, which supported both candidates. In Palm Springs, California, Lisa Middleton will become the first elected transgender City Council member in the state. (In fact, with the election of Middleton and bisexual woman Christy Holstege, the entire council, including the mayor, is LGBT.)

Other successful trans candidates include Tyler Titus, who will be seated on the Erie school board in Pennsylvania; Stephe Koontz, who will join the Doraville City Council in Georgia, becoming the first out trans person ever elected in the Peach State; Gerri Cannon, who was elected to a New Hampshire school board; and Raven Matherne, who will take a seat on a local board of representatives in Stamford, Connecticut.

The city council and school board successes are important for municipalities as trans bathroom fights continue to roil the country. LGBT students in those jurisdictions will see that some of their local leaders are like them, and parents of these students will have elected officials empathetic to their concerns.

In another notable victory, Seattle elected lesbian Jenny Durkin as its next mayor; she succeeds scandal-plagued Ed Murray, a gay man who was forced to resign from office after several men came forward accusing him of sexual assault in the past.

The bottom line is that qualified LGBT candidates can win on local issues, rather than identity politics. It's a message we've been highlighting for years. Yes, it's history making to have the first out trans state legislator elected, but Roem didn't win because she's a trans woman: she won because she knew her district and campaigned on issues that were important to voters. She didn't take the bait when Marshall tried to make it an anti-trans campaign. Voters likely respected Roem for that, and realized she was the better choice.

It's inspiring to see that the next generation of progressive local leaders can win at the ballot box. This could be the start to sweeping changes in next year's midterm elections. Given the abysmal state of national politics, these off-year victories show that Democratic candidates can be successful in the age of Trump, including LGBTs who, in many parts of the country, made history too.

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