Chelsea Manning, the government whistleblower and transgender activist, is an Oklahoma native currently living in Maryland—not exactly someone you’d expect to weigh in on the local politics of Arizona’s Eighth Congressional District. But early last month, after Republican Congressman Trent Franks resigned over sexual misconduct accusations, Manning tweeted her support for an obscure Democratic candidate in this year’s special election to replace him.
Manning’s friend is Brianna Westbrook, a 33-year-old transgender woman in Peoria who—despite having no political experience and only one paid staffer—has managed to attract support from a number of national figures. Rosie O’Donnell backs her, as does Justice Democrats, the progressive group founded by The Young Turks’ Cenk Uygur and former staffers of Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign. A social media enthusiast who documented her gender transition on YouTube five years ago, Westbrook has amassed over 12,000 Twitter followers—a remarkable feat for a sales manager at Arrowhead Honda, a car dealership. “I decided to run because over the years you haven’t seen a representative of the people,” she told me on her lunch break one afternoon last week. “There isn’t a working-class voice in Congress.”
Westbrook says she’ll be “a warrior for the people” on Capitol Hill, and she’s clearly the populist in the Democratic primary on February 27. She’s also the underdog. Her opponent, another political newcomer, is Hiral Tipirneni. A 50-year-old emergency room physician and advocate for cancer research, Tipirneni is running a better-funded, more traditional campaign, with endorsements from Maricopa County Supervisor Steve Gallardo and several members of Congress. “I’ve spent my life basically working to solve problems on a non-partisan basis,” she told me this past weekend, adding that she’d bring a doctor’s collaborative spirit and devotion to facts to Washington. Tipirneni immigrated to the United States from India with her family at age three and says she’ll fight to expand the same opportunity America gave them.
It may take a political miracle even greater than Senator Doug Jones’s victory over Roy Moore in Alabama last month for either of these women to beat the Republican nominee in the April 24 general election. As GOP strategist Barrett Marson told me, “There’s no child molester in this race, and Democrats aren’t going to spend $5 million to win.” Regardless, Westbrook and Tipirneni are emblematic of a renewed Democratic enthusiasm in the Trump era, even in red America: In the past two election cycles, the party didn’t even bother to field a candidate in the 8th. “This is an incredible time in our country’s history politically,” Tipirneni said. “We know the momentum is on our side. There is clearly a movement coming—and an energy I haven’t seen before.”
Westbrook and Tipirneni are also emblematic of the divide between the party’s ascendant left and chastened center in the wake of Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump. Westbrook, like many activists, believes Bernie Sanders–style progressive populism can sell in Trump country. “I think everyone can agree that Washington, D.C., politics is corrupt,” she said. “It’s ruled by money.” Tipirneni accuses Congress of corruption, too, but the self-described moderate thinks her pragmatism will resonate with conservative voters. “It’s not about some sort of party purity test,” she said. “People want to know you have plan that’s implementable and feasible.”
“I’m Bernie and she’s Hillary,” Westbrook told me. “That’s the easiest way to put it.”
Parallels to Sanders and Clinton notwithstanding, Westbrook and Tipirneni defy caricature of the respective wings of the party they represent. Hardly a “Bernie bro,” Westbrook could be the first openly transgender person to serve in Congress. Tipirneni, despite her professed centrism, has been endorsed by two up-and-coming progressives in the House, Washington’s Pramila Jayapal and California’s Ro Khanna. (Like Tipirneni, Jayapal was born in India; Khanna was born in Philadelphia, but his parents immigrated to America from India in the 1970s.) And Westbrook and Tipirneni both speak about bridging divides. Westbrook told me that having “lived in two different genders” helps her empathize with a variety of perspectives. In her introductory campaign video, Tipirneni said medicine is a profession where “trust is earned every single day, and failing to work together to solve problems can be deadly.”
The Republican attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act were “one of the main issues that threw me into the race,” Tipirneni said. But the issue also reveals telling differences between the candidates. “Medicare for All is the only avenue we can go down for an active healthcare system,” Westbrook told Phoenix’s KTVK-TV this week. “The ACA was a step in the right direction. I think it was meant to kind of lead us to that way. But we need to follow suit with a lot of these other well-developed countries throughout the world that have a single-payer system.” Tipirneni also wants to improve the ACA, but told me, “There’s something to be gained by keeping the private insurers in the marketplace”—that it enhances competition and choice. She says she’s committed to the goal of universal coverage, and favors expanding Medicare and creating a public option. The healthcare section of her campaign website states, “When progressives and conservatives work together, we can accomplish great things.... We need a collaborative approach that addresses the twin pillars of expanded coverage and cost containment. Such a plan is only possible with ideas borrowed from both sides of the debate.”
“She’s doing what campaign strategists tell you to do,” Westbrook said. “They tell you to be very vanilla.” She noted that Tipirneni’s platform includes “a lot of things she thinks will appeal to independents. She mentions tax reform. That’s not something I’ve talked about.” Westbrook argues she can win Democrats and independents with progressive policies like automatic voter registration, taxing Wall Street to fight income inequality, and especially campaign finance reform. “We keep talking about the past of this district and not the future,” she told me.
Tipirneni isn’t bothered by Westbrook’s critique. “I’m running as a moderate Democrat, and that’s consistent with the values I hear voters sharing with me,” she said. “I’m not trying to run as a representative for other districts.”
There’s little doubt that Westbrook, who touts her support for intersectional feminists and other social-justice causes, is testing the progressive limits of a conservative district that Trump won by 21 points. “I see a lot of enthusiasm for her from a niche interest group,” Ronald J. Hansen, a congressional reporter for the Arizona Republic, told me. “But I don’t know that there’s much of that residing in the 8th District.” He said there’s “good reason to think [Tipirneni] is the kind of establishment Democrat who could win the primary, in part because she’s put together what appears to be a fairly conventional campaign architecture.”
Last month, Politico reported that Tipirneni “raised more than $165,000 during the third quarter of 2017—more than the incumbent.” As of last month, Westbrook reportedly had less than $1,500 on hand. She says the press is too preoccupied with Federal Election Commission filings. “I’m not a big money candidate,” she told me, adding by way of explanation, “Wealthy people know wealthy people. Poor people know poor people.”
Tipirneni says her family struggled when they first arrived in the United States, but Westbrook’s upbringing was truly harrowing. “Growing up in Mesa,” the Phoenix New Times reported last year, “she lived in severe poverty, she says, eating out of garbage cans and moving from house to house because the family kept being evicted. Several of her family members struggled with heavy drinking and were involved with meth.” Westbrook endured years of familial dysfunction and dislocation. She moved out of her own home at 15, got herself through high school, and got a job shoveling asphalt before joining Arrowhead Honda more than a decade ago.
Westbrook is applying her skills to her candidacy. “What made me successful in my career selling cars is referrals,” she said. “It’s word of mouth that spreads your message.” She says social media has leveled the playing field in politics, providing a platform for “an authentic voice,” like hers. “I’m like a left version of Donald Trump,” she told me. “I’m bold. I’m not afraid to say things. I don’t hold stuff back.” The question is whether the 8th District is ready for a leftist Trump, or even a moderate Democrat. “I would be shocked if a Democrat won,” New Times reporter Antonia Noori Farzan told me. “Completely shocked.”
Both candidates say that if they lose this time around, they’ll run again in the fall midterms because they believe firmly in the Democrats’ new mantra: compete everywhere. “If we’ve learned anything from the recent elections, we know it’s about integrity, trust, and character,” Tipirneni told me. “Every race is worth investing in. Every seat is worth contesting. Nobody in Congress should be winning by default.”