This is the first of a series by Aimee Allison on top political strategists who are leading America toward a new progressive political and cultural era.
Tram Nguyen knows what it takes to win in swing state Virginia, and that Tuesday’s primary was a litmus test for Democrats in the state and the nation. Two progressive women of color won hotly contested primaries. Defense attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, promising to bring racial justice to the state’s criminal justice system, won her primary against incumbent Theo Stamos for commonwealth attorney. And progressive Ghazala Hashmi won her primary against Eileen Bedell and is poised to become the first Muslim American in Virginia’s state senate.
The victories are thanks in part to a strategy Tram has perfected over a decade as co-executive director of New Virginia Majority, an organization that builds a multiracial coalition of voters to contest districts held by the Right. Her work makes it possible for Democrats to win key seats, and enables a new set of Democratic leaders in the wake of scandals of racism and sexual violence that engulfed statewide leaders in the past year.
Tram sees an opportunity to reshape the political landscape in Virginia for good. She’s the grand architect of a new Virginia politics that will hold Democrats accountable, elevate a politics of justice, and win the state in 2019 and 2020. She shows us a path to turn the state legislature blue under a slew of threats, including Republican Delegate Bob Thomas’s vow to pass an abortion ban in Virginia should Republicans hold the state House majority.
As leader of New Virginia Majority, Tram is doubling down on stronger political power for women of color and driving organizing year round to register and turn out communities of color at the polls. She’s transforming leadership and politics in Virginia along with its fast diversifying population. In 2017, her organizing was successful in winning the governor’s mansion. And as a member of the newly elected governor’s transition team, she oversaw a Medicare expansion that brought health care to millions of Virginians. It was a tremendous victory for the people of Virginia.
And then there were the revelations of blackface photos from Democratic governor Ralph Northam’s law school yearbook, and national and statewide calls from elected leaders and activists to step down. Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring admitted to blackface, and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax was credibly accused of sexual assault. Statewide leadership was swept into power with the high voter turnout of women of color, especially black women. All three statewide leaders have refused to step down in recent months, weakening Democratic unity and stymieing progress on the agenda Tram helped shape.
Women of color, those who were the margin of victory for Democrats, are turned off by top leaders’ actions, and if this political moment isn’t addressed, Democrats’ goal of taking back both chambers of the state General Assembly is at stake. The misdeeds of top leadership cast a pall over a future in Virginia that supports racial, gender, and social justice. Tram asks and answers an essential question: How can we hold them accountable when they refuse to vacate office, perhaps making space for women of color who are ready to lead?
Tram recently joined me and a group of Virginia leaders to co-host the She the People Virginia Town Hall, the first swing state gathering to consolidate the power of women of color on the way to winning the White House. She the People town halls launched in Virginia because winning isn’t just about electing a Democrat. Women of color want leaders who lead with their full humanity in view—leaders who can show us all a way out of a long tradition of racism and sexual violence that has plagued our communities.
I first met Tram at a Bay Area house meeting in 2017. She was standing in front of a map of the state of Virginia. The audience was rapt as she detailed a strategy to win the governor’s mansion and the state House, a compelling vision for a Southern state that was the birthplace of slavery some 400 years ago. Hers is a hopeful and strategic message.
I sat down for a conversation with Tram late this past April.
Aimee: What’s happening in the state of Virginia after the revelations about the misdeeds of the governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general?
Tram: It’s led to much-needed conversation about race, and race, equity, and gender. Nothing that was revealed was necessarily surprising because it’s rooted in Virginia history, and we have a history of racism, and we have a presence of racism. And so for us, these scandals shed light on a reality that so many of us live day to day. We’re now asking—how do we lean into it to change the political dynamic and the power dynamic in the state to really start to address the real issues that our communities face around equity, and also community and justice?
We have very important elections this year. The entire General Assembly, the state legislature, is up for reelection. And the Republicans and Democrats have very close margins. Republicans hold the Senate 21 to 19. They also hold the House, 51 to 49. The conversation about race and gender has permeated the election cycle. People are looking at how candidates are addressing both.
Aimee: What is the unique role women of color have to play in this moment in Virginia?
Tram: Well, when we think about the intersection of race, and class and gender, women of color live at all of those intersections. We are the backbone of the political landscape here. We make things happen. I think it has just thrown the door open for women of color to run through and seize our moment. We have the power, we’ve always had power, but even more so we have the power to reshape the political landscape here in Virginia. Women of color voters, I think, will be the margin of victory in a lot of these races. In 2017, the last time that our legislature was up for election, there was one House seat that was tied. And it was determined by literally drawing a name out of a bowl. That is down in Newport News, where that district has been redrawn because of a court order, and it has more people of color in that district. Women of color will seize their power and vote in such a way that that district will not be determined by drawing a name out of a bowl, but by the will of the people.
Aimee: What’s at stake in Virginia politically this year?
Tram: The state legislature will determine how redistricting happens in 2021; how our maps are drawn will essentially lay the groundwork for the political landscape and dynamics in the state through 2030. So we’re not just talking about this year, but over a decade of setting a stage for politics in Virginia.
Aimee: I understand that the big fear is that if Democrats don’t take the majority in the state legislature, that issues such as these restrictive abortion bills could pass potentially in Virginia.
Tram: Year after year we have collectively played defense in Virginia, whether it’s on women’s reproductive rights, environmental protections, or infusing more resources into public education. And there’s been a lot of issues that have not progressed because of resistance in the General Assembly. I think the reproductive rights issue is going to be front and center. We’re fighting for the heart and soul of Virginia. Is it going to be a welcoming place for everybody, no matter who they are, where they come from? Will it be a place where people have an opportunity to succeed and have an opportunity to thrive and be the best that they can be?
Aimee: What’s your greatest hope for what will result from the She the People town hall?
Tram: I was at it in San Francisco last year. And it’s such a phenomenal thing, where women of color really have an outlet to build relationships with one another. And the energy in the room is so palpable. And that’s what I hope we have in Virginia, that Virginia and across the state can come together on a Saturday, be in a room with women of color, who are energized and psyched about this moment that we’re in, and about our leadership, and that they can channel all of that into going back into their communities and talking to their neighbors and their family and their friends. This is our moment. And this is our moment to shine. And so let’s show up at the polls, let’s show up at town halls, let’s show up in the legislative session and hold everybody accountable.
Aimee: What is your game-changer this year?
Tram: I’m very excited about the new Rising Power PAC that we formed that is explicit about its support for women of color, and it’s the first PAC of its kind in Virginia that is very unapologetic about supporting women of color. It shows not only women of color can run for office and get elected, but women of color also have the ability to raise money. It is led by and supports women of color leaders committed to defending our rights, promoting dignity, and dismantling racial inequity.
Aimee Allison is founder and president of She the People, an organization that elevates the political voice of women of color. She recently hosted the first presidential forum for women of color in Houston, Texas.