He’s gone bankrupt, had a heart attack, gotten divorced, and come out as gay.
So what’s left for David Nygaard?
The Virginia Beach, Va., jeweler has decided to run for Congress.
While he recovered from surgery, “I had a lot of time to reflect on my life,” he says now. “I wanted the second half of my life to be impactful.”
Still, going into politics is an unusual move, as even he admits. Not only has he never held elective office before, but he’s jumping into a crowded Democratic field that includes five other candidates. (The one-term Republican incumbent for Virginia’s 2nd District, Scott Taylor, also has a primary challenger.)
Moreover, of all the announcements Nygaard’s made recently, it’s perhaps most surprising that he’s come out as a Democrat. Just five years ago, he chaired a PAC that supported the socially conservative Republican candidate for governor. He was also an elector for John McCain in 2008.
But Nygaard says many things have made him jump the fence.
Chief among them: his heart attack. He says the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) saved his life, allowing him to get treatment.
“I never would have been able to afford care otherwise,” he says. He favors what he calls “free-market solutions” to fix aspects of the law rather than full repeal.
But he says his disenchantment with his former party dates back even further, to the 2008 financial crisis. The fallout from that ultimately claimed his original seven-store business.
“I saw the big banks get a bailout,” he says. “Meanwhile, I lost my home and business to those same banks.”
He vows to be a passionate advocate for small business and stop policies—like, he says, the recently passed tax reform—that are titled toward big companies.
He is also passionate about criminal justice reform. His son has a felony conviction and now has few options. “The system unfairly penalizes young kids like my son,” he says.
Finally, his father, a Navy vet, is on Medicare but lacks longterm care. “We have to do better for our veterans.”
His background working as a jeweler will help him serve in Congress, he says.
“I have a history of retail and customer service and I think that’s going to translate into exceptional constituent service,” he says. “That is really a huge weakness of our current congressman.”
He thinks his unusual political history is a good fit for his district, which voted for both Obama and Trump.
“There’s a big middle ground there,” he says. “This district was gerrymandered for the Republicans to win. As a former Republican and a moderate Democrat, I feel I am precisely the man to win this district for the Democrats.”
None of his customers has complained about his run he says; some have even sent him donations. He admits that his campaign has taken time away from running his store, but says he’s transitioning to an appointment business anyway. (He also had a “great Christmas.”)
Nygaard also hopes for support from the jewelry industry. “It’s been a long time since we had a jeweler in Congress,” he says. (The last one appears to have been Ben Nighthorse Campbell, who served in the Senate from 1993–2005.)
Still, while Nygaard hasn’t done any polling yet, he admits he is hardly a shoo-in.
“The local Democrats aren’t sure how to take me,” he says. “Some of them are skeptical. The establishment wing of the party has a couple of candidates that they really like who aren’t me.
“But I would say the rank and file have been very supportive. When I’ve spoken to the Urban League, they and I really connected. The LGBT community has been amazingly supportive. When I spoke to old folks homes, when I speak to local businessmen, I find that I really connect.”
Still, running for office is not easy. He’s not sure he would recommend it to others.
“This is a 16-hour-a-day commitment,” Nygaard says. “It is not for the fainthearted and I know it’s going to be brutal.”
So far, though, he’s enjoying it.
“It’s exciting and exhausting at the same time….Meeting so many people has really opened my eyes. I’ve seen so much that is being done under the radar, in terms of people helping other people. There is a lot of really good work out there. A lot of these programs are really being threatened.”
No matter if he wins or loses, Nygaard is already poised to make history: If he makes the primary ballot, he says he will be the first openly gay congressional candidate in Virginia’s history.
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