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Political newcomer who blew whistle on Trump faces experienced foes in Democratic primary

By MATTHEW BARAKAT, Associated Press
Published: June 10, 2024, 6:02am

WOODBRIDGE, Va. (AP) — Eugene Vindman has never run for office, and he’s far from a household name, but his almost cultlike status among national Democratic activists as a figure from the first impeachment of Donald Trump has elevated him to a leading contender in a key Virginia congressional race.

Vindman’s ability to raise money from outside the district has given him an advantage in the seven-person primary in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District, to the consternation of other contenders who paid their dues in state or local office before seeking a seat in Congress.

“He does not understand the community. He’s not very infused in the community. He’s not been participating in the community as an advocate,” said Andrea Bailey, one of two Prince William County supervisors in the race.

The outcome has national implications in the battle to control the U.S. House of Representatives. It’s a toss-up district where incumbent Democrat Abigail Spanberger is giving up her seat to run for governor in 2025.

Vindman and his twin brother, Alex, were career military officers who gained a measure of fame and respect from Democrats for raising their concerns about Trump’s 2019 call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in which Trump sought an investigation of Biden and his son, Hunter.

Alex Vindman was listening on the call in his role as a National Security Council official assigned to the White House when he became alarmed at what he heard. He approached his brother, Eugene, who at the time was serving as an ethics lawyer at the NSC. Both Vindmans reported their concerns to superiors, ultimately contributing to Trump’s impeachment.

Eugene Vindman said he thinks of his congressional campaign as another avenue of public service following his military career. He was unsure whether the name recognition he has had since the impeachment would extend to the political world, but said voters have accepted him so far.

“My theory was people knew Alex and me for what we did. We’re identical twins, obviously, but they know that there are two of us out there. And they recognized us. We were stopped frequently by people. And so I thought there may be some support. I didn’t know what the level of support would be like,” he said.

The field includes four current and former elected officials from Prince William County, a northern Virginia suburb constituting more than a third of the district stretching south past Fredericksburg and west past Culpeper. All four helped Democrats take control of a county where Republicans had been highly competitive.

Bailey and Margaret Franklin serve on the county’s Board of Supervisors and Briana Sewell serves in the House of Delegates. Elizabeth Guzman knocked off a Republican incumbent to serve several terms in the House of Delegates. Two others, military veterans Carl Bedell and Clifford Heinzer, previously have not held office.

As a general rule, the candidates have sought to distinguish themselves more on their experience and their background as opposed to any policy differences.

“There’s not a lot of daylight between my colleagues up here and I on the core issues,” Franklin said at a recent debate, highlighting her service as a Hill staffer before election as a county supervisor. “I understand how to work across the aisle and get things done. … You have to decide who can be most effective in representing your interests on Day 1.”

Sewell said her longstanding ties to the district, as someone who grew up in Prince William County and served as a political staffer in local and federal roles, in addition to her service as a state delegate, set her apart.

“I’m a lifelong Virginian. I literally live in my childhood home, and I don’t shy away from that,” she said.

Vindman, for his part, defends his absence from local politics by noting his status as an Army officer prohibited him from political activism.

“The people that are attracted to my campaign are attracted to the values that I will bring to this job: the fact that I will fight for priorities, that I put a ready career on the line and lost my military career in standing up to Donald Trump,” he said.

Vindman said he expects “zero learning curve” from his lack of political experience. On one well-debated issue related to federal immigration policy, though, Vindman said he was unfamiliar.

In an interview, Vindman said he was unaware of the controversy that enveloped Prince William County over implementation of a federal immigration program, known as 287 (g), that facilitated cooperation between local jails and federal immigration authorities. The program operated in the county from 2007 through 2020.

Sewell, on the other hand, cited controversies not just over 287 (g) but also ordinances that defined how local law enforcement verified individuals’ immigration status, as issues that led her to politics.

“I was in high school in 2007 and 2008, when my classmates didn’t feel safe coming to school, their parents didn’t feel safe showing up to work or to school or sporting events,” Sewell said.

Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, said Vindman’s lack of political experience is offset by his popularity nationally among activists, who have donated to his campaign in droves.

The $3.8 million Vindman has raised is roughly four times the amount of the other six candidates combined, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.

“Money makes him a well-known figure, even if he is new to campaigning,” Farnsworth said.

Vindman’s military service is a plus in a district with extensive military ties, while the other candidates “will splinter in a variety of directions” the part of the electorate that does not support him, he added.

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Bailey, a military spouse, said she understands military officers have restrictions on political activities. But she said now that he is out of the Army, he needs to put in the time and work in the community before seeking political office.

“Eugene Vindman needs to have the opportunity to learn the community and the individuals that live there. He’s been a great citizen,” she said. “But when you talk about being a leader and a United States representative, you need to have been able to build those relationships.”