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On March 19, five days before the March for Our Lives brought hundreds of thousands of protesters calling for stronger gun regulations to D.C., Andria Thomas showed up at the office of Florida Senator Marco Rubio with a platoon of children and other parents in tow.
The group’s message to Rubio, who has proposed legislation that would effectively gut the District’s gun laws and permit firearms in schools, was simple: Keep your hands off D.C. The Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Rubio’s home state that left 17 people dead had also brought Congress’ unique authority over D.C.’s laws into high relief.
Thomas, who lives with her husband and their two young daughters in Hill East, co-organized the flash mob of families. Her older daughter attends a D.C. public school, and Thomas took Rubio’s actions personally. “The frustration at losing my sense of security for someone who is not accountable to me is fundamentally undemocratic,” she says, bracketing her sentence with sighs.
There was a hitch in the group’s plans. They originally wanted to send Rubio paper flowers bearing the names and ages of victims killed by gun violence in D.C. since 2015, when the senator first introduced his bill. An identical delivery would go to Virginia Representative Tom Garrett, who authored the companion bill in the House. But, just like firearms, bulk deliveries are not permitted at congressional offices.
Instead, the parents and children dropped off handwritten messages. D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton greeted the group before they concluded their trip. (Later, they “planted” the paper flowers at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Capitol Hill.)
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Rubio was nowhere to be found that day. A staffer claimed he hadn’t heard much about the District’s push for statehood and said his boss merely wanted to align D.C. with existing federal law. Thomas was flabbergasted. How, in 2018, could a congressional staffer for one of the District’s biggest antagonists not know about residents’ decades-long battle for equal voting representation in Congress?
“But if he says that, there’s an opening,” says Thomas, who last month entered the race for one of D.C.’s two “shadow senator” seats. Within two weeks of the election board’s filing deadline, she collected an impressive 4,834 signatures to get on the ballot in the June Democratic primary. Candidates need 2,000 valid signatures to clear the threshold, and it takes most newcomers months to gather them.
“We stormed the office with all of these kids, and it made me feel so powerful to be there representing D.C.’s rights,” Thomas says of her visit to the Hill. “To be perfectly honest, they could not do much about it because it was a bunch of kids. Like, what are you going to do?”
While she is a first-time candidate running for the unpaid and legislatively powerless position Michael D. Brown has held for more than 11 years, Thomas has attracted the support of local Democratic party operatives who see her as a modern face for statehood activism and a quick study of politics. She has worked for more than a decade in strategy consulting with clients around the world.
In April, Thomas scored the endorsement of progressive advocacy group DC for Democracy, earning 83 percent of members’ votes. Kesh Ladduwahetty, the organization’s chair, said Thomas would “add much-needed gender diversity to the Statehood delegation.” In addition to Brown, the shadow delegation currently includes Senator Paul Strauss and Representative Franklin Garcia.
Of the four people ever to occupy the shadow senator role (most notably, Reverend Jesse Jackson) only one—Florence Pendleton—was a woman. Thomas, 43, has studied this electoral history and notes that in 2007 Brown took Pendleton’s seat after a third candidate had successfully challenged her signatures.
Thomas has met Brown multiple times and says they are on good terms. He even interviewed her last year on his BBS Radio show Shadow Politics.
“At the end of the day, we’re both very committed to statehood,” Thomas says. “If you were going to say, ‘Oh, one’s more for statehood than the other,’ I don’t think that’s the differentiator.” She touts her abilities to build coalitions and to make the most of limited resources.
“It’s true that I’m a woman and he’s a man,” she says, with a laugh, when asked about the gender dynamic in the competition. “I think in any world you want a representative group of people who are making your case for you.” Although Thomas says “people should not vote for me because I’m a woman,” she adds that “it is a benefit to have a diverse group in the delegation writ large.”
If elected, she says she would seek to develop a more-coordinated social media strategy for statehood advocates, calling it “a minor thing” that could increase the movement’s impact, just as organizers used social media to plan and publicize the Women’s March. She says she would focus on getting a majority of Congress to support statehood by securing the votes of key Democratic and Republican figures and making the issue “top of their minds.”
“When the House and the Senate flip, all it is is a vote in Congress, and we are ready,” Thomas says, adding that she is “cautiously optimistic” Democrats will win control of both chambers in the 2018 midterm elections. Of the shadow senator position, she says, “The fact that it’s unpaid and there’s no real authority, I can get past because I think I can do a good job.” She would likely continue to work part-time while fulfilling her official responsibilities.
Thomas says she never thought she would run for public office, and instead considered starting her own nonprofit, or landing in a senior role at a company with a social mission. But the events of Nov. 8, 2016 changed that trajectory. She says the presidential election “spotlighted the social injustices in the U.S.” that also exist in the countries where she had done consulting work, including Haiti, Afghanistan, and Kenya.
But it also “triggered a desire to be active” in her community in ways beyond participating in the parent-teacher association at her daughter’s school. Timing played a part in her change of tack, too: Thomas gave birth to her younger daughter six days before Donald Trump was elected.
“There were definitely hormones at play,” she says, chuckling. “I cried for two months after the election. Some part hormones, some part the devastation of what I thought the implications of the election were. During that crying, I felt increasingly frustrated. I was like, retweeting angry messages on Twitter cannot be the only way that I can be effective.”
Then she received an email from Organizing for Action, the grassroots political group that grew out of Barack Obama’s presidential bids. It encouraged disappointed citizens to start community action groups. “It was like a lightbulb went off,” Thomas says. “‘Oh, that I can do.’” She called her group “Resist and Rise” and created a Facebook page and website for it.
Last spring, in partnership with prominent advocacy organization DC Vote, Thomas co-organized a family-friendly event on the Hill called “My First Lobby Day” and got involved with the DC Statehood Coalition. During it, she snagged a photo with her baby and Mayor Muriel Bowser. When it comes to D.C.’s autonomy, Bowser has also recently put a bullseye on Rubio, addressing him in a Miami Herald op-ed and a snarky letter.
Thomas doesn’t think Rubio will “change his mind from a bunch of kids walking in the door.” But she wonders how activists can take advantage of media and financial pressures on meddling politicians like him, as well as noncommittal ones. “If it’s not going to change his mind,” she says, “maybe it changes others who see the push we’re making.”