The June 11 Democratic primary in Falls Church, Arlington and environs features two hotly-contested races where incumbents are being challenged by new faces on the political scene who want to represent their party in the November general election.
For State Senate, veteran Dick Saslaw is being challenged by two opponents, Yasmine Taeb and Karen Torrent, both with Falls Church addresses. For Commonwealth Attorney, in a run for an office that is seldom contested vigorously, incumbent Theo Stamos is faced with a stiff challenge from public defender Parisa Dehghani-Tafti.
Saslaw and Stamos, both, have taken their electoral challenges seriously, mounting aggressive campaigns of their own to maintain their incumbencies. For Saslaw, re-election to the 31st State Senate seat that includes the City of Falls Church, means a real shot at becoming the Senate majority leader in Richmond, as his party has pulled within a single seat of taking control of that body.
For Stamos, election to a third four-year term has become an uphill battle for her since former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed on with her opponent, partly as payback for Stamos’ resistance to McAuliffe’s initiative as governor to grant the right to vote to convicted felons who had completed their terms.
Stamos has defended her decision to join her name to an amicus brief opposing the governor’s move for a sweeping reinstatement on grounds that, as a prosecuting attorney, it opened too many loopholes for serious criminals, while insisting that, in principle, she supported the right of felons to vote who have paid their debt to society.
It turned out the Stamos position prevailed in the court, while McAuliffe still achieved his goal by, one by one, granting over 200,000 persons their right to vote, which they now have in Virginia.
But with McAuliffe’s high profile enmity toward Stamos’ position, momentum has built quickly in recent months that has Dehghani-Tafti on the brink of a major upset on June 11. It has been buoyed by the endorsements of numerous influential Democratic public officials, including former State Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple and current State Del. Marcus Simon, who represents Falls Church.
On the other hand, Stamos has earned the endorsements of all three of the City of Falls Church’s commonwealth officials — Treasurer Jody Acosta, commissioner of the revenue Tom Clinton and sheriff Steve Bittle — along with former Congressman Jim Moran.
Stamos’ support for a Republican who won a spot on the Arlington County Board also has turned numerous Arlington elected Democrats against her, although she insisted it was due to a long-standing personal friendship and not politics. State Del. Patrick Hope and sheriff Beth Arthur have continued to support her, as do the Arlington Coalition of Police and Police Beneficiary Association, who took offense at her opponent’s characterization of a recent incident as a case of “police brutality.”
Dehghani-Tafti won significant financial support, over $70,000 worth of in-kind contributions in the first quarter, from a group known as the Justice and Safety political action committee, which, according to an April 24 report in the Washington Post, is tied to wealthy Democratic donor George Soros.
The sum constituted over half of all her campaign contributions through the quarter, and a similar amount was given by the Soros group to Steve Descano, a challenger to Raymond Murrogh, the Commonwealth’s Attorney in Fairfax County.
Soros has reportedly bankrolled similar races in Chicago, Philadelphia and Houston.
In backing Stamos, Falls Church Treasurer Acosta has said, “The question is not even close. Stamos has done a remarkable job. Falls Church is safe in large part because we are fortunate enough to have a top prosecutor who is smart on crime. Theo has and always will seek justice for victims, for the accused and for the community.”
She noted that when Stamos was first elected, she ended the office’s policy of hiring outside attorneys to handle cases in Falls Church, and began deploying members of her own staff instead.
Sheriff Bittle said, “A vote for Theo is a vote for public safety, not politics.” Commissioner Clinton said, “When it comes to depth of civic engagement, there is a clear winner in Stamos. She does all the things we expect, she chairs the statewide committee on best practices for prosecutors, works with organizations that help reintegrate citizens back into the community. She has deep roots in our community, like I do, and I can’t tell you how important that is in order to be an effective public servant.”
On the other hand, Del. Simon had made an impassioned appeal for supporting Dehghani-Tafti, citing her “almost two decades working to improve the criminal justice system as a public defender, innocence attorney and law professor.”
He said in a letter to the News-Press, “She has protected the rights of the indigent, fighting for gender equality in juvenile sentencing and representing clients in parole proceedings. As an innocence attorney, she works to fix the mistakes of the system and free the wrongfully convicted. It is exactly this broad, diverse experience in the criminal justice system that makes her the commonwealth attorney our community needs.”
“She knows first hand the toll that prosecutorial errors take on survivors’ and victims’ families. She understands the difficulties that defendants face when they are forced to stay in jail because they can’t afford to pay bail or when a minor conviction leaves them vulnerable to deportation.”