By Brenna O’Donnell | [email protected]
When Hala Ayala was a young girl growing up in the Fairfax County portion of Alexandria, her world revolved around the apartment complex she lived in with her close-knit family, her time at Groveton Elementary School, which her father helped rebuild, and concerns of making ends meet after losing her father to gun violence when she was just two years old.
Today, Ayala is focused on the speeches and meet-and-greets that come with being on the campaign trail as the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor of Virginia. With the election coming up on Nov. 2, Ayala and her team have been traveling across the Commonwealth, discussing issues that are most important to her, including education funding, Medicaid expansion, equal rights and gun safety.
Ayala has served as delegate for Virginia’s 51st District in Prince William County since 2018 and acts as chief deputy whip of the Virginia House of Delegates. Of her time in Alexandria, Ayala said she remembers how community-oriented it is, an outlook that has certainly stayed with her through a move to Prince William County and on the campaign trail.
“We’re planting seeds for the future of our Commonwealth,” Ayala said. “It’s going to take a lot of work. It’s not going to be a ‘them’ and ‘us’ – it’s going to be a ‘we.’ It’s going to be all of us.”
As for what kickstarted her journey into politics, Ayala pointed to President Barack Obama’s visit to Prince William County in 2008.
“My hair was on fire. Because we didn’t see individuals that look like us, or my two Black children, running for President of these United States, … so I got bitten by the political bug. I was part of campaigning from then on,” Ayala said.
Following the 2016 election, Ayala felt galvanized to run for office herself, a decision which coincided with a national trend of women campaigning in record-breaking numbers.
“I picked up my clipboard and sneakers and ran for office,” Ayala said of her successful 2017 campaign for the House of Delegates. “I felt compelled to protect my family, which is Virginia.”
That level of protectiveness comes, in part, from her upbringing in Alexandria. As the oldest of three girls, Ayala was a natural, and necessary, leader for her younger siblings.
“Hala is the oldest of three girls and always took a leadership role in taking care of us,” Sadie Barrera, Ayala’s youngest sister, said. “… Hala and I were super close, we did everything together. [For] as long as I can remember, our family has always been supportive of our goals and aspirations.”
Prior to running for office, Ayala worked as a cybersecurity specialist at the Department of Homeland Security. Following the recent cyberattack on the Colonial Pipeline, which runs through Virginia, Ayala noted that her background would continue to help advise her leadership decisions.
“The digital age is the next Katrina. It’s the next warfare. We have to be vigilant in protecting our data, our businesses, our consumers and the citizens of this Commonwealth from any attack,” Ayala said.
Additionally, Ayala has a track record of leading local women’s organizations. She formerly led the Prince William County chapter of the National Organization for Women, served on the Virginia Council on Women and helped organize the first Women’s March in 2017. In January 2020, Virginia ratified the Equal Rights Amendment, which Ayala co-sponsored, becoming the 38th state to do so.
“We wanted to put equity in the constitution,” Ayala said.
According to those that have worked with her, Ayala’s political career has been exciting to watch, if predictable. Ayala’s former campaign manager, Shu-Yen Wei, recalled meeting her for the first time in a Dunkin’ Donuts in Franconia.
“People had been trying to get her to run,” Wei said. “Her level of commitment is great, and she wants to hear what the people have to say.”
“She has a willingness to lead and be a team player as well,” Delegate Luke Torian, who has represented Ayala’s neighboring 52nd District since 2010, said. “Great effectiveness in a leader is shown by the ability to build relationships and she has that quality.”
However, Ayala’s political trajectory was far from inevitable. When she was 23, Ayala was working at a gas station in Prince William County, pregnant with her first son and wondering how she was going to get health care while still trying to make ends meet. According to Ayala, those experiences with the hardships, which many Virginians face, have helped her better understand and empathize with the people she serves.
“When we expanded Medicaid, this was so important, not only to my personal story but to so many Virginians,” Ayala said.
“Hala is an extraordinary and ordinary person at the same time,” Barrera said. “When you have somebody that hasn’t had this picture-perfect life, who’s gone through challenges and struggles, it humanizes her. We didn’t grow up with silver spoons in our hands. She’s a staple of how with hard work and determination, someone can persevere.”
In the issues she discusses on the campaign trail, Ayala recalls some of the most trying times in her life, but while off the stage and away from the podium, Ayala said she has created an atmosphere akin to her childhood in Alexandria. On the campaign trail for lieutenant governor, Ayala’s team has re-created one specific tradition that has carried through from Ayala’s days as a kid in Northern Virginia.
“Her family always does ‘Pizza Fridays,’” Wei said. “We would all gather at Hala’s house to eat with her family. It was a nice tradition for the campaign staffers.”
Ayala said “Pizza Fridays” on the trail began as a tribute to her late mother, as growing up, “that would be the one day we could afford to go out and buy pizza and just [patronize] a local business. … ‘Pizza Friday’ has been around for decades.”
No matter the result of the race between Ayala and Republican nominee Winsome Sears, the 2021 election will be a historic one: Virginia will be getting its first female lieutenant governor in state history, and in either case, she will be a woman of color.
“I remember in an Alexandria school … I had a friend that worked for a principal there [who] talked about how, ‘We need to be our business card. As women of color, we are judged first and heard second,’ and she didn’t want that for me,” Ayala said.
For Ayala, it was important to “have someone who gives you those rules of the road, to be empowering, to help get to the finish line.” Ayala is hopeful that, no matter the outcome, her role in Virginia’s political sphere will help other young women in Alexandria see that a career in politics is possible.
“I hope that my candidacy plants a seed for women and more women of color to run for office,” Ayala said.