A tailored blazer, makeup on point with a slight wing at each eye, and pin straight hair — Brianna Westbrook, a candidate for US Congress in Arizona’s eighth district and a transgender woman, knows how to pull off the look of a typical politician. But as she goes in-depth on the issues that are most important in her district — health care access, education, public transportation — it’s her rough, calloused hands that give the first hint that she might be different from your average campaigner.
It used to be that US candidates who are also trans face significant headwinds in campaigns for office. Trans candidates have been pilloried with transphobic remarks from political opponents, a daunting prospect that resulted in only seven out trans people held elected office nationwide before last fall’s election. However, things too a turn when that number more than doubled after last fall’s elections, headlined by Virginia Delegate Danica Roem’s win in Virginia. It was Roem’s resounding election day victory that’s seemingly thrown off the assumption that a candidate’s trans status is a disqualifying trait, and dozens of trans candidates have responded by running in 2018. At least four trans women, including formerly imprisoned whistleblower Chelsea Manning, are running to become the first out trans member of Congress, but it’s Westbrook who will have the first crack at a win in the Arizona sixth district special election to replace Trent Franks.
AZ-08 consists of the northwest suburbs of Phoenix and is considered by political experts to be a safe Republican district after it was redrawn in 2012. Former congresswoman and Democrat Gabby Giffords represented the district before it was gerrymandered to favor Republicans, but as recent election results have shown, Democrats everywhere have a chance at winning.
Enter Westbrook and her nontraditional campaign.
Westbrook declared for this year’s race early last year, a particularly early start for any congressional candidate, but she assumed she’d be running against Frank himself. However, a scandal forced the seven-term republican to resign, which triggered a special election with a primary in late February and the general on April 24. So despite the fact that there are upwards of 30 trans candidates on the ballot, should she win, Westbrook would become the first openly trans member of Congress.
But Westbrook has taken advantage of that early declaration, getting hard at work as she pounds the pavement to meet as many concerned voters as possible. “I put in my papers with the FEC in early March and I started going to the Legislative District meetings for the last year. [I’ve been] making my presence known in the community, so I’ve been at all the protests and whatever I can to show people in the district that I’m actively speaking out for them. Because that’s what people want to see,” Westbrook told GO.
Despite the remarkable fact that she’s continued working her full time forty hour a week job while also running a campaign for US Congress, she’s managed to build an organic, authentic campaign simply through outworking everyone else. “I don’t have a stereotypical background of a politician. I didn’t go to Yale or Harvard. I’m not a doctor or lawyer. The school I went to is the school of hard knocks,” said Westbrook, who talks at length about working manual labor shoveling asphalt and working on roads for a little over three years. She also worked on the railroad replacing railroad tracks throughout southern Oregon.
“What [my background] allows me to do is connect with the people who are out there in the trenches who are living paycheck to paycheck, working with their hands and aren’t afraid to get dirty. [The folks who] get up at the buttcrack of dawn, be at the jobsite by seven,” Westbook explains. “That’s what we need in leadership, we need someone who will get there early and put in the effort to work hard, buckle down and do that backbreaking labor, and that’s something I’ve had to do just to survive.”
As she describes how she walked up and down the railroad swinging her sledgehammer ahead of the heavier rail building equipment, it becomes readily apparent how her hands show such wear and tear more than a decade after moving into automotive sales. Now Westbrook is turning that blue-collar work ethic into a campaign to create real change in her district. Not only has she been running her campaign and working her full-time job but she also got in her community to collect signatures to push back against a charter school expansion that was supported by one of her potential Republican opponents.
In the meantime, Westbrook, who just recently received the local DSA’s endorsement, is running an authentic, barebones campaign that depends not on wealthy campaign donors, but instead on the blood, sweat, and tears of volunteers who have done everything from build her a website and design graphics, to getting out and knocking on doors. All because they really believe in her and her campaign’s solutions to core local issues like renewable energy, education, medicare for all, and infrastructure.
In the end, it remains to be seen how Westbrook will perform in the primary, much less a potential uphill battle in the general election, but at the very least it’s interesting to watch her nontraditional candidacy come together. This is especially the case when you consider the fact that in 2018 more and more people from marginalized communities have decided to run for office. For Westbrook, though, this race is personal and she decided she and her well-worn hands are the ones to fix what’s broken in Washington. “I got sick and tired of being sick and tired.”