Rep. Abigail Spanberger’s claim to fame is, ironically, a secret. The third-term Democrat representing an exurban swatch of central and northern Virginia has never hid her background as a CIA covert operative, though she still can’t really talk about it.
But in campaign circles, Spanberger’s perhaps better known for ending the GOP’s 36-year hold on Virginia’s 7th District and then twice staving off strong Republican challengers. That backdrop — more Tim Ryan than Jack Ryan — is why her peers in battleground districts picked her to be their representative on House Democrats’ leadership team.
Spanberger sat down with CQ Roll Call to talk about her new role and her old one, plus what postal inspectors and CIA spies have in common.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Q: You were in the CIA, but before that, you were a U.S. postal inspector, which, I think it’s fair to say, doesn’t get the same amount of street cred. What was that transition like?
A: [Postal inspector] is a really cool job that does really cool investigations. But you routinely have people say, “Oh, you inspect packages?” So I had a cool job that nobody thought was cool. And then I went to the CIA, and I was undercover for the entire time and had a really cool job that nobody knew I had. My professional experience is like: Doing good work — really cool things! — Nobody really knows about it.
Q: You’re one of the few members of Congress who’s talked about the Adderall shortage. How did it end up on your radar?
A: The reason it hasn’t been top of mind is because, frankly, it’s not a lifesaving medication. If we think back to a year ago, there were shortages related to baby formula … and we were talking heart medication or we were talking insulin. No one’s life is in danger if they don’t have access to their ADHD medication, but their quality of life, ability to do well in school, that’s important.
And it’s not just Adderall — it’s the other [ADHD medications] in short supply.
It is meaningful for the people who require it, but it isn’t life or death. But this is like a canary in the coal mine, or a practice run — understanding how we got to where we are right now with Adderall helps us understand supply chain shortages, so that next time it’s not the heart medication that people need.
Q: You were elected battleground leadership representative last year. How are Democrats going to defend some of the Frontline seats in 2024, and how are you going to go on the offensive as the minority party?
A: There’s a variety of different things to consider. Like, how do we win back the majority? How do we protect really good members who, by virtue of the districts that they serve in, their elections are not guaranteed?
My role is to sit in at the leadership meetings. We know what legislation is coming forward, and our whip team makes decisions — let’s be very clear, plenty of times the whip has said, “Democrats should vote this way,” and I do my own thing.
The role that I have been playing in this leadership position is just saying, “Yeah, this isn’t an optimal piece of legislation.” Same with the COVID transparency bill that we had two weeks ago — I wouldn’t have written it the way it was written. But the bottom line is, that’s the bill that’s before us. I don’t think it’s optimal, but I still support the bill.
In that position, it’s actually just [asking] how people across the spectrum perceive what we are doing on Capitol Hill. What’s the feedback that we’re getting?
Q: You’re on the Agriculture Committee and represent a district that’s a mix of suburban and rural. Do you think Democrats can make a play for rural voters or farmers again — the way they were decades ago — and if so, how? Or are you stuck just fighting it out in the suburbs?
A: If you look at the 2022 election, my win margin was in the rural counties that I actually didn’t win, but my margin was there. Like, I knew by 8:08 p.m. — polls close at 7 p.m. — because I was doing so well in rural counties. I had really made a lot of inroads.
It’s a little bit of which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Our policies are good for rural and agricultural communities. They are. From our investments in broadband to our investments in any array of agricultural programs, support to research that ultimately helps farmers, support to conservation programs that ultimately saves producers money, support to commodity programs, that helps them in their times of need — across a spectrum, our policies are really, really good for rural and agricultural communities.
Sometimes we don’t always translate that. We don’t talk about the things that matter to people in certain communities. I do a lot of work on anticompetitive practices in the meatpacking industry, because I have a lot of small livestock producers. And when you’ve got your “Big Four” meat processor making sweetheart deals with big-scale cattle farms, that impacts the small family farm in my district that works really hard to raise 200 head of cattle. Where do they get their meat processed? They just get beaten out time and time again. I’ve worked on hyperlocal legislation that certainly matters in Virginia or in the 7th District, but there’s places across the country where it does as well.
So to your question, it’s an issue of making sure that we’re actually explaining what it is that we do. I have learned so much — I don’t have an ag background — from the producers that I represent. So I advocate for the programs that matter to them.
Q: Going back to your background in the CIA and position on the Intelligence Committee: The U.S. and the CIA in particular have an ugly history of meddling in foreign countries and their elections — often in support of authoritarian regimes over left-wing candidates or parties. Do you think the agency has done enough to confront that past? And do you think Congress has done enough to prevent that kind of adventurism from happening again?
A: So, first and foremost, for anybody who’s worried: All of the looser elements of the law that permitted such activities to happen have been heavily constrained and changed. Those sorts of things just don’t happen anymore. That is an issue of congressional oversight, an issue overhanging the presidential finding system — and I know that firsthand, from my time at the agency, and certainly now, witnessing it again from congressional oversight.
In terms of confronting its past, I would say, as a CIA employee, we confronted the issue of torture, of enhanced interrogation techniques, directly and completely. I was there. This was deemed legal, deemed acceptable, in the early days after Sept. 11. And now we are a hard “no” on these practices.
In terms of confronting the past of decades and decades and decades ago, there’s a lot of interesting literature. Within the CIA, they acknowledge the history, but there’s a job to do of keeping the United States safe from threats that are persistent and significant. So I think it’s the job of historians and the job of people who were engaged at the time to help those who want to explore that history, explore it. But I think the clear parameters of what is legal and appropriate now has been addressed and defined and certainly abided at the CIA.
What was the last book you read?
“Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism,” by Anne Applebaum.
In politics, can the ends justify the means?
No. If you betray your principles on the way to an end, then that’s the way back to authoritarianism.
What is your least popular opinion?
I love peanut butter and pickle sandwiches. It’s a divisive issue, and if ever it were used in an attack ad against me, it probably would be the end of my political career.
What is one thing that your friends know about you that your constituents probably don’t?
I like rom coms between Thanksgiving and Christmas — the really stupid, holiday-themed ones.
You can speak four languages. What is the best one to curse in?
French, because it just sounds so — I don’t want to insult the French — a little bit judge-y. … Actually, I would say English. And that’s probably something my constituents don’t know about me: Sometimes I can have a potty mouth.