Holding the Congressional seat for a district that spans from Culpeper to Blackstone means representing many different agendas and interests. Virginia’s 7th Congressional District holds a quarter of a million people, stretching from the rural areas of Orange to the suburbs of Richmond and Chesterfield. Since 2014, Republican Dave Brat has represented the 7th in Washington. As a textbook Republican, Brat has maintained his stances on striking out the Affordable Care Act, upholding the Second Amendment, and supporting legislation that would defund Planned Parenthood. In a trying time of complex politics, elections could not be more crucial.
Enter Abigail Spanberger. A Virginia-native, Spanberger has devoted her life to public service, first as law enforcement with the United States Postal Inspection Service and eventually the Central Intelligence Agency as an Operations Officer. Spanberger has now set her sights on the 7th District, hoping to remove the hard-line Dave Brat from office.
RVA Mag’s Staff Writer Jo Rozycki and Deputy Editor Madelyne Ashworth caught up with Spanberger in her Henrico County office to chat about being the Democratic nominee for the historically Republican-held 7th District. And with the number of women in public office on the rise, Spanberger hopes to joins the new congressional wave of girl power that’s rocking American politics.
Rozycki: I perused your website, I looked through all of your issues. You mention on one of them that you want to cut wasteful spending when you’re in Congress. I wanted to know what does that mean? What do you consider wasteful?
Spanberger: I think, in terms of what our priorities are or what my priorities would be, I don’t have any predisposed or preconceived ideas of what it is that we do need to be cutting. Within the government, there are places where we could find waste or potential waste. In terms of specific things, I’d have to be aware of what money is being spent on different programs. There’s a notion of how the government budgets are laid out, how federal dollars are spent, or the use-or-lose programs where moneys are allocated and if they’re not used, you don’t get that money allocated again. I think there [are] larger questions about how it is government dollars are spent that would need to be a broader conversation.
I’m not looking to just redline programs because they seem wasteful to me. I think it’s important to recognize that within any large entity, particularly something as large and expansive as the federal government. What is most important for me is the fact that I acknowledge that there is absolutely wasteful spending within the government, within Congress I’m sure as well. Being ready to recognize and having conversations about what that spending, in fact, is or could be or where we could make smart cuts or not smart cuts. Just showing willingness to recognize that, those are conversations that we should at least be having to determine other issues.
Ashworth: Is that something you noticed a lot during your time with the CIA?
Spanberger: I wouldn’t say that, no. I think there are always places where you could find efficiencies. When I was in the private sector, when I was with the government, there were places where you should always be willing to have a longer-term conversation about what’s necessary [and] what’s not. I guess my whole premise is in anything, we should be having reasonable conversations about where we should or shouldn’t be spending our money. Particularly within the government, finding places where we can recognize what can be done in-house. When we outsource a lot of things, does that come with an extra cost to taxpayers, is a good question worth asking.
Rozycki: As a college student, I’m always very curious as to how we splice and dice our budget. It is the sort of thing you have to dive in and see for yourself.
Spanberger: What I think is most important is not be tied to “because we’ve done x, we should do x.” That’s the case in anything, but particularly when you start looking at budgeting. People start saying that once you begin to admit that maybe this isn’t as necessary as we might have otherwise thought, then do it with the whole thing. I was just looking at the Farm Bill that passed yesterday with significant cuts to SNAP. SNAP is one of the most effective anti-hunger programs that we have. Time and time again, it’s been shown to be an incredibly efficient use of government dollars to provide vital resources to families and children who need it.
Even when we’re looking at what we’re spending our money, if we’re spending our money on something incredibly efficient and provides a tremendous service and is, from a preventative perspective, really valuable, if you’re looking at what it costs, you’re not looking at the full picture. Even when you talk about looking at budgeting and what we spend our money on, what’s the outcome value? Something might have a tremendous price tag to it. But if the outcome value to it is important for healthcare reasons or ethical reasons or school productivity reasons or economic issues and reasons, it’s really important to look at the long term trajectory.
Rozycki: Recently, GayRVA released a piece on a group that focuses on the money bail system. That significantly comments on the outrageously high prison population system. There are many factors within the United States that contribute to that high population. Would you mind commenting on that really high prison population, those that are affected by it, and what can be done to change it?
Spanberger: When we look at the cash bail system that we have in the U.S., it disproportionately impacts socioeconomically disadvantaged Americans, and disproportionately impacts communities of color. So when you look at who’s languishing in our jails, it’s lower socioeconomic folks and communities of color. If you get arrested for something and you get the minimum jail and you don’t have the ability to make bail, then you lose your job and you might not be able to pay your rent. The cycle that it creates for people- that is the problem. The impacts are significant. I haven’t actually read any numbers to see what that turns into in terms of dollars or economic impacts on families, but in Fairfax there’s a judge who said he’s going to stop doing cash bail. Basically, his reasoning is, “I can’t ignore the disproportionate impact that exists because of the system that we use now. If someone is releasable, they’re releasable.”
There’s been studies that show putting bond up doesn’t make someone more or less likely to actually appear. If they’re a flight risk, they’re a flight risk. From a federal perspective, on the Senate side, [Kamala] Harris, and [Rand] Paul put forth a bill that would propose to reform the cash bail process in recognizing the inequities that exist within it. I think that’s something I’ve read through and read about the bill they put through on the Senate side and, in principal, I think it’s a really great bill and incredibly important.
Rozycki: How else do you think we could address the high prison population system?
Spanberger: There’s the Fair Sentencing Act that went into place a couple of years back. Also looking at changing the schedule of marijuana. Marijuana is currently a Schedule I drug, which the parameters for Schedule I is highly addictive, which most people would accept that marijuana doesn’t meet that standard. I think Congress has a significant role in pursuing criminal justice reform, both with the population of individuals already in prison, but when we’re looking at sentencing guidelines and whether or not we should be pursuing sentencing guidelines, I think that’s an important conversation to have.The Congressional Black Caucus put out a brief called, “We Have a Lot to Lose.” It’s a response to when the President on the campaign trail said “What do you have to lose?” to the African American community. So they wrote a response piece. It’s tremendous because it lays out statistics focused on the African American community and also legislative efforts that have been before Congress that would positively impact the concerns laid out.
Ashworth: Where do you see the marijuana debate going in the next year?
Spanberger: I have no idea. Just from the conversations that I’ve had along the campaign trail and the things people want to ask about, we are firmly in a place, especially now that medical marijuana passed at the state level here in Virginia, people seem very inclined to have a conversation about medical marijuana and what that means federally. Medical marijuana and access to medical marijuana seems to be on the minds of a lot of people. I do think it’s important that in the states that have chosen to legalize recreational marijuana, that there be the ability to put those dollars into the banking system.
Rozycki: You were a former law enforcement officer. You had been around guns. You carried one every single day. You vouch for responsible gun ownership. But in a world where we’re basically waiting for the next news of mass shootings, what does that look like?
Spanberger: It’s an evolving conversation. At the core, we need to be able to have conversations about guns that are informed by research, a sense of responsibility, and some level of mutual trust, which in this conversation is a really difficult thing to do. I carried a firearm every single day, so for me I understand the responsibility of carrying a firearm. I understand the amount of training. Frequently, I have found that it’s either, “I love shooting and I don’t want to lose my gun,” or, “I’m afraid of what would happen with your gun.” And there has to be a conversation where we’re not talking about your fear or your love.
We’re talking about the real societal issues that are impacting our communities. How is it that I can say I have children, and my children are going to go on a playdate, it’s socially appropriate for me to say, “Do you have a pool? My seven year old is not a great swimmer. Do you have a dog? My nine year old is a little bit nervous around them. Does your child have a peanut allergy? We eat peanut butter all the time.” But the minute I say, “Do you have any unsecured weapons,” that’s a different infringement, where it’s really a safety issue. That’s sort of the cultural piece that would ideally, in my background in law enforcement and my comfort and training with firearms, be part of a conversation that I’d like to be in, because I understand why gun owners who like to recreationally shoot would like to recreationally shoot. I get it. But let’s talk about the actual issues and the violence that’s perpetuated with a firearm.
Ashworth: Without fear and without love is suggesting a conversation without emotion, but this is an incredibly emotional topic, especially for people who have relatives or friends who have been harmed by firearms. How would you begin that conversation?
Spanberger: It starts with admitting we have a problem. Guns don’t shoot people, but people in a point of crisis shoot people with a gun. You can’t shoot someone without a gun. That’s the tool of choice. Background checks are the first thing. The [gun] violence restraining orders, which are state laws that allow for people who are in a point of crisis to have their guns temporarily restrained. There’s federal legislation going called the GVRO Act that would incentivize states to put those forms of legislation in place. I think one of the big issues is people view universal background checks as raising the standard as opposed to just ensuring that everybody goes through the process.
Rozycki: Dave Brat has been on the media recently about immigration policy. He claims that Democrats are not coming forward and playing ball with him because Republicans have supposedly put out policies on immigration.
Spanberger: I think that his assertions do not take into account the fact that Democrats have tried in years past and made a lot of forward momentum on immigration issues, immigration reform. I think the real issue is that immigration has so many different questions, and to just say Democrats don’t want to play ball on immigration is not even a fair comment, because when we’re looking at families being separated at the border, that is a choice to pursue that policy and aggressively go after asylees who have a legal right.
Now, we’re conflating illegal immigration with people entering the asylum program process, which people have a legal right to do. Looking at the TPS (temporary protected status) and the president’s decision to just remove temporary protected status, it negatively impacts our businesses. Individuals who are here with TPS status have full legal authorization and they, across this country, are filling thousands upon thousands of jobs. So there are companies who are opposed to revoking TPS status, in addition to the national security threat that causes when you push people back to a country that had such humanitarian woes that put people here on TPS.
It needs to be a bipartisan solution. I think holding kids hostage at the border in order to be able to push through a budget bill and a farm bill and potentially make moves on other things is just inappropriate. It’s an incredibly complicated issue and if we’re trying to make impact, I think we need to chunk by chunk ask what are the different communities that were impacted, and what problems are we trying to solve? When we say we need immigration reform, do we fear that our borders are too porous? Do we fear that we’re not addressing the terrorist threat? Do we fear that we’re not bringing in enough highly-skilled workers? We’re not actually even defining the problem. We need people in Congress that are willing to sit down and define what problems it is that we’re actually trying to address. Just saying the liberals won’t play ball is an oversimplification of a really complex issue.
Rozycki: Do you have any response to the claims that Brat made that Democrats are not playing ball and that they have a more globalist perspective at the expense of Americans?
Spanberger: Democrats are Americans, and Democrats are working to pursue policies that will positively impact American workers, American citizens, and people who someday dream of being Americans. Doing that in the global economy is absolutely among the most American things you can do. I think he’s trying to scare people with this notion of globalists and Democrats and all the rest.
This interview has been edited for clarity. Madelyne Ashworth contributed to this report.