Rep. Thelma Drake (VA-02), our guest on today’s Virginia Politics On-Demand, has been the target of a million-dollar attack ad campaign by MoveOn.org and several left-wing fringe organizations. If you were to listen to them and their followers, you would think she was complicit in illegal activity and has been reckless with American lives. But that certainly isn’t the entire story behind the woman who left Ohio for Virginia at the age of 18, raised a family, became a community servant, built a successful business, and has served in public office for the past 13 years.
Drake’s political philosophy and belief in service, not surprisingly, was largely influenced by her parents.
Drake’s father grew up in Baltimore when it was gripped by fear over the disease of spinal meningitis.
While the twelve-year-old’s mother was away, his father fatally contracted the disease. And, at the time, the government had no answers for why the disease was caused or how it was spread, but they took action nonetheless; the action they took demonstrated the power of government and the vulnerability of citizens – even in America. They burned the entirety of the family’s possessions in the street. From that day forward, Drake’s father exhibited a deep distrust of government and a spirit of independence. Traits he passed onto his children.
Yet that distrust didn’t translate into a lack of patriotism.
“We believed very much in the American dream,” Drake said of her family. “That if you were willing to work hard you would get ahead and that you could participate in the successes of America.”
At the age of five, Drake’s mother, a Canadian, became a U.S. citizen. A moment she says played a profound role in her development.
“I remember what I was wearing, what the weather was doing, and how very special that day was,” said Drake.
Drake feels that she learned the best of both parents – to be wary of government overstep, but to work within the system to accomplish the work of the people.
However, politically, the conservative Republican Drake’s family is not exactly what you would expect: they are virtually all Democrats. Even her brother has run for political office in Ohio as a liberal Democrat. So, was it a streak of rebellion for Drake to become a Republican?
“I believe I was born a Republican…I don’t know how it happened, it was just by nature, I figure I was their punishment or something, “ joked Drake. “I can remember as a high school student having to write a theme paper on the death penalty….[I remember] really soul-searching… my paper was written that I absolutely support the death penalty.”
She took those beliefs and put them into practice by volunteering for the Goldwater campaign in 1964 while in high school. And, when she came to Norfolk in 1967, she was prepared to continue that activism by helping a friend’s candidate by working the polls on Election Day. She assumed that because it was her friend that endorsed the candidate that they would agree politically. But when Drake saw the candidate’s literature, she had to decline her friends request and look for other alternatives, such as joining the Norfolk Republican Party.
Over the next twenty-five years, Drake raised her family, and became involved in the PTA, her community association, the GOP, and built a very successful real estate business. By becoming involved in her community and meeting so many people, she became a natural leader in the community.
When she was asked to run for office in 1993 by the chairman of the city committee (the city since the Civil War had only one delegate elected who was a Republican, and that was Al Tiech, who served only one term), Drake’s initial response was “I don’t do that; I help other people… I don’t run for public office.”
“It was never a goal of mine to serve in public office,” she said. “However, we were raised with the belief that you had to be involved in your community.”
It was this sense of being involved and service that eventually changed Drake’s mind. She promptly lost.
But she tried again in 1995 and for the next nine years, the 87th District became “reliably” Republican.
No other district in Norfolk since or after has voted Republican. Since Drake left to run for Congress, the 87th has been represented by Democrat Del. Paula Miller, who has defeated Michael Ball and Adm. Hank Giffin.
Drake credits her success as a delegate to her work ethic, honesty, and grassroots politics.
“[My constituents] knew that I was honest; they knew that I was looking out for their best interests. I did a lot of door-knocking and going out and meeting people and asking for their vote. And once I was elected, they saw that I was very serious about what I did, that I am very much a very hard worker, and that I had their best interests at heart,” Drake said. “Now we may have a dialogue where someone might have one position on an issue and I may have the other, but I think as long as you share that information and talk about what your differences are that the people, they respect that. What they don’t respect is someone who is wishy-washy or someone who changes their position based on who they’re talking to at the time. “
“I really believe that the public just wants to know ‘will you work as hard you can’, ‘can I trust you to do the right thing’, and that you care about them,” Drake continued. “I think in my time in the House of Delegates that people understood that, so it appeared that that district was probably more Republican than what it really is, but it was very personal to individual relationships with a lot of people in that district.”
In 2004, she was contacted again by the party with another opportunity, this time under very different circumstances.
The Second Congressional District, unlike the city of Norfolk, has had a different relationship with the Republican Party. In many ways, it’s easier for a Republican to win. For 18 years, from 1969-1987, Rep. G. William Whitehurst (R) represented the district, followed for 14 years by Rep. Owen Pickett (D), a reasonably reliable conservative Democrat. Then, in 2000, former state Senator and Republican, Ed Schrock, ran and defeated Jody Wagner and served for four years before scandal torpedoed his career.
A mere 60-days before the election, Drake became the GOP candidate against Democrat David Ashe, a veteran of the Iraq war. Despite the brevity of the campaign, growing sentiment against the war, and the aforementioned scandal, Drake overcame the obstacles and was elected.
She said that going from an elected body where you’re one of 100 to one of 435 was a big transition with a steep learning curve and very different issues – and a very different way of doing business.
“One of my very early impressions on working in Congress is that even though people disagree with me politically or philosophically on issues, I truly believe that the bulk of people who serve in Congress that a vast majority of them are reflective of their districts and are doing what they’re doing for the right reason,” she said. “What I’ve always found is the best way to do things is to put people together, sit down and talk it through and find out where that compromise position is. That’s a model that I think works very well in Virginia that we’re very good at. It’s not a model that I’ve seen as well-used in Washington and it’s something that we’re working on. ”
“I think what the American people want to know is that we are sitting down, working on issues, and do realize America faces big challenges. And, they want us to be working on these solutions together in a bipartisan manner,” she said.
When Drake ran for re-election in 2006, she became the target of MoveOn.org and other left-leaning organizations. She said that the attacks leveled on her by folks she doesn’t even know is part of the process.
“I have deliberately chosen a profession where total strangers hate my guts,” she said.
But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t try to overcome this animus.
“Nine times out of ten, I don’t care who you are, we agree on the end result,” Drake stated. “We want America to be a sovereign nation. We want her to be successful. We want to be safe and secure in our country. We want people to have economic opportunities. We want children to be well-educated. We want people to have healthcare. What we fight about is: how do we get there and what are the paths to put us there? We need to break down and understand what we’re fighting about and then come together.”
Drake said the constant battles waged in Washington and on her at home can sometime be tiring, but that doesn’t overwhelm her.
“It’s a challenge. It isn’t always easy,” she admitted. “I will share with you that my inspiration when things are tough, and people do get tired – I get tired, and you kind of look at it and say what am I doing and why, but I look at the men and women today who have volunteered to serve this nation, they’ve even offered up their own lives…they are just incredible inspiration to me.”
Drake is proud of her service on the Armed Services Committee, particularly her subcommittee work that deals with special operations and quality of life issues. And while representing the military remains a key component of her representing the district, she is also working on reforming healthcare by offering more private sector alternatives and choice, as well as illegal immigration and border security.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that Thelma Drake succeeds as a Republican in a Democratic Congress, much like she succeeded as a Republican Delegate in a Democratic House here in Virginia: Empathy for those in need, a healthy distrust of larger and larger government, and a consistent history of working across political lines to help people and create solutions.
From when her father’s family possessions were thrown on the street, to restricting government’s power to take homes through eminent domain in the General Assembly, to helping people keep their homes in today’s mortgage crisis, Thelma Drake knows what it’s like to face real-life problems and how working together, we can solve them.