Washington Post: Abigail Spanberger gets it. Will Democrats follow her lead?


Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) knows how to win in a district that can tilt Republican.

She won her 7th Congressional District in 2018, even though it had gone for Donald Trump for president in 2016. In 2020, voters in what will be her newly drawn district for the midterms went for Joe Biden by 6½ points; in 2021, they chose Republican Glenn Youngkin for governor by 5½.

This fall, she’ll face her first election in that district, and she’ll once again need to appeal to both Republicans and Democrats. Her fellow Democrats might want to pay attention to how a political survivor in a competitive district listens to voters and responds with smartly crafted legislation.

In 2020, Spanberger began talking with right-wing Rep. Chip Roy (R-Tex.) about banning individual stock ownership and trades by members, their spouses and dependent children. In the midst of the pandemic, Spanberger recalls, news surfaced that members were trading in pharmaceutical stocks, leading her and Roy to a conversation on the House floor. “We said, ‘This is ridiculous. How is this even allowed?’ ”

They agreed that even if some stock trades were legal under current law, the image of members feathering their own nests was awful. It was one thing to hold retirement or mutual funds, but holding individual stocks reinforced the public perception that Congress is corrupt.

As far as voters are concerned, Spanberger thinks, “perception is reality,” which is why she has never accepted corporate PAC money. She says voters should never have to wonder whether her vote is influenced by outside contributions or whether campaign donations determine whether she “takes or doesn’t take a meeting.”

The result of Spanberger’s push was the Trust in Congress Act, introduced by her and Roy in 2020 and then reintroduced in 2021. Under the bill, members, their spouses and dependent children would be required to place covered investments into a qualified blind trust within 90 days of the member assuming office. Affected individuals could remove assets from the blind trust 180 days after leaving. The legislation now has 20 co-sponsors, and Sens. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.) and Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) have introduced a companion bill in the Senate.

Spanberger tells me that when she discusses the issue with voters, they often react with surprise. A common response is: “I can’t believe you’re allowed to do this now!” The stock ban legislation naturally gets rave reviews. “If I’m talking about the legislation, it comes up in the context of ‘Congress is not working. Congress is not working for me. The system is not working.’ ” At a time when trust in Congress is low and voters are convinced most politicians are crooks, Spanberger thinks the bill is a no-brainer: “This is an opportunity to proactively affirm to the American people we are absolutely trustworthy.”

The bill has attracted plenty of buzz, and Spanberger continues to get positive reaction from members on both sides of the aisle (although some take the attitude that they are not doing anything wrong — so the legislation is unnecessary). Good-government groups of all political bents have lined up in support, too.

Asked recently about banning individual stock ownership, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) dismissed the idea. “We’re a free-market economy,” she said. “They should be able to participate in that.” That actually generated more interest in the bill — and rare criticism of the speaker from her fellow Democrats.

Spanberger says she has not discussed this specific bill with Pelosi; she hopes it can go through the normal markup process and reach the floor without resort to a discharge petition. And if Democrats do not pass it, Republicans no doubt will love to run on the issue. Indeed, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has already suggested Republicans will look at it if they are back in the majority.

It’s hard to argue with Spanberger’s rationale. “The American people don’t have enough faith in us,” she says bluntly. Legislators’ going the extra mile to rearrange their own finances is “something people positively respond to,” she says. “They respond to the idea that with the honor [of serving], we must face certain restrictions.”

Democrats have been faulted for failing to listen closely enough to voters concerned not only about inflation and the coronavirus but also about the acrimony, fighting and perceived lack of ethics in Washington. Instead of fighting about who lost Build Back Better or trading barbs about failing to pass voting rights, Democrats would be well advised to start passing discrete bills that have wide support.

If Democrats have any doubt about how to regain their footing, they should check in with members such as Spanberger whose political survival depends on listening closely to Democrats and Republicans alike.

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