Last fall’s presidential election left the country sharply divided between feelings of jubilation and dread. In its wake, a wave of Democratic party hopefuls have sprouted up across all levels of government, including Richmond’s Virginia 70th district primary candidate and local product, Alex Mejias.
Mejias isn’t allowing his inaugural foray into the political world temper his agenda. After officially beginning his campaign on March 1, the 1996 George Mason High School graduate has made his rounds throughout a district that extends from the eastern sector of Richmond’s inner city to the suburbs that go beyond its beltway. On the trail, Mejias has learned what’s important to prospective constituents and detects their yearning for change.
“There’s a new wind of leadership coming down through Richmond,” Mejias said in a phone interview with the News-Press in April. “And I sensed that the people would be excited to have a new delegate here.”
The three main components of state government Mejias looks to reform if elected are the criminal justice system, redistricting and immigration policies.
In regards to the criminal justice system, Mejias wants to see the consequences levied against felons reduced. For example, Mejias cites a felony larceny statute that can classify a perpetrator as a felon if their crime exceeds $200. To most that’s a nice pair of shoes. It doesn’t equate to felonious behavior in Mejias’ eyes, who believes the low dollar threshold — established in 1980 and left unchanged despite multiple states elevating their own standard — should be raised to $1,000.
Tackling the erratic redistricting is Mejias’ attempt to stop the “erosion of enfranchisement” that has subverted populations in Richmond. The practice of gerrymandering is rampant in Virginia, with districts resembling amoebas more than the cookie-cutter counties they fall in. Abiding by more traditional boundaries would deny politicians from cherry picking voters and, according to Mejias, would empower the state’s progressive majority.
Mejias also believes that aggressive immigration policies have fostered distrust between the community and the local government. While campaigning, he’s learned that residents are apprehensive about calling the police or visiting the hospital in fear of being identified as a potential target of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office. This fear is all the more palpable during visits to a former safe zone in the Chesterfield Court House, where defendants have arrived to pay off a traffic ticket and left in the custody of ICE.
Enforcing efforts to stimulate public education top off Mejias’ plan of action and hope to set him apart from his chief competitor, incumbent and fellow Democrat, State Del. Delores McQuinn.
“People are really waking up and [noticing] that there’s something broken in the system and in the institutions that need to be reformed and renewed, and I’m one of those people,” Mejias said. “There are these core issues that pertain to fundamental and basic rights that people have to economic opportunity and access and a voice in the political system.”
McQuinn has held the 70th district since January 2009, and has been serving Richmond’s public interest since 1992 when she became a member of the city’s school board. That’s stiff competition for a newcomer like Mejias, but he too has dedicated much of his professional and personal life to assisting those in need. As a former attorney, his legal career has taken him to the Legal Aid Justice Center, the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and the National Senior Citizens Law Center. For his community, Mejias organized a forum about issues of race and policing between Richmond City police and black business leaders, titled “Businesses for Black Lives,” which led to the formation of the more policy-oriented “Business Coalition for Justice.”
“Working in the nonprofit, business, legal and private practice sector…you learn to get things done,” Mejias added. “I’m passionate about bringing together diverse groups people to fix community problems. You need the faith, business, legal and activist community to have a seat at the table in order for change to happen. When folks in the General Assembly see a [unified] community is behind something, that speaks volumes.”
The campaign reaches its apex next Tuesday when statewide primaries for both parties are held. A victory next week would signal an uncontested run for the 70th district and a chance to enact the reforms Mejias has laid out. It would also give the father of three and full-time business strategist at web development agency Foster Made an opportunity to test his digital outreach, which along with quarterly town halls, will let constituents air concerns on their terms.
But even a loss won’t be taken as a true defeat to Mejias. His family is happily settled and his career is on the rise. And whether it is him or McQuinn who will represent their district in the legislature, he knows it won’t stall the inertia the Democratic party feels is essential for the near future.