Virginia’s Victoria Virasingh navigates the progressive lane

Virasingh, in her first political run, is trying to thread a needle and ‘not fit into an ideological box’ as she challenges Rep. Don Beyer

As she embarks on her first bid for public office, Victoria Virasingh, a progressive House challenger in Northern Virginia, is in many ways borrowing from the grassroots playbook that has proven successful in recent Democratic primary upsets from the Bronx to St. Louis

The 29-year-old Arlington native, who is mounting a long-shot campaign to unseat Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA) in Virginia’s 8th Congressional District, advocates for such signature progressive policies as Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, and she has renounced contributions from corporate political action committees.

But if Virasingh expresses admiration for Reps. Cori Bush (D-MO), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and other national progressive figureheads who have picked off entrenched incumbents over the past few years, the upstart congressional candidate emphasizes that her campaign is informed, more than anything else, by her own background. Virasingh is the daughter of working-class immigrants. She attended Stanford University on a full scholarship, found work in the tech sector and launched her campaign this summer after returning home amid the pandemic. 

“When I was sitting down and deciding our policies and what I believed in, it came from a lived experience and also a professional experience and responding to the needs of the constituents of my district,” Virasingh said in an interview with Jewish Insider last month in the finished basement of her parents’ Arlington townhouse, which doubles as her campaign headquarters. “Sometimes that’s going to neatly fit in a box, and sometimes it’s not.”

On law enforcement, for instance, Virasingh takes a more moderate approach than the smattering of hard-line House Democrats who have called for defunding the police. “I believe in reimagining policing,” said Virasingh, who, as a member of the NAACP’s Arlington branch, favors civilian oversight boards in police misconduct investigations as well as removing law enforcement officials from public schools.

But Virasingh makes clear that she is against abolishing the police wholesale. “That comes from a lived experience of having seen situations where we needed the police,” Virasingh told JI, noting that she has experienced instances of harassment throughout her campaign. “I have felt more safe in my own home because of our structure.”

Her stance on Israel also sets her apart. Unlike some House Democrats who have called for conditioning aid to the Jewish state, Virasingh supports continued U.S. security assistance that is guaranteed in the 10-year memorandum of understanding between the two countries, even as she expresses an affinity for the left-leaning Israel advocacy group J Street, which argues that funding should only be used for “legitimate security purposes.”

Virasingh describes Israel as a key “partner” in the Middle East. “Our relationship and our allyship with Israel is extremely vital,” she said. “I believe in strengthening that relationship and continuing to build trust with Israel in the region. I believe in continuing to provide aid to Israel, as we’ve always done, in order to reach that solution.”

Victoria Virasingh (Credit: Matthew Kassel)

Her views are undergirded by professional experience. As a former employee of Palantir, the Silicon Valley data firm, Virasingh traveled to Israel in 2017, where she was tasked with exploring technology in the workforce. “I was truly inspired by the innovation economy there,” said Virasingh, who specialized in public-private partnerships at Palantir. “I learned so many things, and coming back here, it’s really helped me put a lot of foreign policy positions that I have into perspective.”

As the granddaughter of Punjabi-Sikh refugees who fled their homeland during India’s partition in 1947 and later settled in Thailand, where her father was born, Virasingh says she also feels a personal connection with Israel. “I definitely feel a sense of kinship,” she explained. “I really want to advocate and fight to make sure that we’re building long-term peace in the region.”

Amanda Berman, the founder and executive director of Zioness, a nonprofit coalition of progressive pro-Israel activists, said she met Virasingh “because she had expressed an interest in learning about the priorities of the Jewish community,” as Berman put it in an email to JI, “and because, especially given her family’s own refugee story and her experiences growing up, she sees herself as an ally to Jews and other minorities who have had to fight for the American dream.”

“She is a pragmatic progressive who does not fit neatly into an ideological box, and she rejects outright the antisemitic notion that Zionist Jews should be pushed out of the progressive movement,” Berman said of Virasingh, adding: “She is relatable, smart, energetic and aware of how complex Israel- and antisemitism-related issues can get, and she is open and eager to engage in good faith and learn how to be the ally she intends to be.”

While Virasingh expresses broad support for the Jewish state, however, her hesitation with regard to supplemental funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system suggests that she may still be working her way through the issue.

Virasingh initially declined to confirm whether she supports legislation that would provide $1 billion to replenish the Iron Dome following violence between Israel and Hamas last May, noting that she would need to give the matter further thought. The measure, which passed by a vote of 420 to 9 in the House last September, was opposed by a vocal handful of far-left Democrats and one libertarian Republican in a contentious floor vote. The legislation is currently stalled in the Senate.

“I don’t want to be presumptive about how I would vote on the Iron Dome funding, but I would hope to be more proactive on the policy prior to the vote itself,” Virasingh clarified in an email a few weeks later. “Although I am not intimately involved in the nuances of Iron Dome technology, I recognize that it is a military innovation created in tandem with our own United States military.”

Virasingh expressed appreciation for Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-VT) suggestion that the U.S. provide the same amount of funding for Gaza. “But I think $1 billion divided between Iron Dome and targeted grassroots efforts of co-education programs, interfaith grants and helping cultivate an economic center within the Palestinian territories,” she said, “could help provide a two-pronged strategy.”

Lloyd Wolf, a professional photographer and Jewish community activist in Arlington, said he has spoken with Virasingh about Israel and concluded that she is still sussing out the finer details of her approach. “My sense is she hadn’t spent a lot of time on the issue,” he said, acknowledging that “it’s not an easy learning curve” for first-time candidates who haven’t previously explored such issues in depth.

But Wolf, who is supporting Virasingh in the June primary, said he was confident that she would take it seriously. “I think she’s smart enough to figure it out,” he said. 

“Here in the U.S., I think what we’re missing is an acknowledgement of our past,” said Virasingh. “There are people in the district who lived through segregation. What are we doing to really recognize and acknowledge our past so that we can move forward?”

Beyer, too, appears to have been trying to find the appropriate calibration on Israel in recent months. During the conflict between Israel and Hamas in May, he released a statement calling for “a ceasefire as soon as possible” while condemning Hamas’s rocket attacks. “At the same time, the Palestinian people also have the right to safety and security,” he added. “I condemn the excessive use of force against the Palestinian protestors in Jerusalem and the forcible removal of Palestinians from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah.”

Recently, Wolf interviewed and photographed Virasingh as a subject in the “Columbia Pike Documentary Project,” an ongoing series highlighting local community members that is housed in the permanent collection of the Library of Virginia. 

Virasingh, who identifies as Latino and Indian — her mother is from Ecuador — was born and raised in Arlington, an ethnically diverse city with a sizable immigrant population. “At times, we were just surviving on my mom’s minimum wage job as a manicurist plus tips,” she said of her childhood. “I think that experience really taught me the value of the dollar and what it’s like to be on the fringes and to be part of a vulnerable community.”

“My family and I were actually homeless for a few years when I was very young, and we lived in a variety of different situations,” Virasingh recalled. “But slowly, bit by bit, my parents were able to save money. I remember the day that we moved into our very own apartment unit. That was a very big day.”

Virasingh spent a few summers interning with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) in Washington, D.C., before graduating from college with a degree in international relations. With Palantir, Virasingh, who was based in Palo Alto, Calif., created and led the company’s future-of-work team, collaborating with labor leaders around the U.S.

Victoria Virasingh (Credit: Matthew Kassel)

She did similar work in Germany in recent years and was impressed with the country’s approach to remembering the Holocaust. “Here in the U.S., I think what we’re missing is an acknowledgment of our past,” said Virasingh, who learned German abroad and is fluent in Spanish (her first language), French, Italian and Portuguese (as well as some Thai). “There are people in the district who lived through segregation. What are we doing to really recognize and acknowledge our past so that we can move forward? I think there’s a lot we can learn from Germany.”

“Seeing how things worked there within workforce development, social development, healthcare, paid time off for families and moms, the way that work is structured, it was extremely eye-opening,” she added. “Those experiences I’m hoping to bring with me as I start to create policies that, I think, start to shift us into a system where we do create a safety net for folks here.”

When Virasingh moved back to the district, where Amazon recently planted its second headquarters, she felt that Arlington had become less accommodating for working-class families — including her cousin, who, she says, is about to be kicked out of her salon as real estate developers eye opportunity. 

“I remember growing up here, people who would move in would be teachers, they’d be policemen, firemen,” she said. “Now, when you look at the workforce, I mean, firemen can’t live here.”

The more she saw, Virasingh said, “the more it was evident to me that we have a necessity for leadership that understands the realities of today’s economy, that understands the realities of what it means to work a minimum-wage job and to survive on that.”

“We’re living in a kind of post-pandemic world, we are living in a new reality, we are living in a new economy, and how and where we work has changed,” she told JI last month. “How we see our leaders has transformed. Who is filling those spots?”

The congressional hopeful suggested that her particular skill set has been lacking in progressive circles. “I have a very strong stance on the economy,” Virasingh said, arguing that her tenure in the technology sector lends credibility to her campaign as she champions proposals aimed at propping up underserved communities. “That’s one of the things, I feel like, is missing from the progressive side: What is our stance on the economy?”

She announced her candidacy in July. “We’re living in a kind of post-pandemic world, we are living in a new reality, we are living in a new economy, and how and where we work has changed,” she told JI last month. “How we see our leaders has transformed. Who is filling those spots?”

Virasingh, who now lives with her parents in the townhouse they have owned since the 1990s, is currently running something of a barebones operation. But she says she is building a reliable volunteer base, and supporters told JI that they would either be hosting meet-and-greets or fundraisers for her in the coming weeks. Roy Bahat, who runs the Bloomberg Beta venture capital firm in San Francisco, has donated to her campaign, which pulled in just over $91,000 between July and September, according to the latest filings from the Federal Election Commission. 

By contrast, Beyer, a moderate Democrat who has held office since 2015 and is among the wealthiest members of Congress, has raised approximately $680,000. 

Victoria Virasingh outside a bakery near her campaign headquarters (Credit: Matthew Kassel)

Aaron Fritschner, a Beyer campaign spokesperson, told JI that the congressman welcomes the challenge from Virasingh. “The seat doesn’t belong to him,” Fritschner said. “If people want to challenge him, that’s up to them, but he’s going to continue to make the case for why he should be reelected by doing his job.”

Though the primary is still in its early stages, Jeremy Mayer, a political scientist at George Mason University, believes that Virasingh is a viable contender. “Beyer has his longtime supporters, and they need to take this seriously,” Mayer told JI. “It’s a real threat to his reelection at this point.” 

Virasingh, he said, “has a much better chance to tap into the rage and frustration felt by the Democratic grassroots than Beyer does.”

For her part, Virasingh believes the district is ready for new leadership. 

“When I looked at the priorities of the voters and the priorities of the district and the leadership, I didn’t see those priorities being translated,” she told JI. “I didn’t see those issues being advocated for in the way that they needed to be. It started to trigger something in me. We can’t just wait. We can’t just say, ‘Oh, well, he’s nice, so therefore, we should just keep him,’ when, I think, we need to advocate for leaders who understand what it’s like and are willing to do something about it.”

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