FCPS School Board member and former Marshall school president Ryan McElveen turned his high school activism ambitions into the road map for his political journey. At 33, McElveen has entered a new phase of his career this January with the launch of his campaign for Fairfax County Chairman, running against Jeff McKay, Tim Chapman and Alicia Plerhoples.
What were you like when you were a student at Marshall?
We had the smallest school in the county, so we had 220 kids in my graduating class, and I was class president. There were kind of these tribes at Marshall. I was in the IB tribe and also [with] the drama kids and music kids. At the same time I was very involved in sports; I was a [tri-sport] athlete. I was in the advanced symphonic orchestra, I was one of the co-presidents of the National Honor Society, but I think the vast majority of my time was spent on Student Government stuff. As class president, one of the things that I did, which I think is my lasting legacy at Marshall, is bringing back the stall doors in the boys bathrooms. There had been a long process in the 1980s and 1990s, the “just say no to drugs” era, and because kids were going into the bathroom and doing drugs, administrators thought the solution to that was to just rip off the stall doors. By the time it got to the 2000s, it was a privacy issue and people weren’t doing drugs as much as they had previously. I put together a petition and I got hundreds of signatures and I took it to the principal and she was able to convince her boss to get funding for stall doors. That was kind of how I got my start in student advocacy.
Why did you shift from the School Board to running for Fairfax County Chairman?
Over the past eight years on the School Board I’ve been subject to chronic underfunded budgets for the education system, and the Board of Supervisors are the ones that control the purse strings. Of course we get a portion of our money from the state, but a vast majority of it comes from the Board of Supervisors. As someone who has felt that and who has seen a deprioritization of education, I felt that, as much as I love the School Board work and as much as I’ll miss it, I could make an even bigger difference in the Chairman position.
Do you think your access to and more personal interactions with the community through your School Board position can serve as an asset in the Chairman position?
I was really the first School Board member to embrace social media, part of that had to do with age because at 25 I was the youngest person ever elected. The good thing is that its made our government far more responsive with things like snow day announcements obviously, but also just in general I’ve seen our school system become more responsive and much faster about getting information out to families, whether it’s emergencies or other things like that. But at the same time I think I’ve also been able to connect, unlike ever before in terms of Fairfax County government at least, with students and families. I hope to take that experience to the county level, and not just deal with school issues but be more responsive with real basics like filling potholes and cleaning up streets. [I’d like to be] a place where people can come and know they’ll be heard.
How will your supporting youth base play a role in your campaign, if they will not all translate to votes?
Anyone who turns 18 by Nov. 5 will be able to vote in the primary on June 11, so that’ll be most, if not all, of our seniors who will have a voice in this. So it’s about making sure they come out to vote. A big part of my campaign in this primary is getting our young people registered to vote. At the same time, I’m hopeful that kind of model will propel students to go home and talk to their families about voting and the importance of this. […] If [students] want to be involved in their democracy then that’s a great thing. I think it’s a good experiment. No one has been able to mobilize the youth vote before and so I’m hoping this is successful.
What is one thing most people don’t know about you?
Around the fall of my senior year [at Marshall] I began losing my hair. By the end of my senior year my hair all over my body was all gone. I had an autoimmune disorder called alopecia universalis (AU) and so I spent the second half of my senior year wearing a wig. I went off to college and for the first year and a half of wearing that wig I kind of hid behind that and worried what people would think if I embraced my baldness. It wasn’t until I was halfway through college that I realized people should love you for who you are and so you should just be yourself and so that’s what I did. I embraced that part of my identity, and the irony of it is that now I’m far more recognizable out in the community because of my bald head. That’s my story but also a way of telling [teenagers] that adolescence is a tough time and all of us have issues embracing ourselves. Hopefully, I can be an example to those that come after me that, whether you have an autoimmune disorder or something else, just be yourself. People will love you for who you are.
Do you have an idea of your longer term, ultimate political goals?
There’s always the chance that I will not be successful in this endeavor, and if that’s the case then I have to kind of reevaluate my life. […] But if I am successful in this, there are many opportunities in politics. I will say that particularly now we are in an interesting inflection point, not only during the Trump era, but also in Virginia because of what’s happening at the state level, where you have politicians who have worn blackface and those who have been accused of sexual assault. We really need to be able to trust our elected officials, and as someone who is a white male, I fully understand if people in the community say they want to embrace something besides that. But I think my life has shown that I’m willing to stand up not only on behalf of minority communities but also on behalf of women. On the School Board I’ve championed things like dress code reform, sexual misconduct prevention, and I just passed a resolution this year on that. I think my record speaks for itself, but at the same time when people look at me they don’t necessarily see that. I do think though that when speaking with young people and volunteers for my campaign, they don’t necessarily see me as ‘the snow day guy,’ they see me as someone who has impacted their lives on issues like that. It makes me feel like I’ve done something other than just announce snow days.
“Volunteering for Ryan McElveen, I think it was very important, especially that all of the interns are young people [and] since he has been so dominant in the lives of Fairfax County youth. Everyone knows who he is, everyone basically thinks that he’s this big celebrity, and he’s like a county celebrity. And everyone is really engaged with him all the time. So when he decided to run for chairman, it was like a no brainer whether I wanted to intern for him [since] he’s very engaged with young people and he’s always wanting to get their ideas, and he always makes them heard.”
—Khristen Hamilton, senior & campaign volunteer
“When I first learned that Ryan McElveen would be running for Fairfax County Chairman, I knew it was something I wanted to be a part of. Seeing a
graduate of your high school who is still so active in your school’s community and who puts his experiences as a student at the forefront of his service philosophy [is] amazing. I’ll be graduating this year and I plan on studying Political Science, and knowing that my fellow Marshall alumni is leading us into the next generation is about as big of a motivation as you could get.”
—Owen Williams, senior