2018 has been a banner year for trans candidates at every level of government. From Christine Hallquist running for governor in Vermont to Martin Rawlings-Fein and Mia Satya campaigning for school board seats in San Francisco, transgender candidates are turning out in force to participate in the political system.
Daye Pope of Trans United Fund, a trans-led advocacy group pushing to improve representation in politics, says this reflects a growing interest in political engagement that started in 2016, with the contentious presidential election and a flood of discriminatory bills in multiple states. “What that revealed to us,” she says, speaking of the political landscape in 2016, “was that trans and nonbinary people didn’t have the political power that we needed to define the changes in society that we need to see.”
This November, two trans men are among those trying to build that power by running for seats in their state legislatures.
Everett Maroon is challenging Bill Jenkin, a one-term Republican incumbent who favors business, lower taxes, and school choice, in rural Washington state for the 16th Legislative District, which covers several counties, including Walla Walla, in the mostly left-leaning southeastern part of the state. Finnigan Jones is vying for the Texas House District 94 seat, representing communities near Fort Worth, currently held by Republican Tony Tinderholt. Tinderholt is a member of the Texas Freedom Caucus, which rallies around causes like restricting access to reproductive health care, passing “religious freedom” bills, persecuting immigrants, and policing who uses which bathroom.
Both men point out that although their identities are important to them, their genders are far from the most vital issue of their campaigns.
“I’m not running because I’m trans,” Maroon said. “But because I’m trans, it does something for other people to be able to say, ‘If Everett can do it, why can’t I think of myself as a future governor, or senator?’” While he does plan to represent the trans community’s interests in Olympia, including codifying the right to access gender-affirming care in Washington state, that’s just one part of the work he wants to do.
Maroon, a 48-year-old parent of two children with his spouse Susanne Beechey, works for a nonprofit organization focused on health-care issues and co-chairs the Greater Columbia Accountable Community of Health’s opioid demonstration project in addition to serving on the finance committee for the Walla Walla County Department of Community Health. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his credentials, Maroon has positioned himself as the health-care candidate, in terms of improving quality and access for Washington residents.
One of the cornerstones of Maroon’s campaign is a single-payer approach for Washington state, rooted in his policy experience in the health-care sector. He supports the creation of a public-private trust that would cover all those in need, including Canadian tourists and undocumented immigrants.
In response to concerns from the disability community about who might be left out by single-payer, Maroon is firm: “There’s a way for us to do reform and not drop out some of the most critical patients in the mix.” His interactions with constituents have included members of the disability community who have helped him rethink and refine his work.
Of particularly pressing interest is the opioid epidemic, something Maroon sees firsthand on the ground in his hometown of Walla Walla. He notes Medicaid coverage for addiction treatment is insufficient, covering just 30 days when most research suggests patients need 45 to 60. His work in the health-care sector has included coordinating rural providers to create a better safety net for people struggling with opioids, including keeping people out of the legal system, supporting families, and improving access to care and tools people might need to get back on their feet.
Health care isn’t the only issue on Maroon’s agenda. He’d also like to get to work on a free college program, and he’s concerned about economic relief for potential constituents expressing frustration with high gas prices, costly housing, and few job opportunities.
Maroon told Rewire.News that members of his district’s large Latinx population are “just so dispirited, demoralized, and disillusioned with this political environment. They’re so exhausted by being a target for this administration as the source of all ill that they feel very unmotivated to vote, don’t see how voting matters, don’t think anybody cares, and don’t think their votes will be counted.” That’s motivated him in door-knocking campaigns and conversations to make it clear that “it’s critical people stay engaged.”
51-year-old Finnegan Jones aims to represent a constituency in a much redder landscape, where Tinderholt took nearly three-quarters of the vote in 2016. But when it comes to going door to door, he’s hearing many of the same things from constituents that Maroon does. And while some may stereotype Texas as a uniformly conservative state, Jones says those he’s spoken with in his campaigning are far more interested in what he wants to do in Austin than in his gender.
Jones, who has seen the painful cost of what he terms the “culture wars” in Texas, told Rewire.News: “Being the first trans man [to run] is exciting, but I also just want to be of service to my constituents.” His campaign also taps into his personal ethics. “For me, fighting for minority communities is just what I do. Somebody’s gotta keep these fights going. Our elders fought hard for us to be able to do what we do .… I owe this to them, to continue that fight, continue the progress.”
Jones, a disabled United States Coast Guard veteran and father who has worked in the medical technology and aerospace industries, brings his military experience and trans advocacy work to his campaign. After heavy involvement in opposition to discriminatory “bathroom bills” in 2017, he found himself longing to “bring common sense back for all Texans.”
The cornerstone of his campaign is education, a cause he’s intimately familiar with thanks to his wife, who’s a retired teacher. “We’ve got to get our teachers a living wage that’s comparable to their degrees. Many of my constituents who are teachers are having to work second or third jobs,” he says. In a year when teachers across many states like West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky pushed for better pay and benefits, his campaign is particularly timely. While Texas teachers haven’t joined the picket yet, in part because of state law that puts their pensions and certifications at risk if they do, they are growing restless. He argues the state is “not paying its fair share” of education costs, and neither are corporations taking advantage of tax loopholes.
He’s also pushing for Medicaid expansion. “We left four billion dollars on the table,” he says, commenting that the state’s legislature and then-Gov. Rick Perry gave up an opportunity to extend coverage to 4.5 million Texans because the expansion was associated with the Affordable Care Act, a cornerstone of President Barack Obama’s administration. NPR notes that overall, the amount of money Texas is turning down is closer to $100 billion over ten years. As a lawmaker, Jones could be in a position to reintroduce and support legislation to force the state to take advantage of Medicaid expansion—as seen in Maine, where voters and the legislature are trying to overcome the governor’s objections to the program. Medicaid isn’t the only issue he’s worried about; Jones acknowledges rural hospital closures are a cause for concern in Texas, as is health-care discrimination against the trans community, and he’d like to do something about the long delays in treatment at the veterans’ affairs facility as well.
Like Maroon, he’s also concerned about the immigrant community in the district. He relates a story of knocking on doors and meeting an immigrant family who refused to open the door to him until he told them he’s a Democrat: “That just breaks my heart, to see people frightened in their own homes.”
Like their trans colleagues across the United States, Maroon and Jones face challenges from within their own party. “Trans candidates—and trans folks who are interested in running—often have trouble being taken seriously by local or state party officials, who play important roles in candidate recruitment, training, and fundraising,” explained Logan Casey, an independent political scientist who tracks transgender candidates for office. “Hopefully the last couple years of record numbers of trans candidates both running and winning will help change both voters’ and party leaders’ minds about the viability of transgender candidates.”
For trans candidates across the country in November, even a loss could be a win, increasing visibility for the community and emboldening other people to run for office too.