PERSONAL ESSAY: Allison Friedman Is Running for Congress
“It’s a unicorn,” Alison Friedman’s 9-year-old daughter, Olivia, announced matter-of-factly after our introduction without missing a beat, tugging the hood of her white sweater over her shoulder to reveal what was, in fact, an attached unicorn head with a metallic rainbow horn. It was December 2017, but the foliage and the unusually warm temperatures outside the local Virginia deli where we met made for perfect sweater weather.
Her mother, a first-time Democratic candidate in what people are calling the hottest midterm House race to watch in Virginia — if not nationally — stood by and shook her head laughing. Friedman, 38, is emblematic of a movement that ignited women throughout the nation when Donald J. Trump officially became president of the United States in January 2016.
In light of his victory, many women from different walks of life — teachers to civil servants to stay-at-home moms — have made the life-altering decision to take matters into their own hands and, with no prior political experience, run for office.
Friedman is one of those women. She is one of 11 Democrats in a jam-packed primary vying for the chance to take Republican incumbent Barbara Comstock head-on in Virginia’s 10th Congressional District.
“This is a key race. If the Democrats are going to take the House in 2018, this is a must-win for them,” Tom Davis, a former Republican congressman from Virginia who chaired the National Republican Congressional Committee, tells Teen Vogue.
After ordering a pressed green juice and settling into the high-top metal chair next to mine, Friedman explained that her desire to stand up to the president — who she calls “the embodiment of abuses of power” — emboldened her to throw her hat in the ring.
She used this wording on purpose. Friedman described working in places like Congo, Thailand, and Brazil as a State Department official in the Obama administration where she focused on combating human trafficking. She says she was fighting abuses of power then. And that’s what she intends to do now.
“When I would ask survivors and activists what we could do for them, they would say, ‘Make sure your rights are secure [in the U.S.],’” she said, pausing before continuing with greater urgency. “They said, ‘If America stops protecting its values, there is no backstop for us.’”
This, combined with a letter her daughter wrote to President Trump after the 2016 election, inspired Friedman to run for office. As Friedman describes in an emotional campaign video, Olivia wouldn’t let her mother take a picture of that letter because she was afraid that Trump would see it and “bring his guns” to their house. Friedman recounts in the video, “it made me feel like, if she can write that letter believing it endangers herself, I can do more.”
And while this is her first time running for office (unless you count the one time she ran for fifth-grade class treasurer), Friedman, the daughter of two activists, has advocacy coursing through her veins. She answered phones for Al Gore’s campaign and went on to work as executive director of ASSET, an anti-slavery NGO founded by actress Julia Ormond, before being tapped by the Obama administration.
In seventh grade, she confronted a male science teacher after he made sexist remarks in class. She studied political science at Stanford, and sign language — a skill that she’s lost over time, save the ability to sign choice ’90s boy-band lyrics, she told me, laughing as she gesticulated, “I want it that way.”
Friedman wants to empower the next generation. When it comes to that demographic, Friedman believes in incentivizing creativity and opening up opportunities for innovation.
“I think, obviously, this tax bill is horrid,” she said, curling up her face in distaste. “If you buy into the idea that tax code and economic policy is about investing in what you want more of, we’re not doing that. [Young people] probably feel that more acutely than most.”
Friedman does not believe that the Republican incumbent, Congresswoman Comstock, (whose office did not respond to multiple invitations from Teen Vogue to discuss her campaign) has acted as an effective check on President Trump, citing that she has voted 97% in line with his agenda.
Courtney Alexander, communications director for the Congressional Leadership Fund — a super PAC dedicated to strengthening the Republican majority in the House, said in an emailed statement to Teen Vogue, “Barbara Comstock stands out in Congress with a proven record of accomplishment for her district, especially when looking at her leadership fighting for women against sexual assault. That’s a record that resonates with Virginians.”
On Comstock’s activism regarding sexual harassment, Friedman says, “I’m glad Barbara Comstock has been talking about this issue. But I think her commitment would be more meaningful if she was working as hard to hold the president accountable for his sexual assault.”
Half of the Republican seats that were flipped blue in Virginia’s local House of Delegates elections are located in Virginia’s 10th, Friedman says. They were all won by first-time candidates, most of them women.
So Friedman, who spent upwards of 50 hours knocking on doors for these delegate candidates in her district, like Danica Roem, has reason to feel confident. She has raised over $1 million since announcing her bid in early June 2017, garnering support from celebrities such as Jennifer Garner and Barbra Streisand to surpass her Democratic challengers in fundraising.
“The 10th has become, in the Trump era, a deep blue sea of almost-impossibility for Republicans to hold. Every demographic group that’s crashing for the Republican party is overrepresented in the 10th District,” Ben Tribbett, a Northern Virginia Democratic political strategist, tells Teen Vogue.
He is referring here to white, well-educated, and wealthy voters who have historically been the bulwark of the Republican vote. Nestled right outside of Washington, D.C., there is no shortage of this demographic in the 10th District, which catches the richest county in America.
Yet Governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat, won the district with 54% of the vote in November 2017. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won with a comfortable margin over Trump. And although Comstock held her seat in that election, and while it’s been almost 40 years since the district had a Democratic representative, she should feel vulnerable — especially since the president’s party traditionally loses seats in Congress in the midterms.
“That’s why you see such a crowded field, because people are realizing, All I have to do is win this primary and I’m going to Congress,” Tribbett says of the Democratic candidates. Republicans I talked to, on the other hand, think it’s more complicated and say that the primary will be messy.
Friedman has a long road ahead — one that she intends to ride out with Olivia close to her side. “My daughter inspires me,” she said. “She’s at an age where she still believes in unicorns and anything is possible.“