Abigail Spanberger was fascinated as a child listening to her Ecuadorian babysitter speaking Spanish to her grandchildren.
Spanberger studied Spanish on her own and at age 7, wrote a diary in code, creating new words and secret words for the name of a younger sister.
If you think that sounds like a recipe for a future Central Intelligence Agency officer, you guessed correctly.
Spanberger learned to speak Spanish, French, German and some Italian and spent 8½ years in the CIA working in a secret job both overseas and at home that later stunned her friends when they found out about it.
“I was in positions that I would never want my daughters to put themselves in,” she said. “But I always felt very much in control.”
Spanberger, 38, is now one of two Democrats running in the June 12 primary in the 7th Congressional District, which includes parts of Chesterfield and Henrico counties. She and Dan Ward each hope to become the nominee who gets a chance to unseat GOP Rep. Dave Brat, who is seeking a third term.
Her mother was a nurse and her father an agent with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. They are from New Jersey and moved to the Short Pump area when Spanberger was 13.
She was active in Spanish, drama, forensics and debate at J. R. Tucker High School, was a page for U.S. Sen. Chuck Robb, D-Va., at age 16, and in college, studied French-language African authors in Grenoble, France.
“I always knew I wanted to go into public service,” she said.
She graduated from the University of Virginia with a degree in French language and literature and a minor in foreign affairs, then studied in Germany to earn a master’s in business administration.
She was accepted in the CIA four years after a 2002 job offer. In that time, she worked as a waitress at a restaurant in Arlington County, was a substitute teacher at a private school and worked for 2½ years in Washington as a federal postal inspector. That job consisted of working with Washington police and Maryland State Police on drug, money laundering and white powder investigations in the post 9/11 era.
Spanberger said she suspects her background checks took longer than normal because she had lived overseas. The time between her conditional offer and start date was longer than average, and she wondered if it also was due to her age. She never found out any reason.
After marrying her husband, Adam, who was a friend since high school, she started in the CIA in 2006 as an operations officer based first in Washington, then in Europe and eventually on the West Coast. Working in an operational role as a married mother in the CIA was uncommon.
To this day, Spanberger, like other CIA officers, can’t talk about specifics of her assignments. But her job was to work in a clandestine fashion, often alone, gathering intelligence about terrorism and nuclear proliferation, she said.
“I had the responsibility to really, truly, deeply understand what it is that the United States government knew and what it is that the United States government needed to know to thwart a terrorist attack, to be able to have strong relations with other intelligence partners and with diplomatic partners, or to inform the decisions that our country was making.”
After 8½ years, her family moved to Henrico County in 2014 to put down roots and be near other family members. Nine months after moving back, her job was declassified and friends found out she worked for the CIA.
Catherine Pettit of Portland, Ore., who was a roommate of Spanberger’s at the University of Virginia and is a longtime friend, said she was stunned. Spanberger told her on the phone. Pettit thought she had worked for the State Department and recalls being silent because she was floored by the news.
“She is the kind of friend that remembers more about things you have gone through and told her than you end up remembering,” Pettit said of Spanberger. “She’s just interested in people’s lives and she remembers that information because she cares about people.”
Two years after leaving the CIA, Spanberger, who said she has always been a Democrat, began hearing things that disturbed her about national security.
“Hearing the polarization of our political discussions really was unacceptable for me. Because I had worked under a Republican administration. I worked under a Democratic administration. And our whole goal was serving the country, was keeping the country safe from a terrorist threat, upholding the Constitution and informing people,” she said. “Listening to Donald Trump talk about his travel ban — for me, not only was he factually inaccurate but he was dangerous.”
The travel ban targeting several predominately Muslim countries was dangerous, she said, because it provides recruitment talking points for terrorist organizations.
“Their fundamental drive for recruitment is to say that Islam is not welcome in the West.” It stops innocent people from seeing their families and hurts American efforts to gather intelligence from visitors, she said.
Her congressman, Brat, a former professor who landed a shocking GOP primary upset over Eric Cantor in 2014, was in lockstep.
“Talking about trying to thwart drug trafficking by building a wall ignores so many aspects of the reality of not just how people come here but how drugs come here. And looking at the way (Trump) used these issues, these security issues, to prop himself up ... I found it infuriating,” she said.
“Looking at how he has ruined the Iranian nuclear deal for his own political gain, for his own political purposes. I don’t even know why. For me, it is just shocking.”
Spanberger said that by the time the U.S. House voted, a year ago, to repeal the Affordable Care Act without even having full details from the Congressional Budget Office, all the risks she ever took came into focus, and she was ready to run for Congress.
Brat “is not showing the leadership that this district needs. He is driven by ideology, and an ideology that is not accomplishing anything in Washington and also an ideology that is out of step with the district,” she said.
Last year, she helped numerous Democratic candidates in the region, among them Debra Rodman, a professor who upset Republican Del. John O’Bannon, R-Henrico.
Should Spanberger become the Democratic nominee this year for Congress, she wants to offer alternative ideas to flip the district. She predicts that the 7th will, indeed, flip come November and wants to run up a big margin.
“We need to change the conversation in Washington,” she said.