Chandler Poised to Make Historic Run
HAVERHILL -- For Alexandra Chandler, talking on the campaign trail about her experience as a transgender woman has been a balancing act.
The 3rd Congressional District hopeful, one of 10 Democrats competing in the primary race, has several talking points to hit. Chandler spent more than a decade as a U.S. Navy intelligence analyst, studying North Korean weapons of mass destruction and terrorist activities across the globe. She likes to talk about her campaign’s success with small-dollar donors as well as her mostly progressive suggestions on health care, opioids and education.
But Chandler is also open about her journey: about knowing since she was a child that she identified as a woman, but not fully accepting it until she was an adult; about transitioning while she was at the Pentagon and the unexpected support she received from her mostly conservative superiors; about the pride and also the sense of responsibility that comes with being the first-ever openly transgender candidate for a federal office in Massachusetts.
Her candidacy comes at a pivotal moment for transgender rights both in the state, where a ballot question in November will decide the future of anti-transgender-discrimination laws, and across the country, where the Trump administration has rolled back protections for transgender individuals and attempted to ban them from military service.
“I have to give due weight to all of those things, and yet, when I consider myself as a trans candidate, there is something of a sense of responsibility at being the first,” Chandler said. “That means using that platform for the trans community in a way that supports it as a community that is under attack.”
Across the country, LGBTQ candidates are seeking office in record numbers, spurred partly in response to activists warning of growing discrimination. About 40 of the more than 400 LGBTQ candidates this cycle are transgender, including Chandler and Vermont gubernatorial candidate Christine Hallquist.
Eight of those 40-plus are running for Congress, according to Logan Casey, a political scientist who tracks the progress of transgender candidates on his website.
The other seven, though, either lost in their primaries or failed to make the ballot, leaving Chandler as the only remaining transgender congressional candidate in this cycle. If she wins the Sept. 4 primary -- no certainty in a field this competitive -- and the Nov. 6 general election, Chandler would become the first openly transgender member of Congress.
Her effort to do just that has drawn attention. The Trans United Fund, a political action committee supporting transgender candidates that last year helped Danica Roem become the first openly transgender woman to serve in a state legislature, endorsed Chandler in December. Charlotte Clymer, a vocal LGBTQ advocate who does communications for the Human Rights Campaign, tweeted to her 157,000 followers in support of Chandler on Wednesday morning.
“I don’t think you have to be trans to understand the impact of Alexandra representing parts of Massachusetts,” said Vanessa Ford, an educator and board member of the National Center for Transgender Equality’s 501(c)(3) who is a friend of Chandler.
Ford’s 7-year-old daughter, Ellie, is transgender, and Ford has spoken publicly at length to raise awareness about transgender youth. The two appeared in a video in support of Chandler in June, and the campaign plans to release another video highlighting Ellie’s story in the near future.
The Ford family lives in Massachusetts -- though outside the 3rd District -- and Vanessa felt compelled to help her friend’s effort because of the significance of Chandler’s candidacy and what it means for Ellie.
“I understand the struggles of vulnerable people and trans kids because I’ve been a trans kids,” Chandler said.
Although it was the first state in the country to recognize same-sex marriage, Massachusetts’ LGBTQ politicians have endured a complicated history. In 1983, then-U.S. Rep. Gerry Studds, who was first elected a decade earlier, was publicly revealed to be gay as the House censured him for an earlier affair with a 17-year-old congressional page. He continued to serve another 14 years, and today is considered the first out member of Congress.
Shortly after Althea Garrison was elected as a state representative in 1992, a Boston Herald reporter outed her as transgender.
Petitioners gathered enough signatures to force a ballot question in November on whether to keep the state’s 2016 law prohibiting discrimination against transgender individuals. A majority of “yes” votes would retain the laws, while a victory by “no” votes would repeal them.
The question is a sharp juxtaposition to Chandler’s historic run, and early polls indicate a tight race.
The topic has divided the Democratic primary for the 36th Middlesex District seat in the House of Representatives that represents Dracut and Tyngsboro. Longtime incumbent Colleen Garry of Dracut argues that she opposes the existing law because she fears it empowers pedophiles, while her opponent, Sabrina Heisey, also of Dracut, criticized Garry’s rhetoric as transphobic.
That disagreement even prompted the unusual move of Chandler, a first-time congressional candidate, endorsing Heisey, a first-time candidate for state representative.
Chandler has been vocally advocating for a “yes” vote on Question 3, worrying of a cascading effect in other states if Massachusetts repeals its law.
“I do have to speak out about Yes on 3,” Chandler said. “If the one openly transgender candidate for federal office in Massachusetts isn’t going to speak out about this, who will?”
In the end, Chandler faces a long climb to surpass nine other candidates in the crowded 3rd District primary (and, although the only transgender candidate, she is not the only LGBTQ candidate in the race -- Rufus Gifford is a gay man). But she believes her effort, successful or not, will make it easier for the next set of transgender candidates.
That is something that Ford hopes that Ellie will notice.
“Seeing a trans woman candidate for Congress while my daughter is young enough to not truly understand the significance,” she said, “to have her know that’s just another thing people can do -- that not only raises the ceiling, but raises the floor for her as a trans girl.”
Follow Chris on Twitter @ChrisLisinski.