Jennifer Barton Boysko ’89 has moved from Virginia’s House to the Senate, inspiring voters with her “genuine desire to make the world better.”
By Beth JoJack ’98
When the last vote gets counted this November, Jennifer Boysko ’89 will have run in eight elections over a six-year period.
“I’m not aware that any of my colleagues have been through quite this pace,” she says.
If Boysko wins her re-election bid to serve the 33rd state Senate district, which covers parts of Loudoun and Fairfax counties, the progressive Democrat won’t have to campaign again for four years. “I’ll be able to take a deep breath finally,” says Boysko.
She’ll also have the opportunity to immerse herself in the part of the job she likes best: working for her constituents, whether that means making calls on behalf of a single mom tangled up in bureaucracy or writing legislation to ensure children of undocumented immigrants qualify for in-state college tuition rates.
“I get to know my constituents very well and can help them with a variety of things,” Boysko says. “I can drive from one end of my district to the other in about an hour, and I like that kind of accessibility.”
Boysko’s fan club includes Linda Brooks, head of the Virginia Women’s Democratic Caucus. Northern Virginia voters like Boysko, she says, for her genuineness and her fierce work ethic. “She truly wants to know what she can do for her community,” Brooks says.
Path to Richmond
After graduating from Hollins, Boysko, who majored in French and psychology, worked in the U.S. Senate office of Richard Shelby from her home state of Alabama. Later, she took a job at a D.C. government-relations firm as a legislative assistant.
While putting her career on pause to raise her two girls, Boysko, who lives in Herndon, volunteered as a grassroots organizer for numerous progressive candidates. Her daughters were in elementary school when Boysko served as the Virginia codirector for Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign. “The older one would make calls and stuff envelopes,” Boysko recalls. “We did door-to-door together.”
In 2008, Boysko began working as an aide to Fairfax County Supervisor John Foust. A few years later, she decided to make her first run for office after feeling increasingly frustrated by her representative in the House of Delegates, Tom Rust, a Republican. In 2013, she lost her bid by a mere 32 votes to take out the incumbent.
When Rust announced his retirement in 2015, Boysko ran again. She easily won the seat. In 2017, voters chose to send her back to Richmond, with nearly 69 percent of the vote.
Last November, Boysko’s friend Jennifer Wexton rode the blue wave to take Virginia’s 10th congressional district. That opened Wexton’s seat in the state Senate representing district 33. Boysko announced her intention to run the day after Wexton’s victory.
In a firehouse primary held later that month, voters overwhelmingly picked Boysko as their candidate for the state Senate. She only had a few weeks to campaign for the special election, held on January 9, 2019.
Luckily, Boysko had a lot of supporters. They included former first lady, New York Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who sent out a tweet reminding folks in Boysko’s district to hit the polls the morning of the election. “To have her cheering me on from the sidelines is a huge honor,” Boysko says.
In the same breath, Boysko mentions the numerous volunteers who worked to put her in office. “I had hundreds of people who came and talked to voters individually,” she says. “That’s the most important thing about any of this. It’s not having star power.” Voters elected Boysko with close to 70 percent of the vote. She was sworn into office January 11.
From her first day, Boysko could tell she’d made the right career move. “The Senate is smaller,” she explains, “so you get to know everybody in the chamber fairly well, and you find ways to work together.”
Virginia voters have elected a mere seven women to the U.S. House and none to the Senate; they’ve never tapped a woman to serve as governor or lieutenant governor.
But there’s certainly room for optimism. A record number of women were elected to Virginia’s House of Delegates in 2017. Currently, women take up 37 out of 140 seats in the General Assembly.
“Having more women is making a difference,” Boysko says. “It’s bringing up issues that in the past would not be addressed or taken seriously.” Case in point: This year’s General Assembly passed legislation to lower the sales tax on feminine hygiene products and diapers.
As a delegate, Boysko had introduced similar legislation several times without success. When she moved to the Senate, Delegate Kathy Byron, a Republican in the 22nd district, which includes parts of Bedford County and Lynchburg, took the baton there, while Boysko introduced a bill to exempt menstrual supplies from the sales tax in the Senate.
Boysko knew how to work with Byron from when both women sat on the Broadband Advisory Committee in the House. “I’ve been able to forge relationships with people on both sides of the aisle,” Boysko says, “because I’ve been collaborative and pragmatic.”
Ultimately, Boysko agreed to lower the tax to 2.5 percent rather than seeing it eliminated altogether, but she was happy to get it reduced by more than half. “I was thrilled to get that done,” Boysko says.
A champion of women’s rights since her days at Hollins, Boysko advocates for equal pay for equal work, reproductive rights, and paid maternity leave. She helped pass the bill to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment in the Senate; it later stalled in the the House. Boysko wants to improve Virginia’s mental health system and to help families struggling with the opioid epidemic. She’s long advocated for common-sense legislation to prevent gun violence.
A bit of a policy wonk, Boysko is an authority on the importance of broadband in rural areas and can wax poetic about infrastructure funding. “What we do at the state level really impacts our lives at a greater level than a lot of the federal stuff,” she says.
And that, Linda Brooks will tell you, is what motivates Boysko: her genuine desire to make the world better. “She’s not there for the credit or a crown on her head,” she says. “She just really cares about affecting change.”
Beth JoJack lives and writes in Roanoke.