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Oprah pal could be Virginia district's first black woman in Congress

Seven Democrats are vying for an open House seat in Virginia’s 8th District, but only Laverne Chatman has the star power of Oprah Winfrey on her side.
Photo illustration of Lavern Chatman and Oprah Winfrey at an event together.
Photo illustration of Lavern Chatman and Oprah Winfrey at an event together.

Seven Democrats are vying for an open House seat in Virginia’s 8th District, but only one of them has the star power of Oprah Winfrey on her side.

In April, the media super-mogul whose influence can help turn a struggling novel into a bestseller (and an Illinois senator into a president) headlined the kickoff fundraiser for Lavern Chatman in Arlington, Va. The theme? Women’s empowerment, of course. And perhaps as a demonstration of Winfrey’s, she signed autographs for $2,600 a pop with all the money going to her friend’s campaign.

“Lavern makes people feel like they matter, and I see that Lavern is happiest when she is serving others,” Winfrey gushed at the event.

Before that night, Chatman – the only woman on the ballot -- was hardly known outside pockets of Northern Virginia where she had been involved in community work. Winfrey -- recently named No. 14 on Forbes’s list of the 100 most powerful women in the world -- could give her a boost.

“I reached out to her. I said ‘I’m in a tough race, I’ve never run before, and the other folks have political machines in place,’” Chatman said. “I told her I need something to reach voters.”

Lavern Chatman speaks with attendees during the Mount Vernon District Democratic Committee's annual Mardi Gras fundraiser at Don Beyer's Volvo car dealership in Alexandria, Va. on March 1, 2014.

Chatman and Winfrey were introduced to one another by Chatman’s husband, Bob Brown, a close friend of Winfrey’s longtime partner Stedman Graham. “We bonded because we both have similar passions of empowering others,” Chatman said. “And we soon became friends.”

Chatman, who lives in Alexandria, is now a strong contender in the June 10th Democratic primary race and came in first in a 200-person straw poll conducted last month. If she wins, she’ll likely sail to victory in November in a heavily Democratic district that President Obama won with 67% of the vote in 2012. The seat came open when Democratic Rep. Jim Moran announced he would retire after serving for two decades.

A win would make 57-year-old Chatman the first African-American woman elected from that district and the only woman in Virginia’s all-male Congressional delegation.

The connection to Winfrey helped Chatman attract a staff and financial backing. According to a recent report, in just 50 days, Chatman raised $107,444, coming in second to the former lieutenant governor Don Beyer, who has been endorsed by three top Obama advisers and who reportedly has raked in $1.1 million in donations. Chatman’s total contributions through May 21st reached $385,642.

“People started paying attention,” Chatman said. “It gave me national exposure.”

Chatman’s communications director, Ajashu Thomas, began working on the campaign almost immediately after the Winfrey event. “It made me want to learn more about Lavern. I was like, ‘who’s this woman Oprah came to Arlington for?’”

For Chatman, the key word in that sentence isn’t “Oprah.” It’s “woman.”

Women of color make up just 4.5% of the 535 members in Congress with just 15 African-American women currently serving.

Chatman is the only woman in the Democratic primary. The winner will face an all-male field, including Republican nominee Micah Edmond and third party candidates in the November 4th election.

“All 13 members of Virginia’s congressional delegation are men. LIKE and SHARE if you agree it’s time for a new perspective in Washington. #TeamChatman” a post on Chatman’s campaign Facebook page reads.

In her first TV ad of the campaign, “New” released this month, Chatman appears among diverse groups of women and children vowing to fight for equal work and women’s right to make health care decisions.

“We don’t need more of the same,” Chatman said in the ad. “It’s time for a new perspective in Washington.”

Chatman’s first husband died of cancer just two years into their marriage and she has no children. She has had to account for a 2003 civil suit, which tied her to a fraud scheme

“I wanted to run a clean race and hoped everyone else would,” Chatman told msnbc. “It’s painful that people would use that. I just did not ask enough questions.”

Chatman, a graduate of Mount Vernon College at George Washington University, previously served as president and CEO of the Northern Virginia Urban League -- a non-profit organization focused on bringing equality to underprivileged communities. (She left her position in 2011.)

A self-proclaimed “champion of Virginia women,” Chatman also mentors around 15 young women, which she calls the “Fab 15,” an informal group of young professional women she has been personally mentoring and coaching in leadership, personal and professional development for around 10 years. And during the past three years, Chatman has been a “host parent” for one of the graduates of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls -- an involvement that cemented their friendship.

“Oprah and I get on the phone and talk about things that mothers would talk about: How’s she doing? What’s going on? Did you hear about the boyfriend?!”