CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Danielle Walker is an anomaly in West Virginia’s male-, white- and GOP-dominated state Legislature: The Democrat is the body’s only Black woman, its only openly LGBTQ+ member and the only one to talk publicly about having had an abortion.
First elected in 2018, the Monongalia County lawmaker and single mother became a symbol of progressive resistance in the deeply conservative state, leading protests against bans on abortion and gender-affirming care for transgender youth.
Now she is leaving her seat and also her position as vice chair of the state Democratic Party to lead an organization challenging such laws in court, becoming the new executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia starting April 17.
The organization announced the hire during its annual Bill of Rights dinner Saturday night in Charleston. Walker takes up the reins from Eli Baumwell, the group’s advocacy director, who has been acting as chief after Joseph Cohen left in December.
Republican Gov. Jim Justice will appoint a Democrat from Monongalia County to serve the remainder of Walker’s term, which includes a full legislative session. The county Democratic executive committee can submit recommendations.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Walker said the issues that prompted her to run for public office are the same ones that will drive her work at the nonpartisan ACLU.
“At the end of the day, no one wants to know if you are Democrat or Republican,” she said. “They want to know, are you helping them or are you hurting them?”
Among the pending cases on the state ACLU’s docket are challenges to state laws banning abortion and transgender athletes’ participation in female school sports.
During her terms in office, Walker has repeatedly sponsored legislation to remove abortion restrictions in the state. When a gender-affirming care ban passed the House in February, she condemned the bill in a fiery floor speech, a transgender pride flag draped over her shoulders.
She earned high praise from progressives, launching her into a Democratic leadership position. She also became a target of conservatives, who ensured that none of the 61 bills for which she was lead sponsor this session made it past committee.
Walker’s political stances also drew threats that made her fear for her life, so much so that she engaged a security guard to accompany her at the Capitol.
In 2022, Richard Demoske, the president of a Berkeley County anti-abortion group, resigned after Walker shared an email he sent her featuring a Klu Klux Klan member giving a Nazi salute with the subject line “Your plan.”
“The idiot featured in the picture below is an ally of yours and holds the same beliefs you do that the killing of children who look like you is a good thing,” read the message, which also implored Walker to be “PRO-LIFE as if your race depended on it.”
Walker filed a lawsuit accusing Berkeley County West Virginians for Life of trying to “intimidate” the state’s lone Black woman lawmaker and calling the message “the modern-day digital equivalent of burning a cross in Delegate Walker’s front yard.” The suit is still pending.
The ACLU has notably championed a number of progressive causes such as same-sex marriage and transgender people’s right to serve in the military, and also filed a string of lawsuits against state elections laws they said discriminated against Black voters.
The organization has also taken some stands in its mission to defend the First Amendment that have been controversial, such as supporting white supremacists’ and neo-Nazis’ right to peaceful protest even while decrying their views.
But Walker said she would have no problem with the ACLU of West Virginia representing someone from such a group if they were denied a protest permit, just as she would with any other organization.
The better question to ask, she added, is: “Would they want to be represented, now that Danielle Walker is the executive director? Would they even call us?”
Walker said the ACLU work that most excites her involves encouraging people historically excluded from policymaking, such as communities of color and LGBTQ+ people, to get engaged and advocate for issues they care about.
She said she is inspired by the state group’s Appalachian Queer Youth Summit — a free camp for young people who are LGBTQ+ or come from LGBTQ+ families — and wants to expand such efforts.
And she vowed that she will still be spending plenty of time at the Capitol.
“I’ll still be in the chamber,” Walker said, “just in a different seat.”
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