In the often confusing wake of the redistricting of state and federal election boundaries every decade, many folks lose track of who their representatives are. The situation is like that for the City of Falls Church and environs, where the state senator now representing the City is a new person, relatively unknown to City residents. That would be incumbent State Sen. Chap Petersen.
In the case of Petersen, who has represented areas of Fairfax County to the west of the City for two decades, he is now the City’s state senator and will be depending on how the next November 2023 election goes.
To become familiar with his new Senate District 37 constituents here, he’s been going around the City knocking on doors to introduce himself and showing up at public events, such as the Memorial Day parade, farmers markets and the upcoming Falls Festival next month. He won’t face re-election until November 2023.
For over 15 years to date, John Chapman “Chap” Petersen has been a Virginia State Senator, representing central and western Fairfax in the Virginia State Senate. The News-Press spoke with Petersen about his career in politics and law, his goals and his views on current issues happening in the state of Virginia.
Born and raised in Fairfax City, Petersen’s first taste in politics was serving as his senior class president at Fairfax High School. After graduating high school in 1986 and Williams College in 1990, he became active in politics while attending the University of Virginia Law School, where he worked on the 1992 presidential campaign for Bill Clinton.
Becoming involved in politics at the University, Petersen was an intern in the House of Delegates in 1995, and that is when he decided a career in politics “is what I wanted to do.”
After moving back to Fairfax City and being elected into City Council there in 1998, Petersen ran and won a seat in the House of Delegates in 2001 as a Democratic challenger against the Republican incumbent Jack Rust, stating it was a “pretty big upset” for Fairfax City at the time due to it being majority Republican.
After running and losing the race for lieutenant governor in 2005, Petersen took a “hiatus” in politics due to thinking that “his political career was over.” It wasn’t until fellow Virginia state senator Richard “Dick” Saslaw, who had been Falls Church’s senate representative until this year, asked Petersen to run for the State Senate seat against Republican challenger Jeannemarie Devolites Davis in 2007.
Called the “most expensive State Senate race in Virginia,” Petersen won the seat and has been a state senator for over 15 years since. As for his biggest accomplishment as a Virginia State Senator, Petersen said the reopening of schools has been the “most important issue” he has had to face. Growing up in public schools, Petersen has been invested in them and “consistently opposed school voucher programs” or programs that would “send money to private schools.”
He said he is a little “tougher” than some Democrats when it comes to holding schools accountable on what and how money is being spent by various school systems.
But in 2020, Petersen announced he wasn’t going to vote for a state budget until schools were reopened for in-person learning, which he said was a “huge battle.” He said spending “all that money” on virtual education was “unacceptable” to him, and while he acknowledged that his pushing of reopening schools has upset some people, in February of 2021, Senate Bill 1303 was passed and put 1.2 million children back in classrooms, which Petersen said was his “biggest achievement.”
“If I can do anything that will help the lives of children and be in their best interest, I’m gonna do it,” Petersen said. “I believe strongly in public education, but I also believe there has to be accountability and I’m not afraid to make some people mad if that’s what it takes.”
The issue Petersen has had “the longest involvement in” has been the environment, stating that when he first ran for state senate, one of his big issues was having Virginia adopt a RPS (Renewable Portfolio Standard), which requires a state to use renewable energy. He was “very involved” in fighting against Dominion Power to try to roll back some of the monopoly powers it had acquired. In the last two years, Petersen has become chair of the Natural Resources Committee in the Senate, which has jurisdiction over all environmental issues.
As for how he addresses issues on climate change and global warming, Petersen recently put out a newsletter that talked about the program, RGGI (Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative) where 15 states in the East Coast “buy and sell” carbon emission “credits” to each other. This in turn puts a tax on power plants that emit carbons, oil-fired or gas-fired, as well as the people who “benefit” from the plants. Petersen said it’s a way of “limiting carbons” and having the money from those taxes used for “energy efficiency programs,” as well as “building resilience” in communities in southeastern Virginia that are vulnerable to flooding.
In 2020, Petersen drafted a version of the bill that was passed that called for universal background checks for guns. He told the News-Press he believes Virginia “has made a lot of legal changes” in regard to gun violence, such as the Red Flag Law, but the biggest issue he has faced is the knowledge of “so many guns in circulation” and what some of the conditions of violence are that cause gun violence and mass shootings.
Although abortion “is legal in Virginia and the current statutes reflect the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade,” Petersen said it’s a question of whether or not “the state keeps it that way” or whether Governor Glenn Youngkin wants to amend the laws and ban certain procedures after a certain amount of time.
To get economic growth back to where it was pre-pandemic, Petersen said he is an advocate for “getting education back to normal and getting businesses back to the public.” He wants people to get vaccinated, but also wants to “encourage the mindset that life goes on and to become more active in the outside world.”
Petersen said the Virginia Senate has passed a number of laws preventing discrimination against gay and lesbian Virginians, as well as laws outlawing discrimination and housing discrimination in employment. He said Virginia “has a pretty good record” in preventing discrimination and that it’s a “very open society.” He believes it’s important in making sure lower income people have access to health care and said his biggest initiative in 2023 is providing affordable prescription drugs and making sure that seniors or people who are “medically vulnerable” are not priced out of the prescription drug market.
Petersen is currently working on having medical technology, such as MRI’s, be more “community friendly” so people don’t always have to go to a hospital for certain procedures.
Currently, Petersen said he is taking his career in politics “day by day” and is proud of his advocacy for children and small businesses. He is running for reelection again, stating that he thinks he’s “made a difference the last four years” and thinks he can “continue to make a difference.”