Since announcing her candidacy for state senator in Delaware’s First District, located in Wilmington, Sarah McBride has broken fundraising records and earned endorsements from local officials, including current First District Sen. Harris McDowell, and national figures, such as Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
All was going smoothly until the COVID-19 pandemic changed the ability of political candidates to reach voters face-to-face, forcing McBride’s campaign to adjust to the new reality.
“These are certainly unprecedented times for so many of us in so many ways and for those of us who are candidates for office it requires getting creative about how we are connecting with voters,” explains McBride. “Particularly here in Delaware door knocking has been at the center of our campaigns and it was at the center of my campaign prior to the stay-at-home order. While we are no longer able to connect with voters face-to-face at the doors, we know that it is just as important to continue to reach out to people. More than anything else to check in with how they’re doing, express our well wishes, and share information or resources that people don’t know are necessarily available.”
Looking ahead to the rest of the campaign McBride is “eager to be able to interact with voters and [her] future constituents,” but says that “public health has to come first.” She supports HB175, which would create universal vote-by-mail in Delaware.
McBride also sees this pandemic as highlighting the importance of issues she emphasizes in her campaign, including access to healthcare and paid family leave. Even before the pandemic, McBride saw the Delaware economy as being at an “inflection point.”
Now she says that “the economic ramifications of this pandemic — the businesses that are suffering, the workers who lost their jobs — reinforces that we have our work cut out for us to attract new jobs, particularly green jobs, to Delaware so that we can repair our economy and reimagine our economy to better work for everyone.”
While McBride focuses her campaign on local issues, her candidacy also has a historic component: if elected, she would be the first openly transgender state senator in the country.
Mara Kiesling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality Action Fund, believes that focusing on policy questions allows McBride to shine as someone who is “smart, progressive, has a great heart, and understands that public service isn’t about her.”
“The people of Wilmington haven’t been sitting around for 10 years saying, ‘gee whiz, I wish we had a transgender senator,’” said Kiesling. “They are worried about healthcare, roads, and the economy. Sarah is worried about those things too and has a vision and has the skills.”
McBride sees herself not as a “transgender candidate,” but as a “candidate who happens to be transgender.”
“I’m not running to be a transgender state senator, I’m certainly not running away from my identity either. I’m proud of who I am and it’s something many people in Delaware and elsewhere know about me,” said McBride. “I also want people to understand that I’m running to work on all of the issues that matter to the First Senate District and my background and experience go beyond my identity.
In an interview with the Delaware News Journal, former Democrat and executive secretary of the Wilmington Housing Authority Board of Commissioners Steve Washington, who decided to run for the First State Senate District as a Republican because he felt he was “being taken as a joke” by Democrats indicated that he may seek to make “family values” — a term with homophobic and transphobic connotations — an issue in the campaign.
“I get a very good response about family, about values,” said Washington. “The structure of the family has been broken down, and we need to fix it.”
But many LGBTQ political leaders doubt the effectiveness of using a candidate’s gender identity or sexual orientation against them.
“You have to stay on your message of what you are doing for the community,” said Sean Meloy, political director of the LGBTQ Victory Fund, where McBride once worked as an intern. “We have advanced to a point where that disrespect usually will not play well.”
“Just like the people of Wilmington aren’t sitting around saying ‘I wish I had a trans Senator,’ they also aren’t saying ‘I hope I don’t have a trans senator,’” said Kiesling. “If someone wants to run on Sarah being trans, they are not running on health care, the economy, and roads.”
Before the November election, McBride will face Joseph McCole in the September primary. McCole received less than 30 percent of the vote in the 2016 Democratic primary against McDowell and has no active campaign.
Although McBride is taking nothing for granted in her reliably Democratic district, she feels good about her chances in the election.
“From the start of this campaign we have run with the knowledge that we can have both a primary and a general. We’re ready for whatever comes our way,” says McBride. “I’m confident that voters are responding positively to our message. I’m confident that we’ll win in September and win in November.”