In some ways, Virginia Del. Hala Ayala took the first step on her run for lieutenant governor when, as a young single mother, she joined a parent-teacher organization out of frustration that her son’s autism was being ignored at his elementary school.
That was in the early 2000s, and Ayala was working to become financially secure after spending years on public assistance, a dependence that began in her family after her father was shot and killed by a relative when she was two.
The PTO group in Prince William County, which Ayala eventually led, exposed her to the adrenaline rush of championing the problems of people like her: teachers working second jobs to make their rent and parents who were just one small tragedy away from financial ruin.
It was an experience that launched Ayala, D-Prince William, into community activism, then a life in politics where she rose to a leadership role in lining up Democratic votes during two terms in the House of Delegates.
“It made me angry,” Ayala recalled of her encounters with parents and teachers who were living paycheck to paycheck. “I was just like: No one should have to do this. You shouldn’t be set up for failure because of a hardship.”
Ayala, 48, is now the Democratic nominee for Virginia’s second-highest elected office, hoping to convince voters that she will be a passionate advocate for their interests in Richmond and, if needed, step in to govern the steadily changing state.
As she campaigns – milking a cow at one stop, driving a tractor-trailer at another – the veteran cybersecurity professional remains largely unknown outside of Northern Virginia, in the shadow of Democratic former governor Terry McAuliffe and his battle with Republican Glenn Youngkin for the governor’s seat.
That has made it harder for Ayala to distinguish herself in what polls say is an increasingly tight election where either she or Republican Winsome Sears will become the first woman of color to hold a statewide office in Virginia. Ayala identifies as Afro-Latina, Lebanese and Irish. Sears, a former state delegate in Norfolk, is Black and was born in Jamaica.
Both candidates are trying to reach independent voters who are likely to play a crucial role in the outcome, with Sears focusing on Black Virginians who might agree with her conservative stances on social issues while Ayala pursues a broader swath of suburban moderates, political analysts say.
With Democratic enthusiasm lower this year than in recent elections, Ayala has more to lose in that battle, said Quentin Kidd, director of Christopher Newport University’s Wason Center for Civic Leadership.
“If Sears is effective in her strategy and Ayala is effective in her strategy, Sears could come out as a winner by a small margin,” Kidd said. “She’s going to take away a certain proportion of Ayala’s base vote.”
– – –
Ayala was a toddler in a low-income area of Alexandria when her father, Jose Reyes Amaya Ayala, a Salvadoran-born stone mason, died in a violent family dispute in Washington that ended in gunfire.
His death meant a loss of income for Ayala’s mother, Sadie Marie Ralph. Ayala stood in food pantry lines with Ralph, who also leaned heavily on government aid programs to payrent and other expenses, a dependency that continued after she remarried and had two more children.
Ayala got her first job at 15, using the money she earned as a waitress to help with the family’s bills. After high school, she enrolled in Northern Virginia Community College but left after a year to work some more.
At 24, she was pregnant with her son, Chedrick. She was single, earning $5.25 an hour as a gas station cashier in Prince William. Ayala was also in poor health. Her high blood pressure and early onset diabetes jeopardized her pregnancy and nearly resulted in a stroke.
It was then that Ayala learned about Medicaid, what would later become a signature issue for her on the campaign trail.
Ayala used the federal subsidy to get her health under control and to cover the hospital costs when Chedrick was born.
He initially seemed fine. But by the time her son was three, Ayala noticed his behavior was erratic.
A doctor informed her that Chedrick was on the spectrum for autism. The news felt like a punishment, Ayala said.
“When you find out, you’re like: ‘What did you do wrong?’ ‘How did this happen?'” she said. “You feel guilty.”
After her son enrolled at Lakeridge Elementary School in Woodbridge, Ayala realized the school didn’t offer much for students with special needs.
She joined the PTO and became a lead advocate at the school for special education services, meeting parents and teachers whose lives were not much different from hers.
By then, Ayala had landed an administrative job for a federal government contractor in Washington. Her duties entailed processing security clearances for the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Navy and Department of Homeland Security.
That led to a certification in IT security, setting Ayala on a career path where she has helped protect the Coast Guard and, most recently, the Transportation Security Administration from online threats.
In 2008, Ayala volunteered for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, inspired by his calls for greater community service.
She then volunteered for more Democratic campaigns, including McAuliffe’s first run for governor in 2009.
Ayala adopted a daughter, Amber, who was 16 when she joined the family. The cost of raising two children – including one who required expensive medication for his condition – fed her frustrations over the fact that she was not earning as much as her male counterparts at work.
She started a Prince William chapter of the National Organization for Women, advocating for women’s rights as its president, and eventually becomingvice president of the group’s state chapter.
Then came Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential victory, which to Ayala undermined everything she was doing.
“I was like: I will never be enough. No matter what I do,” she recalled thinking. “As a woman of color, I will never be enough.”
– – –
When Ayala ran for the House of Delegates in 2017, Virginia’s General Assembly was still controlled by Republicans and dominated by White men.
Her opponent, former delegate Rich Anderson, R-Prince William, was a longtime incumbent who largely dismissed his inexperienced challenger until she began to raise nearly twice as much money as him.
Ayala won that election by six percentage points, part of a historic wave of Democratic victories in 2017 that brought several women of color into the House of Delegates and shifted the balance of power in Richmond.
But the old behaviors were still intact. On her first day in the State Capitol building, a veteran lawmaker hit on her, Ayala said, declining to name the person.
She rebuffed the advance and maintained a working relationship with the lawmaker, she said, learning that navigating Richmond’s halls of power can sometimes be a delicate dance.
“To this day, you would never know that happened between me and that individual,” Ayala said.
With Republicans still in control during her first term, Ayala saw most of her bills die in committee hearings, apart from a 2018 law requiring tax preparers to disclose cases where hackers accessed a client’s information.
But the tide was shifting in Richmond, to Ayala’s benefit.
Several Republicans joined Democrats in a historic vote in 2018 to expand Medicaid eligibility to at least 400,000 low-income Virginians – a victory Ayala said moved her to tears because of her own early reliance on the federal subsidy.
The following year, Democrats won control of the General Assembly. House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, an early supporter of Ayala’s who had recruited her to run for her House seat, appointed her as chief deputy whip.
The position put Ayala in charge of attending to the procedural nuances of several other major policy wins for Democrats, including gun safety overhauls and ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment.
It also raised Ayala’s profile within her party.
Nearly a dozen of the bills she sponsored have reached the desk of Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam during the past two years. Among them: a 2020 law allowing Virginians to register to vote on the same day as an election, and another law that same year barring creditors from garnishing federal stimulus checks issued during the coronavirus pandemic.
House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax – who along with Northam and Herring endorsed Ayala during the primary election – said she has been an effective behind-the-scenes motivator, particularly in getting Medicaid expansion and gun safety overhauls passed.
“She’s been living and breathing these issues,” Filler-Corn said. “There’s nothing more powerful than somebody who has actually had lived experiences and can relate those personal experiences to actual legislation and why it makes a difference.”
– – –
The U.S. Supreme Court had recently declined to actto block a Texas law restricting most abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. Ayala, a pro-choice advocate, was in good spirits while preparing to make fundraising phone calls.
Here was an issue that she could use to underscore the importance of who sits in the lieutenant governor’s chair.
Besides stepping in to lead the state should the governor resign or otherwise become incapacitated, the role of lieutenant governor means presiding over state senate meetings and serving as a tiebreaking vote when needed.
Democrat Justin Fairfax, the state’s current lieutenant governor, cast 52 tiebreaking votes during his four years in office – tilting the scales on bills related to gun safety, criminal justice and reproductive rights.
Ayala seized on a comment Sears made in a Newsmax TV interview expressing support for a Texas-style bill, using it as a prod during calls with potential donors.
In a Senate where Democrats hold a slim 21-19 majority, the possibility of a tie vote on an abortion bill is not remote, given that Sen. Joseph Morrissey, D-Richmond, has said he is pro-life, Ayala noted to supporters.
“When it comes to choice, our Virginia Senate is tied, and it’s never been more essential to have a pro-choice Democrat as our Lieutenant Governor,” Ayala said in a Twitter post about Sears’s comment. “I will always vote to protect your right to make decisions about your body. Unfortunately my opponent can’t say the same.”
Sears characterizes Ayala as “a far-left liberal” who can’t even be trusted by her supporters.
The Republican’s ads highlight the fact that Ayala accepted $150,000 in political contributions from the Dominion Energy company after pledging she would not accept donations from the politically powerful utility.
The reversal caused trouble for Ayala during the Democratic primary election, after critics of the utility expressed outrage.
Ayala says the contributions won’t affect her stances on energy policies, but the issue could affect how enthusiastic some liberal voters will be to cast a vote for her, political analysts say.
Her chances of victory ride on how effectively she communicates core policy differences between her and Sears in a state that, in recent elections, has become increasingly blue.
“If she can convince voters that there is a real stake in her election, that lieutenant governor actually does matter, that’s gonna be meaningful,” said Mark J. Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.
Ayala has been working to do that.
Earlier this month, she attacked Sears over the Republican’s refusal to say whether she has been vaccinated against the coronavirus, another issue that resonates with most Virginians, according to a Washington Post-Schar School poll last month.
But her main pitch to voters has been based on her personal story.
One of her campaign ads, about gun safety overhauls, shows a photo of a young Ayala shortly after her father was shot and killed. In an online ad about Medicaid expansion, Ayala acts as if she were working the night shift at a gas station – taking viewers back to a period that has motivated her political career.
“People have to trust you,” Ayala said about the personal appeals. “When people trust who you are, they’ll join you.”
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