PHOTO: Rebecca D’Angelo DESIGN: Doug Dobey
by Charles McGuigan
Abigail Spanberger swore an oath at age twenty-four “to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” She made that commitment back in 2004 when she went to work as a federal agent with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, during that era of sealed envelopes containing deadly white powder. A couple years later, again with her left hand palm-down on a Bible and her right arm raised, she would mouth the same sacred words, this time as she joined the ranks of the Central Intelligence Agency, where she and her fellow agents risked life and limb to protect our nation from terrorism, nuclear proliferation and narco-trafficking. Like many American citizens, Abbie is somewhat concerned about the direction our country seems to be taking, and being a patriot hopes this January to once again swear an oath to protect our Republic—this time as the representative for Virginia’s 7th Congressional District.
Early on a Saturday afternoon in September at Hatcher Memorial Baptist Church in Lakeside the smell of roasting pork lures hundreds of people to an array of tents and tables set up on the grounds. There’s live music, kids playing corn hole, and plenty of barbecue of every conceivable style—all part of the McShin Foundation’s annual Recovery Fest & BBQ Cook Off. Wandering among the people here, periodically stopping to chat folks up, is a blonde-haired woman who’s running against the Tea Party incumbent for Virginia’s 7th District seat in Congress. Over the past several months, Abigail Spanberger has done well over a hundred meet-and-greets and stump speeches through this massive district that runs from Orange to Powhatan, with a large suburban swath of Henrico and Chesterfield. We talk, as she mingles.
Abbie grew up in western Henrico County, attended Tucker High School, spent a year at William and Mary then studied abroad before returning to the Commonwealth where she completed her bachelor’s in French and foreign affairs at the University of Virginia. Later, she would earn an MBA in a dual-degree program between the German International School of Management and Administration, and Purdue University.
“Then I moved to Northern Virginia and I started applying around for federal jobs because I always wanted to pursue a career in public service,” she tells me, as we walk through the crowd. “And my first public service job was law enforcement. I was a federal agent with the US Postal Inspection Service. I worked on what was called the Dangerous Mail Team. And then after a couple years there, I went to C.I.A. and became a C.I.A. officer. Like most C.I.A. officers I worked a variety of cases, everything from terrorism, which I worked the entirety of my time with the agency, to nuclear proliferation cases, narco-trafficking cases, and political and economic reporting.”
As she moves off to join John Shinholser, I leave, and await a lengthy interview the following week at the candidate’s campaign office on Parham Road.
We sit around a long table in a long room, and I ask Abbie about the clownish attack ad created by a Super PAC that refers to a school where Abbie taught as “Terror High”. It has the feel of the front page of The National Enquirer.
“I was a long-term substitute teacher at the Islamic Saudi Academy, an embassy school for Saudi Arabia in Alexandria,” says Abbie. “I taught ‘Wuthering Heights’ there, I taught ‘Hamlet’, using the same sort of giant purple textbooks that I had used in Henrico County public schools.”
She pauses for a moment, then smiles. “Those attacks that they’ve come out with are silly,” says Abbie. “If they had something to run on, they wouldn’t need to run these ridiculous things.”
“My opponent is driven much by ideology, which does not represent or address the concerns of people living across this district,” she says. “When you’re driven by ideology, it’s harder to find solutions, because you’re not listening, you’re not engaged, you’re not working to really try and understand all sides of an issue.”
Her opponent has fully embraced the Tea Party ideology. “It’s representative of disruption,” Abbie says. “Disruptions can be good when they are aimed at being productive, but the problem with the Tea Party is that when they got to Congress . . . and then they morphed into the Freedom Caucus, they continued to be disruptors, but that action was turned into obstructionism.”
“All sound and fury?” I ask.
“Absolutely,” she says.
Which brings us to the current state of affairs in our country.
“The president has set a tone for this country and the trajectory that we’re on right now is incredibly detrimental to our communities, to our country, to our place in the world, and to our overall future,” she says. “I’m talking about everything from the inappropriate way in which our president talked about people of different backgrounds, be they disabled, be they women, be they of different ethnic or cultural backgrounds. This is when he was a candidate, and it’s only continued.”
That tone she speaks of does nothing to unify us as a nation. “We’ve seen him focused on issues that are divisive,” Abbie says. “We’ve seen him continue to tweet in a way where he’s prioritizing himself and his own reputation over the reputation of this country. That’s the bigger issue. That we’ve arrived at a place where some people don’t care about facts, and across the board having people in Washington who don’t care about facts, who are focused on crowd size, are focused on other things that are just inconsequential, and arguing about things that are provably true, or provably false.”
She mentions a presidential tweet of last month that was arguing about the death toll in Puerto Rico resulting from last year’s Hurricane Maria. “The tweet about Puerto Rico was particularly distasteful because these people are dead,” says Abbie. “It’s one thing to argue numbers of a crowd, or argue number of attendance at a rally. But it’s another thing to argue numbers over actual family members, human lives, mothers, fathers, children, grandparents, who are no longer alive.”
Last summer, Abbie had one the fondest recollections of her early adulthood forever changed. “One of my most vivid memories was of my college graduation day when we all stood waiting to proceed down the lawn as part of our graduation procession, and we stood at the base of the Rotunda at the statue where you later saw people bearing torches,” she remembers. “I stood there with my closest friends from college in what was one of the most exciting days in my life until that point in time. And so watching people hold torches and shout things that are so objectively offensive and wrong and hateful in a place where my memories are about the gift of learning and the opportunity of an education and being there with friends in this celebratory place, was such a juxtaposition of how I remembered that exact place and then how it was being shown to the world.”
And though the place of this outrageous gathering of Nazis was in her beloved Charlottesville, the location was immaterial. “The issue is that we had people on the streets in a city in the United States saying horrifically racist things and chanting Nazi slogans,” she says. “And for any American, particularly those who have spent any time studying history, those images should have been shocking and easy to denounce. And we’ve created an environment culturally where some people aren’t standing up for what is acceptable and what is unacceptable in a society such as ours.”
Abbie is sometimes alarmed at the current administration’s apparent lack of understanding about international relations. “As a C.I.A. officer I learned the United States has a very interesting role in the world in terms of being a stabilizing force, being a voice of reason, being a dependable partner to our allies, be it in negotiations related to trade, or environmental policy or national security issues, or intelligence sharing,” she says. “I worry about the fact that the current administration seems unwilling to recognize the value of so many partnerships. And when we overlook the challenges that are presented by adversary nations like Russia and North Korea, I feel there is generally an oversimplification or a lack of understanding of the threat that those nations actually pose to our country.”
The morning of this interview the first allegation of sexual assault was lobbed at Brett Kavanaugh (now Supreme Court Justice), so Abbie doesn’t address these concerns about him. But she has others.
“I make this comment as a voter,” she says. “I think it is concerning that we have a president who made promises about trying to nominate Supreme Court justices who are focused on legislating from the bench. The Supreme Court is supposed to be one of the checks and balances. It shouldn’t be driving legislation.”
Then there were the apparent contradictions between what he told the Senate, and what he had previously written. “I am of the opinion that anyone who aspires to serve the community either through elected office or on the bench, or as a person of public trust, be it a police officer, a sheriff’s deputy, a teacher, that those individuals should be held to the highest standard possible,” says Abbie. “So the fact that his opinion would differ, and it seems that he is purposefully saying what it is the senators want to hear, that’s a concerning allegation.”
Some Republicans are not at all happy with the current leadership as Abbie learned firsthand while traveling through the 7th District. “I encounter men and women who have traditionally been Republican, telling me they will vote Democrat this year,” she says.
She recalls one event hosted by a couple living in the district. “The husband, when he introduced me, said, ‘I’m a Republican, I’ve always identified as a Republican, I’ve stood still in what I believe, but the Republican Party has left me, so I don’t know what I am anymore, but I’m voting for her.’” He gestured toward Abigail Spanberger.
“We’ve encountered a number of people who are still consistent in what they prioritize, which is general fiscal responsibility, a functioning government, and planks that have been historically owned by the Republican Party,” Abbie says. “There are people feeling adrift and are more identifying as independents, or looking to vote based on candidate, and so while they might be willing to vote for me in this race, that doesn’t make them a Democrat, and that doesn’t mean they would support all Democrats. I think there are people who are focused on evaluating who is going to put the priorities of the community and the priorities of the country above anything else.”
She considers some of language used about immigrants by the current administration. “It’s a similar attack on every other group,” Abbie says. “It’s just bullying behavior. I think left out of that conversation is that we are and became the greatest country in the world because we took people willing to leave everything behind and try new things and come to this country on a boat with nothing.”
In attack ads, claims have been made that Abbie supports open borders. Nothing could be further from the truth.
“I am not in favor of open boarders, remember I worked drug-trafficking and terrorism with C.I.A. and terrorism,” she says. “Conflating border security with immigration issues is an oversimplification, and it’s a way to foment fear. We can have strong borders, and well-monitored borders and they are things we should prioritize. But that doesn’t mean that anyone who wants to come to this country has ill-intent.”
One of the many things that concerns Abbie is how healthy and ardent debate has left the forefront of American politics. “No matter what your ideas are, no matter how strong you think your opinion is, if you can’t stand up to someone challenging you, then your idea probably isn’t that strong, because in being challenged you are forced to evaluate what it is you believe and it’s through that evaluation that you can strengthen your opinion, you can strengthen your argument, or you might be forced to take on a new perspective that you hadn’t previously understood,” she says. “From a historical perspective we are reaching a place where people don’t want that fervent debate. I think that is very detrimental to our country. We’re shying away from what has made us strong, and what does make us strong, which has been a richness of diverse opinions and people that push and pull and debate and argue and try to focus on how they can come to agreements over particular items.”
As a teenager in high school, Abbie lived for six months on Capitol Hill where she served as a page in the U.S. Senate. “I was on the Senate floor every day, and so I had an opportunity to see Senator McCain every day,” she says. “He was feisty, but he was always engaged with everyone. He fought for what he believed in, and I certainly didn’t agree with him all the time, but you always knew he believed it was in the best interest of the country.”
She remembers watching McCain tangle with another Senate lion, a man named Ted Kennedy.
“They’d be arguing vociferously and then they’d walk behind the gallery and slap each other on the back and go to lunch,” she says. “These people were standing up for what they believed in, and they were stronger for being challenged. And I think we need a lot more leaders like that in Washington today.”
Of all the many issues her constituents are concerned about, healthcare tops the list. And it was personal experience with this issue that propelled Abbie to toss her hat in the ring.
Right after the last presidential inauguration, Abbie began to seriously entertain the idea of entering the race. Friends urged her on. She and her husband, Adam, spent hours talking about it. They’re both analytical: he an engineer, she a former intel officer. And then in May, shortly after a Republican healthcare vote that threatened those with pre-exisiting conditions, Abbie knew what she had to do.
“We have friends who have a little girl with a degenerative neurological disorder,” Abbie says.
The day of that vote her friends felt a keen sense of fear and despair. What else could possibly happen? they wondered. Shortly after that, while she was sitting with her husband, Abbie turned to him and said: “They spend every single day fighting for their little girl. And there are people like them all around this country who are feeling a level of fear or anger or concern and they need somebody to stand up for them. They’re fighting for their little girl, they need someone to fight for protecting pre-existing conditions, and they need someone to fight for lifetime cap provisions.”
So the decision was made then and there. “They are a driving force for me,” says Abbie. “And on days when the campaign gets really hard I think this is nothing compared to the challenges they face as parents, which, God-willing, I’ll never begin to know.” The Spanbergers have three young daughters of their own.
“They’re just emblematic of people across the board who need someone who will stand up for what is right,” Abbie says.
When I ask her if she fears for the safety of our democracy, she says, “Where we are is definitely a unique time in our history, but it isn’t unparalleled or wholly unprecedented, and I think that we, as a country, have shown that we are a resilient people who sometimes go off the wrong path, but through our decision to engage in our democratic process, and through our commitment to our democratic process, we may teeter and totter a bit, but we will get back on track. And I think that’s what 2018 is all about.”
Abbie talks about two of the biggest influences in her life, who, like her, served their country.
”My grandfather fought in World War II and he came home, met my grandmom, and they had four kids, and she died at 32 of a stroke,” she says. “He was left with four little kids. He worked in a paint factory, he raised his kids, and he was the most hopeful, optimistic person I’ve ever met. And he always instilled in me this idea that it is what you make it, you have to choose your path forward. He chose to find good in dark places. He chose to do the right thing.”
The other influence was her father.
“He was a federal agent with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service,” says Abbie. “My parents used to say that there’s no greater vocation than service to country. I always wanted to be like my dad. He was a shining example of sense of duty.
“And people ask, ‘What does it mean that all these people who are running have a background in military service and federal service?’” Abigail Spanberger says. “For me it’s a really easy question to answer. We had previously committed ourselves to this country in a non-partisan fashion, and to see partisan politics ripping it all apart is difficult. Is it too optimistic to believe you can be part of a sea change in Washington? I don’t think it is.”