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Spy vs. Pilot: Democratic candidates for the 7th District square off to decide who will challenge Congressman Dave Brat

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Editor's note: A previous version of the article stated earlier fundraising totals. This version updates those totals to date for all candidates as of June 6.

A previous version of this article also said: “Ward says she (Abigail Spanberger) hasn't taken a clear-cut stand on banning assault rifles.” The article has been updated to reflect Abigail Spanberger's support of an assault weapons ban.

A previous version of this article also said Spanberger now works for EAB, an education advisory company near her home in Henrico County. Spanberger left EAB in July2017 to launch and work on her campaign full time. The article has been updated to reflect this.

Spectators cram the seating area of Brewer's Café in Manchester ready to hear from two crisp, professional-looking candidates on a recent evening.

Both hopefuls want to beat 7th District Rep. Dave Brat, a Republican and former economics professor. But first they must win the Democratic primary June 12.

Spanberger at Brewer’s Café in Manchester at an Urban League meet and greet - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Spanberger at Brewer’s Café in Manchester at an Urban League meet and greet

Abigail Spanberger speaks first, extolling her desire to be of service to her constituents. "I am a former CIA officer," says the 38 year-old, who worked undercover in spy operations for eight years before leaving the agency in 2014.

Willowy in a cream-colored dress, Spanberger has run the gamut of training — firing weapons, fishtailing cars, watching for surveillance — and has been based in Europe, the Washington area and on the U.S. West Coast.

Ward at Brewer’s Café in Manchester at an Urban League meet and greet - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Ward at Brewer’s Café in Manchester at an Urban League meet and greet

Next up is Dan Ward, a trim 49-year-old in a dark suit, who likewise got his chops in government service. A retired Marine colonel, he flew EA-6B Prowler electronic warfare jets in combat in Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia. He later advised the State Department on military matters related to Syria, Ukraine and other countries.

Digging at Brat, Ward says "this Congress is complicit" in President Donald Trump's world of influence peddling and conflicts of interest.

Ward and Spanberger are part of a wave of new Democratic reformers rising to challenge what they believe is an emergency situation with Trump in power. With solid backgrounds in national security, they're an antidote to the flag-waving to which some Republicans aspire, such as Trump and Brat, though neither man served in the military or similar service.

Spanberger especially has stood out because of her gender, CIA background and blond good looks. She's been profiled by such national outlets as Elle and Glamour magazines, and is backed by Emily's List. Time magazine ran her picture on its cover in a collage of new, female politicians fired up for campaigns in reaction to Trump's perceived misogynist behavior.

There are 390 women running for Congress, a record number. The New York Times says they're overwhelmingly Democrats and some have military or intelligence backgrounds. A number of Republican women with similar backgrounds are running, too.

As a former Marine officer, Ward may collect votes especially in the more rural parts of the 7th District, which runs from Culpeper to Nottoway County and includes parts of Henrico and Chesterfield counties around Richmond. Ward lives on a small farm in Orange County when he's not piloting Boeing 777 commercial jets for United Airlines from Dulles International Airport.

"These are two highly qualified Democratic candidates who speak to the enthusiasm in this election cycle when it is usually hard to find people to run," says Stephen Farnsworth, a professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington and director of its Center for Leadership and Media Studies.

There's not much to differentiate the two candidates in terms of their platforms. Both are solidly liberal, backing Obamacare, immigration, educational funding and lending, creating jobs and expanding broadband in rural areas. Both support banning assault rifles.

If there are any significant differences, it's in style — with Ward coming on stronger — and the depth of their experience.

"I would characterize mine at a different level," Ward says, noting that as a State Department adviser he ran large and expensive assistance programs. Spanberger "was only in the CIA for what? Seven years?" Ward says. "I think our levels of experience are different."

Spanberger retorts that she was with the agency for eight and a half years and spent plenty of time overseeing anti-terrorist programs in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, but can't talk about them because they're classified.

In fact, Spanberger needed the CIA's permission to reveal to others, including her three young daughters, that she was an officer in the agency's National Clandestine Service. She reportedly operated under a State Department cover.

The sparring over their service has gotten down to what you might call Manafort envy. Ward says that when he was posted temporarily at the U.S. Embassy in Kiev, Ukraine, in 2014, he got to know a lot about Paul Manafort, Trump's former campaign chief. Manafort has been indicted, accused of laundering $18 million and other crimes in connection with his work for Viktor Yanukovych, the former Ukrainian leader with ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"I know Manafort is a known bad guy and it's becoming pretty clear that what we knew about him back then was accurate," Ward says.

Asked about Manafort, Spanberger implies that she likewise is familiar with his activities in Ukraine but can't talk about them.

The 7th Congressional District is a rolling polyglot of farms, forest and some affluent suburbs. It's been held by Republicans for years and was the home base of Eric Cantor, the former House majority leader, who was considered an up-and-coming GOP politician being groomed to become speaker of the House.

It was assumed that Cantor, who comes from a notable Richmond family, easily would win the Republican primary in 2014 as he had seven times before.

But Cantor became viewed as a politician who ignored his constituents in favor of Washington lobbyists. Smelling blood, Brat, an economics professor and Ayn Rand devotee at Randolph-Macon College, ran against him in 2014. Riding a wave of anti-Obama sentiment fueled by the tea party movement, Brat staged a stunning upset that received national attention.

Brat, whose office did not respond to Style's request for interviews, asserted his strongly right-wing stances on economics, immigration and health care. He's a leading member of the House Freedom Caucus that tends to eschew establishment Republicans in favor of more populist ideas pushed by the tea party and some libertarians.

After Trump was elected and Brat backed his ideas of repealing the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, Brat started getting in trouble. When he attended town hall meetings throughout the district, protesters — notably women angered by Trump's admission of sexual harassment — hit him hard on health-care reform.

Brat famously quipped that women "were trying to get in my grill" and started cutting back on open public appearances.

"That statement was so patronizing," says Eileen Bedell, a Democrat and local lawyer who lost a race to Brat in 2016. "It implies that women don't know what they are talking about." Bedell says she supports Spanberger, saying that this time around "being a woman is a qualifier."

Brat "hasn't had a town hall meeting in a year," Spanberger says, though Farnsworth notes that Brat is showing up more in public and is trying to distance himself a bit from Trump.

Another potential problem for Brat is that he's lost Hanover County, a stoutly conservative area and stronghold of the state's tea party movement. Black and yellow signs supporting the movement dot the Hanover countrywide. But a court ruling chopped up the 7th District, cutting Hanover out of it.

It's unclear how much of a difference redistricting will make because the district has more rural voters, but parts of Chesterfield and Henrico are becoming more Democratic — and might look upon Spanberger or Ward favorably in November's general election.

The rural sections of the 7th are Ward's home base. He moved to Madison County as a boy after living in Alabama and Tennessee. Raised in poverty, he won a Navy ROTC scholarship to Vanderbilt University, graduating in 1990. Owing the government several years of military service, he opted for the Marine Corps, he says, "because I was a good athlete and the physical fitness aspect of the Marine Corps appealed."

SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

He opted for flight training in Texas and Mississippi and became a specialist in electronic-warfare aircraft — ones that swoop in and jam enemy radar and other fire-control systems. He saw combat in Iraq, Bosnia and Kosovo. He has 40 traps aboard aircraft, meaning he's landed that many times on aircraft carriers — an especially difficult and dangerous task.

After flying from 1994 to 2009, he left active duty and became a pilot for Continental Airlines but was laid off in the recession.

"I lost my job," he says, making times rough for his family. Ward went back into the Marines, although he no longer flew. He became the Corps' adviser to the State Department working on matters pertaining to North Korea, Libya and Ukraine.

Ward is shown in a jet cockpit as a Marine Corps combat pilot.
  • Ward is shown in a jet cockpit as a Marine Corps combat pilot.

One program he helped run involved giving support to the Free Syria Army, a renegade outfit of army officers aimed at overthrowing dictator Bashar al-Assad. Syria was being ripped apart by brutal warfare involving Russia, Iran, Israel and the United States, among other countries. It created one of the largest waves of refugees in recent history. Another task involved helping Ukraine fight off its invasion by Russia.

Some of the programs started out with relatively small amounts of $4 million but grew to $260 million, he says. That kind of management experience would be of help if he's sent to Washington.

Dismissing Brat "as an absolute yes man," Ward has taken stands in direct opposition to the congressman. Ward backs Obamacare and wants to expand it into U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine's concept of Medicare X, which would allow patients to buy into public health care.

Ward supports student loan forgiveness, vocational training and infrastructure spending. He's against offshore oil and gas drilling and wants much tougher gun laws, including reinstating the ban on assault rifles.

Immigration reform is on his list and he, like Spanberger, supports keeping promises to qualifying foreigners staying in the country, such as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, the program that protects young people brought to the country by their parents. He's against the president's moves to build a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border and says that Trump's "sending National Guard people to the border is a bullshit mission."

He hits Brat for backing Trump's $1.5 trillion tax cut, saying it benefits mostly the "donor class" of rich people. Being from a rural area, he says he wants to help those left behind and backs such measures as expanding broadband in countryside areas that don't have it.

Most of these positions are similar to Spanberger's, but Ward insists that he has more experience. He's also more forthright about strong measures, he says, such as banning assault rifles.

He's not only run larger programs, he says, but also had a leadership position at the Air Line Pilots Association, an international organization. "I have six years of Capitol Hill experience," he says, noting that Spanberger lacks the same background.

Spanberger moved to Henrico County as a child and attended Tucker High School, graduating in 1997. She showed an affinity for foreign languages when she went to college — first at the College of William and Mary and then the University of Virginia, where she majored in French literature with a minor in foreign affairs. She speaks three languages.

Spanberger on a firearms range as a U.S. Postal inspector before she joined the CIA.
  • Spanberger on a firearms range as a U.S. Postal inspector before she joined the CIA.

Next came a teaching job in Germany, where she ended up studying at GISMA, a German business graduate school run jointly with Purdue University. The 9/11 terrorist attacks made her want to get into government service, she says. She took and passed the foreign service exam but really wanted to go to the CIA, which expressed interest.

But the background check was lengthy because she'd spent time overseas. So she took a job with the U.S. Postal Service as a gun-carrying inspector, working on drug, money-laundering and child pornography cases. Then the CIA called with a start date.

She opted for the National Clandestine Service program for covert operators. She spent one month in basic training. Typically, the training is held at Camp Peary near Williamsburg, but Spanberger won't say where it was.

Six more months of training followed. After time in the Washington area, she ended up in Europe where she was involved in counterterrorism and nuclear proliferation issues. She wouldn't identify her employer. Later she worked covertly on the West Coast often with the FBI.

Time came for a choice for her and her husband, an engineer. They asked their oldest of three daughters where to go, Spanberger says, and she answered "Virginia, because you have people you love there."

So it was back to Henrico where she got a job with EAB as an educational adviser and spent time as a Girl Scout troop leader — a point she makes in campaign literature. She left the educational job to campaign full time nearly a year ago. She needed permission from the CIA to publicly identify her job with the agency.

Spanberger shows a gentler side on the campaign train at the  Women’s March RVA in Carytown on Jan. 20. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Spanberger shows a gentler side on the campaign train at the Women’s March RVA in Carytown on Jan. 20.

Spanberger had worked for the Democratic Party as a volunteer but started to think about running for office when Trump was elected and quickly started banning immigration from several Muslim-majority countries. She thought the policies were stupid because they alienated people needed to help U.S. security and "played into the narrative" of Islamic radicals.

What clinched a congressional run was when the move came to repeal Obamacare. A close friend of Spanberger's had a sick child and needed ACA help. Spanberger became one of five people to run for the Democratic nomination last summer, although the others have since dropped out or are running in another party.

While her platform is similar to Ward's, there are indications her style may be less direct and aggressive. She may be more prone to compromise. Ward says she hasn't taken a clear-cut stand on banning assault rifles.

While direct, Ward has "a very diplomatic approach," says Elizabeth Shackleford, a former U.S. diplomat who worked with Ward in Europe and resigned from the State Department because she opposed Trump's anti-human rights policies.

"He understands the holistic approach and he knows how to make a decision with very little information," says Shackleford, who lives in Kenya but is spending time in Virginia to help with Ward's campaign.

Former Democratic candidate Bedell says that both Ward and Spanberger approached for her support. Besides being a woman during a feminist wave against Trump, Spanberger "is more electable," Bedell says. The key voting blocks are in Richmond's western suburbs and Fredericksburg's suburbs.

What isn't known is if the anti-Trump movement has enough legs to last into November. A problem with Spanberger and Ward is that "neither candidate is a household name," Farnsworth says. "It's hard to get people out to vote."

Campaign money illustrates the importance of the race.

Ward has raised $900,709 and Spanberger, $903,519, compared with Brat's $920,587, according to data from the Virginia Public Access Project.

By comparison, Brat raised $1.27 million for the 2016 general election. Together, Ward and Spanberger have outraised Brat — and this is only the primary.

The other highly scrutinized race in the state that's received lots of national attention is the 1st Congressional District, where Republican Barbara Comstock is trying to hold on to her seat. Throughout the country, more women, along with some men who tend center left, have military, law enforcement or government backgrounds.

They're running in part because they strongly disagree with Trump's fierce criticism of such institutions as the FBI, CIA or State Department. "It's the institutions, not the people, that protect you," Ward says.

Farnsworth says that "candidates who have military or national security backgrounds are not going to be accused of being soft on defense." For a conservative who plays to patriotism such as Brat, it's an ironic turn of events. S

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