By Yasmine Taeb
This week, our Commonwealth’s legacy of racism reared its ugly head. Governor Northam’s outrageous photo is an important reminder that the past is not as distant as we often think. There are Virginians alive today whose grandparents were slaves. There are families who live in neighborhoods still scarred by segregation and red-lining. And now, we are reminded that there are powerful officials who appear to have thought it was fine to dress up in a Klan outfit or blackface, take a photo, and place it on their medical school yearbook page.
In Virginia politics, the shadow of our racist past takes the form of an “old Virginia way” that still runs Richmond. It’s a politics that has tolerated confederate statues, held statehouse tributes to white supremacists, and disrespected members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus on multiple occasions. It’s a politics that has also allowed Virginia to become one of the eviction capitals of America, sat by as black Virginians were incarcerated at a rate three-fold their proportion of the population, and sided with Dominion Energy against the residents of Union Hill, a historically black neighborhood that has been fighting off a dangerous natural-gas development.
This month, as many of us call for the end of Northam’s governorship, we should pair this call with a broader rallying cry for the end of this entire “old Virginia way.” Fortunately, as the old way recedes, a new Virginia way — of racial justice, women’s rights, clean energy, people-powered government, and leadership as diverse as the Commonwealth — is rising. The 2017 general assembly election — which brought the first Asian American, Latina and LGBTQ+ women to Richmond — was just the beginning.
This year, we need to build on this momentum. That is why I am running for state senate — to ensure our district’s leadership in Richmond is aligned with this new Virginia way.
This is a deeply personal cause for me. I came to America as a refugee from war-torn Iran and grew up undocumented — my family was only able to make it because our immigration laws at the time were more humane than they are today. This experience inspired me to become a human rights lawyer — and I have spent the past decade working in northern Virginia to organize our immigrant communities, build interreligious understanding, and fight to stop the Trump administration’s unconscionable, discriminatory policies. To advance the fight, I got involved in politics, and became the first Muslim woman elected to the Democratic National Committee.
I wouldn’t be running for this seat if I trusted my opponent, Sen. Dick Saslaw, to fight passionately for the new Virginia way. Unfortunately, his record has broken our district’s trust. When students at J.E.B. Stuart High School tried to change the name of their school, Saslaw originally said they were being overly politically correct. While racial justice groups have fought to end our state’s racially-biased death penalty, Saslaw brags about being “one of the people who helped bring capital punishment back to Virginia,” saying in 2014, “I don’t regret it for one minute.” When students at George Mason University asked Saslaw about my primary campaign against him, he told them that I could not win because our district is “60 percent white.”
And when the news of Northam’s photo came out this past week, Saslaw took a boys-will-be-boys attitude, telling The Washington Post: “I would hate to have to go back and examine my two years in the Army. Trust me. I was 18 years old and I was a handful, OK?”
The old Virginia way isn’t just about racial insensitivity — it’s also about cronyism. Saslaw has taken hundreds of thousands of dollars from Dominion Energy, criticized fellow Democrats for not appreciating “how generous Dominion has been,” and done Dominion’s bidding in the legislature. When the Sierra Club criticized his climate record, he called them “crazy.” And when Virginia anti-poverty groups tried to better regulate payday lenders, Saslaw pocketed $37,000 from TitleMax and took the loan sharks’ side. When asked about Saslaw, one consumer advocate told The Washington Post in 2011: “What he did was to entrench the grip of loan sharks who are feeding off of working families.”
With all eyes on Virginia this year, we need every Democrat fighting for the new Virginia way: economic policies friendly to working families, a green energy future, campaign finance laws that restrict Saslaw-style cronyism, a serious legislative response to gun violence, an unwavering backbone in defense of our public schools, and a spirit of raising up leaders who are as diverse as our Commonwealth. The primary is June 11 — whether I earn your vote or not, I look forward to continue fighting with you to turn the page on our disturbing past and build the progressive, inclusive Virginia that I know we can become.
Yasmine Taeb is a candidate in the Democratic primary to represent Virginia’s 35th Senate District.