The Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor has brought her 'lived experiences' as a former gas station clerk and daughter of immigrants to the campaign trail.
Virginia state Del. Hala Ayala, the Democratic Party nominee for lieutenant governor, has followed an unlikely path to contending for the second-highest office in the commonwealth.
Ayala, who worked as a cybersecurity specialist for the Department of Homeland Security for 20 years, has a story of tragedy and triumph which she says resonates with Virginia voters.
In 2018, Ayala assumed office as a member of the Virginia House of Delegates. She represents House District 51 in Northern Virginia, which includes part of Prince William County and Fauquier County.
"I am a working-class daughter of an African El Salvadorian immigrant and a Lebanese Irish mother, who were both working-class parents themselves," Ayala told the American Independent Foundation in a phone interview. "When you bring lived experiences to Virginians, they relate."
Ayala lost her father to gun violence when she was 3 and he was 24. That loss plunged her family into hard times. The memories of those years have stayed with her.
"I advocate for people who don't have much, because we remember standing in food lines," she said. "We remember not being able to pay our light bills. I remember my mother going hungry."
Ayala started work at 15 to help her mother pay the family's bills. She worked as a waitress and as a cashier at a Popeyes and delivered newspapers. She enrolled in Northern Virginia Community College but dropped out one year later to return to the workforce.
Ayala first heard about Medicaid when she was 24 years old, pregnant, and working a minimum wage job at a gas station while also struggling with high blood pressure and diabetes. She enrolled in Medicaid, the government health insurance program that assists people living in poverty, to manage her health and cover the cost of her son's birth.
"When we fought for Medicaid expansion in the House, my lived experience was that I almost died and Medicaid saved both our lives," she said. "I fought for not only Medicaid but paid family leave because I know how much I needed it."
Democrats' hard-won policy successes in Virginia over the past four years on issues including Medicaid expansion, abortion rights, gun control, and marijuana legalization are all at stake in the Nov. 2 election.
Ayala shares some biographical details with Winsome Sears, her Republican opponent. Both have experience as state lawmakers, with Sears serving two terms in the House of Delegates from 2000 to 2004. They are both daughters of immigrants: Sears' family moved to the United States from Jamaica when Sears was 6 years old. And they would each make history as the first woman of color to serve as lieutenant governor of Virginia.
But Ayala and Sears are polar opposites when it comes to their plans for Virginia, Ayala's campaign said.
"It's really exciting to see two women of color running for the seat," Lauren Chou, Ayala's communications director, told the American Independent Foundation. "But it's not just diversity for diversity's sake. It's about bringing diverse leaders to the table who are going to represent the interests of their communities and uplift Black and brown communities who have been marginalized."
This contrast is especially stark in the two women's views on abortion and gun violence.
In a recent NewsMax interview, Sears said that if elected, she would support bringing a Texas-style abortion ban to Virginia. In comparison, Ayala has said she would fight to defend abortion rights as enshrined in the Supreme Court's landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.
Ayala has also made gun safety a cornerstone of her campaign, owing in part to her personal experience of losing her father to gun violence. By contrast, Sears, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, has broadly opposed gun control measures, and so-called "red-flag laws" specifically.
The issue section of Sears' campaign website once said that "gun control laws infringe on the right to self-defense and deny people a sense of safety." Eventually, that section was heavily edited, and the "Second Amendment" section was removed entirely.
In April, Sears shared photos of herself at a shooting range holding an assault-style rifle.
"Marines know how to use guns and I won't ever support a red flag law! The 2nd Amendment says 'shall not be infringed!'" Sears tweeted.
On both of these issues, Sears' beliefs are out of step with those of most Virginians.
Ayala has faced her own obstacles in the race. During the Democratic primary campaign, she came under fire for accepting a $100,000 campaign contribution from Dominion Energy, the state's largest private utility company, after promising to refuse all donations from the firm.
Ayala has defended the decision.
"People change their minds all the time. People grow. That doesn't change where my focus is," she told the Virginia Mercury. "I will always fight for renewable energies. I will always fight for Virginians."
She added that the need to reach more voters was what ultimately changed her mind.
"We need to talk to voters. I want this job. I want to continue to serve and to be able to connect with voters," Ayala told local news station WJLA-TV. "You need resources to do that."
Recent polling has found the lieutenant governor's race in a statistical tie. That mirrors recent polling on the Virginia governor's race between Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin.
Earlier this month, University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato said he expects a "ticket election," meaning that the governor's race at the top of the ticket will determine who wins down-ballot races, including the lieutenant governor race.
In the final days before the election, Ayala says she is focused on Virginia's future.
"There is much more work to be done beyond the work that we have done in the Democratic majority," she said. "This is the floor, not the ceiling."
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.