Jennifer Wexton Will Not Seek Reelection As Medical Diagnosis Changes

From a Washington Post story by Jenna Portnoy headlined “Rep. Jennifer Wexton will not seek reelection as diagnosis changes”:

Rep. Jennifer Wexton promised this spring to persevere as she revealed a Parkinson’s diagnosis that stilted her movements and slurred her speech, hurdles she hoped to overcome while serving a competitive Northern Virginia district.

But as Wexton, 55, failed to respond to treatments as hoped, this summer she found herself confronting a more serious diagnosis: progressive supranuclear palsy. Her instinct — the same thing that propelled her from the state Senate to Congress — was to fight.

“Can I still run for reelection?” she recalled asking her doctor, as they looked at the distinctive hummingbird shape on her brain scan that changed everything — again.

“Why would you want to?” the doctor replied.

The rare neurological disorder — often mistaken for Parkinson’s because the early symptoms are similar — typically progresses more rapidly, does not respond as well to treatment and has no cure. Faced with the reality that her condition will likely only worsen, Wexton said she will not seek a fourth term next year, choosing instead to spend her remaining years with her family.

“People I know know I’ve struggled for a long time,” she said from her kitchen table in Leesburg. “I’ll be able to relax and enjoy the time I have left and the time I have left in Congress.”

Her decision could make Democrats vulnerable in a Loudoun County-based seat that Republicans held for 40 years before Wexton defeated Barbara Comstock in 2018 on a wave of anti-Trump fervor. Wexton won a third term by six points in the midterm elections, but experts say the seat could be back in play without the name recognition, fundraising capacity and political network of an incumbent.

Wexton has tried to process her new normal with the humor and candor that have endeared her to House colleagues, who in interviews said they will miss her liberal voice on transportation, housing and the federal workforce.

During a 90-minute interview, Wexton spoke with difficulty, her words garbled and running together, about her career and plans with help from two staffers, often letting the tears flow. Two walking sticks stood in the corner as she rose for water or to grab treats for her dogs, Lady Bear and Wanda.

Wexton announced her previous diagnosis in April on World Parkinson’s Day, and planned to remain in Congress, embracing her newfound platform for disability rights. Then she noticed her symptoms were not improving with medication the way she saw in others and sought second and third opinions.

After receiving what she called a “final, unequivocal” diagnosis in late June, she decided to follow through with already scheduled physical, occupational and speech therapy during the August recess. With significant improvement, maybe she would run again.

“But what became clear was that not only would I not be able to handle the rigors of campaigning in a tough district (hours of daily call time! Campaign rallies! Trackers and attack ads!) even if I could it may have literally killed me. And my life is definitely too short for that!” she said in a text message Saturday evening.

The disease had made public speaking excruciating for the former trial attorney and politician, who had never been one to practice in front of a mirror.

“It’s hard for me to speak in a way that people can understand and that they want to listen to … I hate the way I sound now. I always have to think about slowing down and enunciating,” she said, joking about channeling her inner Anchorman.

Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine called her a “happy warrior,” and recalled how she dressed as Wonder Woman as they marched in the Leesburg Halloween parade in the final days of the 2018 campaign.

“Watching her over the last year and seeing her slowing, I think about that Wonder Woman picture and that really fun event … and it just makes me sad,” he said.

Yet running for Congress was never part of her plan. There’s a “zero percent chance” she would have jumped in without Donald Trump in the White House, she said.

She was content in the state Senate, where she served a total of five years, and relished writing her own bills and being one of 40 lawmakers in the chamber in 2017 when then-freshman Democratic congressman A. Donald McEachin, a former state Senator himself, encouraged her to run and sent her a note quoting Thomas Paine.

“These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman,” he wrote. “You and I are not sunshine patriots. Your country needs you. The time has come for all hands on deck.”

“I could really use a hug from Donald about now,” she said, of McEachin, who died last year after a long battle with cancer.

Inspired, she went on to win a six-way primary and unseated Comstock in a bruising election that ushered in a new generation of progressive lawmakers, including Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a former CIA officer, and former Rep. Elaine Luria, a Navy veteran, who also flipped red districts in Virginia.

The trio of tough young mothers connected with women voters who wanted stricter gun laws, passage of the Equal Rights Amendment and a higher minimum wage. (Voters were unaccustomed to seeing so many female candidates and Wexton and Spanberger were often mistaken for one another despite looking nothing alike.)

One campaign ad highlighted Wexton’s life as a working mom, picking up her growing boys first in a sedan and later a minivan after long days as county prosecutor, lawyer in private practice and candidate. Both taller than her now, Matt, 20 and Jamie, 18, attend George Mason University and come home at least once a week to be with their mom and dad, Andrew, a fourth-grade teacher.

In Congress, where Wexton serves on the Appropriations Committee, she has focused on supporting victims of abuse and domestic violence, research for childhood cancer, and China’s human rights violations. She said she is most proud of laws she helped pass in Richmond to help victims of revenge porn file lawsuits, regulate day-care centers and secure a woman’s right to breastfeed in public.

She gained national attention by displaying the trans flag outside her Capitol Hill office, in honor of her niece. Last week she asked Spanberger and freshman Rep. Jennifer McClellan (D-Va.) to enter that office through a side door, a sign the meeting would be serious.

“I’m running for governor in 2025,” Wexton deadpanned. Both on the shortlist for governor, the women didn’t make a sound. Then Wexton laughed, and they all cried.

“This is not the way or the time anyone expected her career in Congress to end, but she’s a fighter and I’m going to fight with her,” McClellan said.

Wexton and McClellan called each other the “Jennifer caucus” in Richmond and consider each other their first touchpoints when considering higher office or coping with scandal — like when racist photos were discovered on former Virginia governor Ralph Northam’s yearbook page.

The three women have a group chat, and on fly-in days when lawmakers arrive from around the country a tradition of sneaking selfies on the House floor, usually a no-no.

“There’s just something so tragic about the fact that like she is in her prime, right?” Spanberger said. Even as her speech breaks down, “her sharp wit and incredible intelligence, that’s still there, but it’s hard for her to process those words and so it’s just really it’s devastating.”

For now, Wexton said she is trying to eat well and get as much sleep as possible. An accomplished cook, she makes pesto from the basil thriving on her back porch, which she offers to anyone willing to take some. She spends time with her sister, Suzanne Tosini and sister-in-law, Alison Lepard. And their large extended family is looking forward to a trip to Duck in the Outer Banks.

She tries to focus on what’s working.

Fixing her gaze on her chief of staff and longtime confidante, Abigail Carter, their eyes red, Wexton said she is determined to tell her story on her own terms.

“It’s okay,” Wexton assured Carter, before allowing herself to say how it really is. “It’s not okay. It’s not okay at all … I’m going to die, which isn’t fair.”

Jenna Portnoy is the local health reporter for The Washington Post. She previously covered members of Congress from the greater Washington region and worked in the Richmond bureau. Before joining The Post, she worked for the Newark Star-Ledger in her home state, as well as the Allentown Morning Call and Philadelphia City Paper.

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