The election season is hot and heavy already, not only with the presidential sweepstakes grabbing headlines nationally, but with the unique situation that Virginia has: hosting the only comprehensive elections in the U.S. in 2019. That is, every state legislative seat will be on the ballot this November, and unlike recent years, this time both houses of the state legislature are in play for control by one party or the other.
When the Democrats picked up 15 seats in the House of Delegates in the 2017 election, it brought them within one seat of controlling that body, and it is already a virtual tie in the State Senate.
So, a record number of these races are now being hotly contested, and that includes in primaries, where in the case of this area, Democratic incumbents are facing primary challenges in key races, including one non-state race, the election for the Commonwealth Attorney in the Arlington-Falls Church area.
This produced the first major debate among contenders in the June 11 Democratic Primary to include candidates who will be on the ballot in the City of Falls Church. The event was hosted by the Falls Church and George Mason High School chapters of the League of Women Voters last Sunday at the GMHS auditorium.
A spirited crowd gathered for the two-part debate, run entirely by the Mason student members of the LWV. In the first part, veteran incumbent Dick Saslaw squared off against two challengers, Yasmin Taeb and Karen Torrent. In the second part, incumbent Commonwealth Attorney Theo Stamos squared off against her challenger, Parisa Dehghani-Tafti.
There’s more. In Falls Church we have local elections to look forward to this fall, including for three of the seven seats on the City Council and the School Board. In that case, while the election is not until November, the filing deadline for candidates is the same as the June 11 primary date. So far, only two candidates, one for the City Council and one for the School Board, have filed their paperwork. Incumbent Phil Duncan filed his paperwork this week, according to Voter Registrar David Bjerke, and first-time candidate Laura Downs has filed to run for School Board.
In the midst of all the monumental decisions for new school construction and robust economic development that the City is currently undergoing, lost in the process for many are these upcoming elections.
The relatively smooth annual budget process in the City, in the context of the heavy decisions on capital improvements and economic development, this spring has certainly lowered the temperature of electoral conversations around town, and there has been scant evidence yet of who may, or may not, be running, even though the deadline for qualifying for the ballot is not that far off.
Getting on the ballot in Falls Church is a relative breeze, too. There’s no money required, and only 125 signatures of registered voters in the City. Forms need to be filled out certifying qualifications, declaring candidacy, stipulating economic interests and listing donors.
While Duncan has made it official, Mayor David Tarter and Council member Letty Hardi have not yet tipped their hands about plans for another four-year term.
The News-Press has also not yet heard whether three incumbent School Board members — current chair Erin Gill, Phil Reitinger and Justin Castillo — intend to run again or not.
In addition to Saslaw’s 35th State Senate District seat, the 53rd House of Delegates seat held by incumbent Marcus Simon will be on the November ballot. Simon has no primary challenge, unlike Saslaw or neighboring Arlington State Sen. Barbara Favola, and has yet to learn whether one or more opponents will appear on the ballot against him in November.
There is a lot of activity in the Democratic primaries this year because polls are showing the Democrats stand a good chance to win control of both the Senate and House in Richmond, and also because the surge in 2017 that picked up 15 House seats has inspired a new wave of non-incumbent, often strident, candidates to step up.
According to a new poll from the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University this week, Democrats have a four-point advantage statewide in response by likely voters to a generic question whether they would more likely vote for a Democrat or Republican.
In the debate Sunday, Sen. Saslaw focused his remarks and responses to questions heavily on his extensive record of accomplishments in his 40 years in the state senate, including most recently his leadership in winning passage of a landmark voter redistricting bill that would go a long way to end gerrymandering of districts if it passes again next year and is supported by a public referendum in the fall of 2020, in time to be applied to the results of the 2020 census.
Saslaw has served in the state legislature since 1976, is the Senate minority leader and if the Democrats win control of the senate in November, he will most certainly become the senate majority leader.
Taeb and Torrent have not held public office before. Taeb, the first Iranian native elected a member of the Democratic National Committee, based her remarks in the debate against what she called “Virginia politics” that are in the shadows of a repressive past.
She said she supports the Saslaw redistricting effort, though she wanted the decisions under the prospective new law to be made entirely by private citizens and not elected officials, while Saslaw said such a proposal had no chance of passing in the legislature, adding, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
Torrent, an environmental attorney, said she’s running against “old school politics.” A 20-year resident of the greater Falls Church area, she said, “We need new voices.”
Torrent commended Saslaw’s effort to win a five percent pay raise for K-12 teachers, and proposed an “education lock box.” Taeb urged closing corporate tax loopholes to pay teachers, noting that Virginia’s high school graduation rate is 28th best in the U.S., “unacceptable,” she said.
On housing, Torrent proposed converting some vacant office space in Tysons Corner, and Taeb said local autonomy, against the imposition of the Dillon Rule in Virginia, is key.
Saslaw said the Dillon Rule “is not preventing housing, and that the vast majority of new employees Amazon will be hiring in the area “are already living here.” He said the “free market system” can solve the housing shortage.
Torrent and Taeb said they’d refuse corporate political action committee and monopolies’ contributions, and Saslaw said he’d not accept from monopolies, but from corporations, yes, emphasizing, “They don’t influence my vote.”
He referenced the new law he pushed stipulating that by 2028, 50 percent of all residences in the state will be powered by wind and solar. But Taeb criticized Dominion Power’s “unchecked power” and pipeline development. Torrent said “we have to electrify the way we move people.”
Taeb said “the higher education system is broken” with predatory student loans, Torrent called on community colleges to work more with the private sector, and Saslaw noted that pipeline developers in North Dakota are paying for student tuitions there.
Saslaw said he “gets an F” from the National Rifle Association, and is pushing to increase age for buying a gun from 18 to 21. Taeb called for “getting weapons of war off the streets,” and ending the influence of the NRA on Richmond. Torrent said that “the Second Amendment is only one of 10 in the Bill of Rights that include our right to live peaceably.”
Taeb called for a “New Virginia Way,” opposing the death penalty and predatory lending. Saslaw said that while Dominion Power has contributed to his campaigns over the years, 80 percent of the money he raises goes to help other Democratic campaigns, including to candidates who’ve pledged not to take Dominion Power money.
In the second part of the program, two candidates for Arlington-Falls Church Commonwealth Attorney squared off. The challenger, attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti faced off against the incumbent Theo Stamos. Stamos cited her experience representing “truth, accuracy, fairness and second chances.”
Tafti said the Commonwealth Attorney’s office “needs real reform.” She urged the adoption of cash bond options, better diversion programs and voting rights for felons. Stamos said in her “entire adult life” as a Democrat, she shares the “Democratic values that are human values.”
Stamos defended her decision to align with commonwealth attorneys in the state to challenge then-Gov. McAuliffe’s push to restore voting rights to felons, saying she “supports the restoration of the rights of all,” but was worried that the approach McAuliffe sought would make it easier for felons to get guns.
She said there needs to be new laws to help “avoid first felon convictions,” and Tafti said that there is a need for policies to “avoid the criminal justice system altogether.”
Tafti said there should be no local cooperation with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), noting that the reporting of violent crimes has dipped since there has been an ICE crackdown. Stamos said that the community needs to be a welcoming one for immigrants, and that efforts taken “to avoid the immigration consequences of petty larcenies and the like.”
Tafti said that marijuana “should be legalized like tobacco” and no longer prosecuted. Stamos said that “no one is ever incarcerated or loses a license” when arrested for marijuana possession, but “it is still against the law” and it is not her role to selectively enforce the public’s laws.