Alexandra Chandler, who’s seeking to represent Massachusetts in the House of Representatives, talks to Moneyish about Roy Moore, Chelsea Manning and the ‘silent crisis’ of underemployment
This transwoman doesn’t just want to be known for being transgender.
When Alexandra Chandler transitioned on the job in 2006, she became the first transgender person to serve in the Office of Naval Intelligence. She endured a mixed initial reception — including a town hall at which a colleague, to some audience approval, protested sharing a bathroom with a “drag queen” — but went on to spend more than a decade preventing weapons of mass destruction from falling into the hands of America’s enemies.
“In a political environment in which there’s so much inaction, I’ve thrived,” the 40-year-old, who left the Department of Defense this past fall, tells Moneyish. “When inaction is not an option, I’ve succeeded.”
Her latest act: elected office. Chandler’s one of a handful of Democrats, including a former U.S. ambassador to Denmark, seeking the party’s nomination for Massachusetts’ third congressional district after incumbent Rep. Niki Tsongas decided not to seek re-election. And if elected next November in an overwhelmingly Democratic district — Tsongas won about two-thirds of the vote in 2016 — she would be the first openly transgender person to serve in Congress.
Chandler is taking a leaf from the playbook of Danica Rohm, a transwoman who recently unseated a homophobic incumbent in Virginia’s House of Delegates, and almost ignoring her gender identity. “You run on the issues and win by talking to middle class people. For her, it was helping her constituents with transportation, for me it’s unemployment,” says Chandler, who is married with two sons. “I’m a transgender woman but also a working mother.”
Educated at Brown and Brooklyn Law School, Chandler joined the intelligence community after her then-girlfriend, and now wife, was stuck on the subway in lower Manhattan for hours after the Twin Towers fell. September 11, 2001 was also the seventh anniversary of her father’s death in a car accident, and that pushed her into public service. While she had always been interested in national security issues, Chandler turned to law school because she didn’t want to be an academic, and the Office of Naval Intelligence was a practical conduit for her passion. Her time there, she says, was crucial to her decision to run.
“I saw how I could lead and work with people from every color and socio-economic background to do great things for America,” says Chandler. “My team had conservative Republicans and progressive Democrats but we used our diversity as a strength. This made me realize that my experience made me the best candidate to get things done.”
Chandler, is not the most famous transwoman to have served in the Department of Defense. That would be Chelsea Manning, jailed for violations of the Espionage Act and other offenses before having her sentence commuted by then-President Barack Obama. Manning has alternatively been lauded by Vogue magazine and criticized by the right, but even as Chandler criticizes the U.S. military for being slow to offer Manning appropriate medical treatment, she’s no fan of the con-turned-Twitter wag.
“I can personally attest to the fact that her disclosures harmed U.S. national security. I know it as a former analyst,” she says. “I bear her no malice, but I reject her revealing intelligence reports in the way she did.”
But her most pressing issue is solving underemployment in her district, which she calls a “silent crisis.” Even as the national unemployment rate sits at the lowest level in over a decade, millions of Americans report working at a job either part-time or at a level beneath their training and experience. Her solution involves pushing community colleges to offer more low-cost or free classes to the long-term underemployed, with a schedule pegged to the working day so people can maintain full-time work.
“People have a sense of shame and despair about this,” Chandler says. “It’s pervasive and interacts with so many other issues. If you’re dealing with the despair of this, you’re more susceptible to addiction. I’ve seen my father struggle with unemployment, disability and addiction. I don’t just think about them intellectually, but understand them viscerally.”
The would-be Congresswoman is also running at a time when the Democratic Party is evaluating if its focus on social issues like abortion and transgender bathroom access has cost it votes among working class people. But the recent victory of the pro-choice Doug Jones over the disgraced Roy Moore in the Alabama Senate special election, powered by white moderates and African-American women voters, seems to have put a pause to that debate.
“What happened in Alabama is an illustration of Democrats doing right and ensuring communities of color are engaged with,” Chandler says. “We can talk about issues in a way where you don’t have to make a false choice. When we talk about unemployment, it affects all Americans, but transgender people disproportionately more. Working and middle class issues are transgender issues.”
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