DRAKE, Thelma D.

DRAKE, Thelma D.
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives


A longtime delegate in the Virginia general assembly and a real estate agent with two decades of experience, Thelma D. Drake won election to the United States House of Representatives in 2004 from a Tidewater district. From her seat on the influential Armed Services Committee, Drake served as an advocate for her district’s large constituency of active-duty and retired military personnel.

Thelma Drake was born Thelma Day on November 20, 1949, in Elyria, Ohio, to a postal worker father and a Canadian mother. She attended the local public schools and graduated from Elyria High School in 1967. She left Ohio at age 17 and relocated to Norfolk, Virginia, with her first husband, a Navy serviceman. They had two children, Lynn and J. Mark, but later divorced, leaving her to raise the children alone. “I always felt I was the only person responsible for myself,” Drake once remarked. “You don’t turn to other people to help you.” In 1974 she married Joe Sawyer, but this marriage also ended in divorce. She married Thomas E. (Ted) Drake in 1990.1

Drake became involved in politics in 1964, as a high school student, when she volunteered for Barry Morris Goldwater’s Republican presidential campaign. When she settled in Norfolk, she became active in local civic organizations—including the Granby High School PTA. She also was active in the local Republican Party. Drake eventually settled into a career in real estate. As a successful agent for more than 20 years, Drake developed a base of connections throughout the Norfolk area. In 1995 she won election to the house of delegates, where she served five consecutive terms—eventually chairing the Virginia housing commission and serving on the influential finance committee.2

In the fall of 2004, when two-term Republican incumbent Edward Schrock abruptly ended his re-election campaign and announced his decision to retire from the House in January 2005, local party leaders turned to Drake as their candidate for the open seat. The district encompassed the state’s largest city, Virginia Beach, and portions of Norfolk and Hampton Roads, before crossing the Chesapeake Bay to take in the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Drake had roughly 60 days to campaign but capitalized on her wide name recognition from her decade in the state assembly. She also benefited from the slight conservative tilt of a district populated by military families and retirees.3 In the general election, she defeated David Ashe, a Marine Corps veteran of the Iraq War, by 10 percent of the vote. When she stood for re-election in 2006, a year in which House Republicans lost their majority for the first time in 12 years, Drake staved off a stiff challenge from Democrat Phil Kellam, who came from a prominent local political family, by less than 3 percent of the vote.4

When Drake took her seat in the 109th Congress (2005–2007), she received assignments on three committees: Armed Services; Education and the Workforce; and Resources. The Armed Services panel was critical to her Tidewater Virginia constituency, which included nearly 110,000 military personnel and civilian employees at a half dozen bases—including the world’s largest naval base, the Norfolk Naval Station.5 She eventually served as the third-ranking member on the panel’s Subcommittee on Military Personnel. She also served on the Subcommittee on Terrorism and Unconventional Threats. In the 110th Congress (2007–2009), she left the Resources and Education and the Workforce Committees, for a seat on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. She also served on the House Republican Policy Committee which shapes the GOP message on major policy initiatives.6

From her seat on Armed Services, Drake advocated for the expansion of several naval weapons programs and increasing the number of naval vessels under portage at the Norfolk Naval Station. Local shipyards in Newport News employed thousands of her district’s residents. Drake supported the development of the Navy’s newest generation of aircraft carriers, the CVN-21, being designed at Newport News. “I believe it is important that the private sector and the military work hand-in-hand to provide our fighting men and women with the most up-to-date technology,” Drake noted, promising “to ensure that our all-volunteer military has the tools it needs to keep our country safe.”7

Drake also firmly supported the George W. Bush administration policies in Iraq, opposing a 2007 proposal to set a firm deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. occupation forces. During a floor speech she told colleagues, “A retreat at this point in time could, down the road, necessitate our troops returning to an Iraq that is much more dangerous than the one they left.” Drake also cosponsored measures to benefit military veterans, including two in the 110th Congress which increased benefits for service members with combat or service-related disabilities.8

Drake’s seat on the Resources Committee gave her jurisdiction over policies affecting the marine and coastal environment of the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean which her district abutted. She was also a member of the Congressional Shellfish Caucus—a platform from which to address and educate Members and the public about revitalization efforts in the Bay. In the 109th Congress, she cosponsored a bill to establish the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail.9

In 2008 Drake faced yet another tough re-election. In a year in which Virginia voted for a Democratic presidential candidate for the first time since 1964—and Democrats picked up a total of three U.S. House seats statewide—Drake lost to Democrat Glenn C. Nye III, a former Foreign Service officer, 52 to 48 percent. Drake’s term expired on January 3, 2009, at the conclusion of the 110th Congress.

After Congress, Drake held several public transportation positions. She was director of the Virginia department of rail and public transportation (2010–2013), then became the legislative liaison for the city of Norfolk transportation department (2015–2016) before being promoted to Norfolk’s assistant director of transportation. In early 2018 and again in the first session of the 116th Congress (2019–2021), Drake was nominated by President Donald J. Trump as the Federal Transit Administration Director. But in both cases, the Senate failed to act on confirmation, most recently at the end of the first session of the 116th Congress. The nomination papers were returned to the President on January 3, 2020.10


1Drake is quoted in Louis Hansen, “Drake Relies on Her Record as She Seeks Congress Seat,” 26 October 2004, The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk): B6. See also Aaron Applegate, “Two-Term Incumbent Displays a Knack for Bonding With Voters,” 18 October 2008, The Virginian-Pilot: A1; “Thelma Drake,” NNDB, accessed 12 November 2019, https://www.nndb.com/people/112/000086851/; Politics in America, 2008 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 2007): 1042–1043; Almanac of American Politics, 2006 (Washington, DC: National Journal Group, 2005): 1719–1721; “Director of the Federal Transit Administration: Who Is Thelma Drake?,” 19 February 2018, AllGov, accessed 12 November 2019, http://www.allgov.com/news/top-stories/director-of-the-federal-transit-administration-who-is-thelma-drake-180219?news=860420.

2Kimball Payne, “2nd Congressional District Race,” 18 October 2004, Daily Press (Newport News, VA): C1; Hansen, “Drake Relies on Her Record as She Seeks Congress Seat;” Applegate, “Two-Term Incumbent Displays a Knack for Bonding With Voters.”

3Politics in America, 2008: 1043.

4Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present.”

5Politics in America, 2008: 1043.

6“About Thelma,” official website of Representative Thelma Drake, 26 November 2008, https://web.archive.org/web/20081126192949/http://drake.house.gov/Biography/.

7“Armed Services,” official website of Representative Thelma Drake, 26 November 2008, https://web.archive.org/web/20081126193045/http://drake.house.gov/issuestemp/HASC.htm.

8Politics in America, 2008: 1042; “Drake Speaks During Iraq Debate,” official website of Representative Thelma Drake, 26 November 2008, https://web.archive.org/web/20081126194658/http://drake.house.gov/News/DocumentSingle.aspx?DocumentID=58490; “Veterans,” official website of Representative Thelma Drake, 26 November 2008, https://web.archive.org/web/20081126193728/http://drake.house.gov/IssuesTemp/veterans.htm.

9Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail Designation Act, H.R. 5466, 109th Cong. (2006); Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail Designation Act, PL 109-418, 120 Stat. 2882 (2006); Jerry W. Mansfield, “Informal Congressional Groups and Member Organizations: 109th Congress, 2nd Session,” Report RL32263, 1 November 2006, Congressional Research Service: 37.

10“Election Statistics, 1920 to Present”; “Director of the Federal Transit Administration”; PN48—Thelma Drake—Department of Transportation, 116th Cong. (2020), accessed 31 March 2020, https://www.congress.gov/nomination/116th-congress/48.

View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress

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Bibliography / Further Reading

"Thelma Drake" in Women in Congress, 1917-2006. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration by the Office of History & Preservation, U. S. House of Representatives. Washington: Government Printing Office, 2006.

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Committee Assignments

  • House Committee - Armed Services
  • House Committee - Education and the Workforce
  • House Committee - Resources
  • House Committee - Transportation and Infrastructure
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