The chicken legs wouldn’t cook right. Chelsea Savage, then 17, could feel tears welling up as she stood over the stove. She would be chastised for this, for not getting the skins crispy enough, for not pleasing the woman who ruled over her — who had Savage cook, clean, and watch her children without pay. If she lived in a world beyond the confines of a “church” where members were forced to wear Victorian-style clothes and pulled out of school, she’d be like the girls in the magazines she was forbidden to read: The ones who wore bangles and bright nail polish, and who dressed like members of the Brat Pack. But instead she was crying in a kitchen in rural Virginia, her hair pinned up like a turn-of-the-century housemaid. “I wasn’t even allowed to use the dishwasher, because then I wasn’t ‘building character,’” says Savage. “I was just so lonely.”
That was 1987. It’s hard to imagine that these are the beginnings of a woman who would go on to earn two advanced degrees and become a professional liability investigator for a large hospital, much less run for office. And yet this week, Chelsea Savage, now 46, is doing just that — she’s hoping voters in Virginia’s 73rd district will support her bid for the Democratic nomination for state delegate. If she is chosen among the party’s four candidates looking to make it on the ballot, she’ll take on Republican incumbent John O’Bannon, a 69-year-old neurologist who has held the seat since 2001 and has only once been contested by a Democratic candidate. In 2012, voters in the Richmond area backed Mitt Romney for president, but then in 2016, a change: Virginia’s 73rd district became one of 17 districts in the state with a Republican delegate that voted for Hillary Clinton. Now, Democrats are specifically targeting those districts in this year’s state elections, looking to flip seats from red to blue. A Democratic victory would be a major feat, but for Savage — an openly gay single mother who grew up not just poor, but about as far from political pedigree as one can get — it would also be a personal triumph. A signal of how far she’s come.
To understand who Savage is today, and why she’s seeking office, it’s necessary to go back to the dark corners of her life. That kitchen. The old church. A run-down trailer park. Savage was just 5 when her parents divorced and her mom moved her and her brother to Hampton, Virginia, where they ended up living in a single-wide. They’d eventually need government assistance through the Section 8 housing program to keep a roof over their heads. “The trailers were at least 20 years old,” says Savage. “They were falling apart. I remember one woman, her trailer had a hole in the bathroom and she would have possums come up in it.”
A couple living just outside the park befriended Savage’s mother, and they invited her to come visit the Charles Church Christian Life Center in Yorktown, where they were members. It’s worth noting that the church exists in a separate iteration today and with new leadership; while the building itself remains, it’s a different congregation than when Savage was there. But she and three other former members interviewed for this article describe the religious group in the 1970s through ’90s as a “cult” with roughly 70 members. “I refer to it as a cult, or definitely don’t call it a church,” says Sharon Neal, 43, who was part of the Christian Life Center (sometimes referred to as the CLC) as a child. “It was an extreme religious sect.”
There’s also a private survivors group on Facebook where such members share their experiences living under leaders Chuck and Betty Call — who Savage says targeted “divorced women on welfare with children” like her mother. She describes these vulnerable women being lured into the group under the guise of support and community, only to be turned into working support staff for the Calls.
“As an adult, I’m like, they preyed upon crisis moments in people’s lives,” says Hannah Burns, the Calls’ 34-year-old granddaughter, who grew up in the CLC. “For me it was this sort of really disconnected, dated cult experience that took getting away from before I could call it that. But now it’s something I accept.” She adds, “I can only imagine what Chelsea was going through back then … There’s nothing like being told you’re going to be burned in hell for not wiping the counters down.”
Savage describes the fear of living under Betty — the Bible-thumping bad cop to what Neal calls Chuck’s more “love and grace” good cop. “We were always concerned that we were doing what Betty said was okay, because people believed she had this direct line to God and we could be going to hell,” says Savage. “We used to have these candles in the church, and [Betty] would light them, and all the women would [be] following her in a line. She would sing and we would dance with our arms raised, praying in tongues. We would follow everything she did.”
“When you look back as an adult, you can see the level of manipulation and how interwoven Betty was in everyone’s lives,” says Naomi, 36, another former member, who asked that her last name be withheld for privacy reasons. There were several methods of control: It was mandated that members adhere to a strict dress code, which for women and girls meant long, dated dresses. “If it was too short, we would sew lace on the bottom or top … it was all very puritanical, very much Scarlet Letter,” says Savage. Additionally, most books were banned except for religious texts and approved novels, like Anne of Green Gables. And girls were groomed for marriage and motherhood at an early age — “One friend got married at 16 or 17,” says Burns. “You were supposed to get married as young as you could.”
For girls especially, marriage and homemaking were placed above education. This led to a devastating decision: When Savage was in the sixth grade, the Calls ordered that parents pull their children from school and teach them at home, in accordance with Virginia’s religious-exemption policy. It was at this point where former members say they were instead left to teach themselves, and with limited materials.
“Initially, the material that we had wasn’t even school material, it was just books about Jesus,” says Neal. Stripped of a formal education, Neal says she was regularly dropped off to care for the children. “They would leave all the kids at somebody’s house and we’d be locked up. We couldn’t go out, because we were supposed to be in school, and what if a cop saw us? I had it mentioned to me several times, ‘Stay off the street. Don’t go outside. Don’t go in the yard. Don’t let anybody see you.’”
Savage did the best she could to educate herself, getting her hands on real textbooks and reading them alone on the steps of her mom’s trailer. She kept at it, mailing in exams to advance, and at 15, earned her GED. Her hope was that she could go to community college to begin studying to become a nurse, but she was told she was too young. Instead, “My only foray into the real world was that I was allowed to be a volunteer at the hospital,” she says. “I had my crazy, dated hairstyle and then my candy-striper dress.” Her volunteer work ended, however, when she was tasked with working as an unpaid nanny and maid for Chuck and Betty’s family, and after five years, she’d had enough. At least marriage would be something new, a way out. And so, at 23, Savage wed a man more than 18 years her senior who had three sons from a previous marriage.
“I remember feeling so depressed on my honeymoon,” she says. “I wasn’t in love with him. He wasn’t in love with me.”
There was one bright spot: Savage’s new husband had attended church dinners, but he wasn’t really a member, and more, he wasn’t trapped under Chuck and Betty’s spell. So when it became clear that Betty expected Savage to take his boys out of school, that’s when Savage knew she had to leave. “I remember sitting on the floor of the trailer, terrified … But a light bulb switched in me and I was like, I can do this. I can leave the church. And so I did, and I sent the boys to school, and I was so happy and excited about it.” Savage’s mother and brother remained until a couple of years later, and “I was dirt,” says Savage. “I was on the so-called devil’s list.”
The marriage ended after six years, due in part to the age difference and also that Savage wasn’t attracted to her husband — nor, she would later realize, to any man. But the couple had a daughter together, Victoria (“Tori”), and Savage’s ex owned a tuxedo-rental business profitable enough for Savage to attend nursing school. With a degree in hand, she finally had what she needed to make it on her own.
After the divorce, she worked night shifts as a hospital nurse so her ex could look after Tori. He eventually moved away, and she took on various nursing gigs — including one at a jail — to avoid the grueling shift schedule at hospitals. But the jobs were a long slog from the small apartment she was renting in Richmond. “Finally, I said, Chelsea, you need to get your butt back to the hospital, and I sucked it up and did it. The problem was that I had a 6-year-old by that time, and I didn’t have anybody to take care of her.”
Without affordable child-care options on nights and weekends, Savage sometimes had no choice but to bring her daughter to work, having her sleep in the nurses’ lounge. “I was so emotionally spent,” says Savage. “I had one credit card that I would put on another credit card, and so on. There was this day I was driving and I envisioned me and Tori on this bus — and I just wanted to get off … And then I had this image of Tori on that bus alone, hanging on for dear life, with no one to protect her. The bottom line, I told myself, is that you can’t get off this bus. You can’t.”
So instead of getting off, she went full steam ahead. Savage enrolled in online college courses and earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy between shifts, and then went on to get a master’s in health administration and a doctorate in nursing practice. While she was in school, she also joined the Virginia Nurses Association (VNA). Her volunteer work with nurses’ organizations marked her first steps into the political sphere. It was there that she found her mentors — former VNA presidents Shirley Gibson and Becky Bowers-Lanier, who both encouraged Savage to run for office “They would say, ‘When are you going to run?’” says Savage. “I kept saying, ‘Why do you keep picking me?’ I didn’t understand.” That they asked directly matters: One key reason fewer women seek office than men is because men are more likely to be urged to run, according to a 2013 study.
Pushed by her mentors, Savage also applied for and was granted a scholarship to the University of Virginia’s Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership. Then, in a fateful coincidence two years ago, she sat at the same table as board members from Emerge Virginia — part of a nationwide network that helps Democratic women run for office — at an event. “They said, ‘You need to come do Emerge with us,’ and I said okay, because if people give me an opportunity, I take it.”
Savage wanted to jump right in, but she’d only recently come out as gay, and “I was trying to get my feet on the ground,” she says. For years, she’d been pulling herself away from the lessons of her childhood, but her sexuality was one piece that came later. “I was raised not to acknowledge what I want and who I am.” After she embraced her attraction to women — and a copy of Lisa M. Diamond’s Sexual Fluidity — “Suddenly, everything clicked.”
But would a gay candidate click with voters? “The first thing I said as part of Emerge was, ‘How much of an issue is being gay, when running [for office]?’” she says. “They told me it wasn’t a liability.”
“This is a different year,” says Julie S. Copeland, the executive director of Emerge Virginia, who has worked in Virginia politics for 28 years. “There’s a change in the electorate — whether it’s sustaining or not, it’s hard to know. But I think it affords [Savage] a donor base … And I think, we are in a time even here in Virginia where that’s not a shocking thing anymore.”
The real urgency didn’t hit until November 9, when President Trump was elected and a wave of anger and disbelief pushed progressive women to act; Emerge Virginia experienced a 200 percent increase in applications the following week. Virginia has seen a surge of Democratic candidates this year, 52 of them women (11 of whom are incumbents), looking to change the 66-34 Republican majority in the House.
With thousands of women newly interested in running for office across the country, it could be a sign of things to come in 2018, when the majority of states hold elections. Savage now has her eyes set on April 29, when she will face three other Democrats in Virginia’s 73rd district — two of them women who are also involved with Emerge — looking to win the party’s nomination in a caucus. “That has never happened,” says Copeland. “It’s always been our dream scenario that we have so many women that they are running against each other.”
If Savage makes it past the caucus on Saturday, her next challenge will be continuing to fundraise. It’s one of the biggest hurdles for any candidate, especially first-timers — and for women, per Copeland. “What we find for women in general is it’s not something we are used to doing,” she says. “A lot of women feel like they are asking for money for themselves personally, and that’s a hurdle we try to get past with training.” So far, Savage has raised a little over $14,000 — and if she wins the Democratic nomination, she’ll need to raise closer to $250,000. “You’re supposed to do a hard ask: ‘Will you give my campaign $100?’” says Savage. “It’s hard. I don’t have rich friends … I just tell myself, ‘Chelsea, you know how to call somebody on the phone. You know how to knock on the door. It doesn’t matter if you’re scared.’”
Sometimes the reaction isn’t what she’s looking for: Savage says she has had numerous people tell her they are waiting to donate until after the caucus; and then there was the email she says she received from an older voter, who suggested she keep her sexual orientation private. (To which Savage says, “I love that I’m the lesbian nurse!”) But sometimes it’s better than she could have imagined, when she can tell her story and engage voters on some of her tent-pole issues, including health care, education, equal rights, and child care.
Mostly, she’s looking to connect with voters who feel underrepresented; she wants them to know she sees them, because she is one of them. And even though she’s now a homeowner and her daughter is about to graduate college, she understands what it’s like to struggle. It’s one of the reasons she’s open about her story — all of it, even the ugly bits — on the campaign trail. “Recently I had given a speech where I talked about welfare, and after a woman came up to me in tears and said, ‘I haven’t had [a candidate] talk to me before that knew about Section 8 housing,’ and I just hugged her,” says Savage. “We were hurt. We were out there — mothers trying to keep a roof over our kids’ heads. Or, we were children living with that and seeing our parents go through it … teased because of our clothes. You don’t have to live in a cult to experience that. And we were silent. We were invisible. So I had to become the person who cared.” Her mind drifts to a familiar motivator. “I am on this bus,” she says. “I’m not getting off.”