Just two weeks after Saddam Azlan Salim announced his bid to represent the new 37th Senate District, which includes Falls Church, another candidate has entered the race. Erika Yalowitz announced that she will also seek the seat in a post on her website and social media.
This is an intense year for Virginia politics, with all seats in both chambers of the Virginia Legislature on the ballot this November, as well as numerous local positions. Redistricting has further complicated things, with many legislators serving districts that no longer exist — meaning they are running only as pseudo-incumbents in their re-election campaigns this year. This includes the City of Falls Church, which will vote in new districts for their representatives in both Chambers.
Both first-generation immigrants, Yalowitz and Salim hope to defeat State Senator Chap Petersen (D) in the June primary to represent the Democrats on the ballot for the seat in the November General Election. Petersen currently represents Senate District 34; only 44 percent of his current constituents are within the new district, though he is referred to as an incumbent.
Yalowitz left Colombia for London in 2002 and first moved to the United States in mid-2006. After returning to Colombia to complete her Bachelor of Political Science, Government & International Affairs Degree at Rosario University, she permanently moved to the U.S. in 2007. During her years in London, she learned English as a second language, and volunteered for human rights campaigns at Amnesty International. Yalowitz lives in Tysons with her husband of sixteen years, Neil, and eight year old daughter Antonia.
Yalowitz touts a background of community work and advocacy. “I know firsthand the challenges facing our families and communities, from pedestrian safety to the need for better youth development opportunities,” she said in her announcement, “and, as a Latina, a working mom of an FCPS student and active Labor Union member, I understand the importance of fighting for working families in this diverse community, and creating a brighter future for our children.”
As one of three Court Officers serving the Arlington and Falls Church Courts (a combined court), all family, juvenile and domestic court cases pass by Yalowitz to determine the proper course of action — including substance use or gun-related cases in Arlington Public Schools (APS) and Falls Church City Public Schools (FCCPS). The unit is now handling the tragic case of a young student, who died last Thursday after a fentanyl overdose in the bathroom at APS’s Wakefield High School two days before.
“There is an enormous sense of urgency due to the lack of services available to tackle addiction in youth,” said Yalowitz, who has vivid childhood memories of guerrillas invading the Colombian Supreme Court, and survived bombs exploding in the streets of Bogota during the “War on Drugs” of the 1990s. “efforts of prevention, intervention, and rehabilitation are insufficient.”
Yalowitz wants to expand more services to combat the opioid epidemic, including exploring mobile rehabilitation units that can come to homes or schools. “At the moment all there is are teachers and parents equipped with Narcan in case of overdose.” added Yalowitz, whose “dynamic” daughter attends Spring Hill Elementary School in Tysons. She continued that this places an unreasonable burden on teachers, “As if teachers didn’t have enough to deal with, they now have to run to save a students’ life on a moment’s notice.”
Yalowitz says her exposure to overdose court cases, and concerns as a parent, give her both motivation and competence on the issue. “I am seeing first-hand the tip of an iceberg that can be prevented with prompt and assertive action,” she said. “I will work tirelessly to win the voter support necessary to make it happen.”
This is not the first time Yalowitz ran for office. She ran for Fairfax County Supervisor for Providence District, in a fiercely competitive five-person primary in 2019. Though successfully winning several precincts, she and all other candidates were handily defeated by now-Supervisor Dalia Palchik (D-Providence), who ultimately won the seat.
Salim, who announced a primary bid for the Senate seat two weeks ago, grew up in Bangladesh until floods, droughts, and the desire for a better education and life for their children drove his parents to relocate his family to a friend’s basement — in greater Falls Church. Saddam’s father worked his way up to chef at the Haandi Indian Cuisine on W. Broad St., where he worked for over twenty years.
Salim attended Falls Church High School, where he was the President of his class and recipient of the John Morris Athletic Scholarship. During his senior year his mother’s health suffered, eventually needing surgery, causing him to change his post-secondary plans and stay local, opting to attend Northern Virginia Community College and then George Mason University, where he received a Bachelor of Science in Public Administration Degree in 2012, and ultimately a Masters Degree in Public Administration.
Salim has been involved in state and local politics for several years. He has served as Providence District Co-Chair and Finance Vice Chair for Fairfax County Democratic Committee (FCDC), Vice President of Fairfax Young Democrats, and currently serves as second Vice Chair of the 8th Congressional District Democratic Committee.
During his career, Salim has held multiple financial consulting jobs, including at PenFed Credit Union, Kearney and Company, and the United States Institute of Peace. He currently works as a Senior Consultant for 11th Hour Service, where he advises Federal clients.
Salim says he believes in public service because he’s seen the real effects of social programs, affordable housing, education and healthcare — and the support of the local community — his whole life. “The City of Falls Church and Fairfax County helped my family survive and supported me throughout my education and career.” he said, “Today, I want to give back and serve that community as a new kind of leader that focuses on Virginia’s future and the issues that matter.”
Both Yalowitz and Salim will find a formidable opponent in Petersen, whose deep-pocket donors have allowed him to raise $527,163 for his Senate campaign and $114,965 for his PAC, Fairfax Commonsense. The organization’s website states its purpose to “support responsible, Main Street candidates for office in Fairfax County.”
So far one contribution has been made by the entity — to U.S. Representative Abigail Spanberger, whose district does not include Fairfax County. Petersen is the sole legislator featured on the PAC’s website, which also features Fairfax County Sheriff Stacey Kincaid.
Petersen’s well-funded campaigns have raised just under $3.5 million dollars since 2007, which was the last year Petersen’s seat was contested (in the primary or general elections) — that year, the Petersen for Senate campaign spent $676,780 compared to Republican opponent Gerarda Culipher’s $71,185.
Despite having no opponents the last two cycles, Petersen’s campaign spent over one million dollars — more than most Senate campaigns spend even with strong challengers in play. The Petersen campaign currently has raised $723,082 for the upcoming election — from 1,068 individual and corporate donors including Amazon, Comcast, and several contractors — an average donation of $670.
Petersen, a Fairfax City native who graduated from Fairfax High School in 1986 and received his law degree from UVA in 1994, currently represents the 34th Senate District of Virginia, which includes central and western Fairfax County, reaching as far out as Centreville and Chantilly.
The new 37th Senate District, which Petersen hopes to represent, now includes the entire City of Falls Church, more of Tysons, and less of the western portion of the County. As a result, the new district leans farther left, with a 7.2 percent stronger turnout for McAuliffe in the 2021 Governor’s race.
Perhaps most central to Petersen’s story is his strong relationship with Fairfax schools. His 2001 “Put Woodson First” campaign helped him oust incumbent Delegate Jack Rust (R-Fairfax), who had served as Delegate for multiple terms beginning in 1979. Students at W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax fueled much of his initial campaign, calling voters from multiple phones hooked up in Petersen’s Fairfax residence, his wife pregnant with their first child.
The campaign regularly makes community goodwill contributions, largely to Fairfax schools, with Petersen for Senate having already directed $25,000 in such contributions since being elected Senator in 2008. Beginning last fall, the campaign began donating cycles to schools through sponsorships or in the new district last fall.
Petersen, who is completing his fourth term, is famously the most conservative Democrat in the Virginia Senate: in 2021 he voted with the Caucus only 67 percent of the time, most vocally departing with regard to ending mask mandates in schools (in January 2022, when the Omicron variant first emerged).
During the 2021 Legislative Session, Petersen voted or sided against school boards on several occasions, perhaps most prominently when he demanded — after Fairfax County Public Schools (and all other local school districts) vowed to defy Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s executive order for schools to open without requiring masks — that FCPS immediate announce a plan to comply or face legislation, also voting against abuse protections for School Board employees, bullying training and prevention programs, and voting for a Republican bill to allow parents to cherry-pick their schools regardless of residence.
Petersen has also parted with Democrats with regard to expanding tenants’ rights, certain firearm restrictions, a utility relief bill tied to income, and the legalization of cannabis (medical and recreational — twice).
Petersen often engages with conservative allies in unnecessary, inflammatory (and often totally unrelated to legislation) political theatre — such as announcing the formation of a “Redskins Pride Caucus” alliance with two Republican Delegates in opposition to changing the name of the now Washington Commanders. Petersen was quoted claiming that Native Americans refer to themselves using the term. Regardless of the notoriety, Petersen’s deep-pocket donors and deep Fairfax roots have successfully deterred any challenge to his seat.
Unlike the majority of his political career, this year redistricting has Petersen seeking votes from a constituency that, for the most part, do not currently live in his district — including residents of the City of Falls Church. An estimated 95,000 voters in the new district are currently represented by someone else, compared to an estimated 75,000 already represented by the Senator from Fairfax.
Regardless of the challenges, Petersen is upbeat about the potential new turf. ““I think of the new 37th Senate District as ‘the Historic Triangle’ of northern Virginia, as it brings together three historic communities, the City of Falls Church, the Town of Vienna and the City of Fairfax, and their surrounding neighborhoods,” Petersen said when asked for a comment, “then also includes the economic engine and cultural mosaic that is Tysons.”
We will likely hear a lot more about this race between now and the June 20, 2023 primary.