Has a longtime member of the Arlington Democratic establishment solidly represented Northern Virginia at the state legislature in Richmond, or is there need for new blood? Voters in Virginia State Senate District 31 will answer that question on June 11 when incumbent Barbara Favola faces challenger Nicole Merlene.
Virginia Senate District 31 is the shape of a lumpy sausage snug against the Potomac River, with an urban end just past the Pentagon City shopping mall in Arlington and a suburban end on the far side of the Trump National Golf Club north of Potomac Falls. Of District 31 voters, 59% live in Arlington County, 30% live in Fairfax County (including McLean and Great Falls), and 11% in Loudoun County, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.
The ever-shrinking pool of affordable housing in the area will be a concern for voters, especially in the wake of Amazon's HQ2 announcement. District 31 actually overlaps with “National Landing” for only a few square blocks, but the expected influx of Amazonians who wish to live nearby will put another strain on those looking for shelter, especially for renters.
Residents are also very concerned about transportation. The state legislature recently took funding from the region's transportation authority to provide dedicated funds to Metro, rather than raise taxes, a choice Governor Ralph Northam and both candidates for this seat opposed.
As part of its continuing coverage of the Virginia state elections, the GGWash Elections Committee will continue to report on the contenders in the Democratic primary in this heavily blue district.
Two-term incumbent Barbara Favola had been a familiar face in Arlington politics for more than a decade before she first won her Senate seat in 2011. Favola was on the Arlington County Board for 13 years, four of those as Chair. Prior to entering politics, Favola was a policy advisor for the US Department of Health and Human Services. She spent a four-year term on the Virginia Health Board after an appointment by then-Governor Tim Kaine in 2006.
Virginia State Senator is a part-time position that pays $18,000 per year. Senators usually have other jobs. Favola’s firm, Pathways to 21st Century Communities, consults for organizations and companies on “community outreach” and achieving “local government approvals for much needed investments in our communities” (in other words, lobbying). Clients listed on the organization's website are Marymount University (located in District 31) and Virginia Hospital Center, Arlington (located a few blocks outside of the district).
In January 2019, Favola introduced legislation that would strengthen the ability of Virginia jurisdictions to engage in “proffers,” defined here as “voluntary conditions the landowner agrees to follow as part of obtaining… rezoning.”
Proffers allow jurisdictions to negotiate deals where residential developers perform acts or make cash payments toward infrastructure improvements and other expenses, in exchange for approvals of their project. If signed into law, this bill might undo the effects of a 2016 law that has severely restricted both the matters and the manner in which Virginia jurisdictions can engage in proffers.
Favola’s bill has passed the Senate and has been voted out of a House of Delegates committee, according to a February 8 email newsletter from Favola’s office. Meanwhile, a very similar bill has passed the Virginia House of Delegates, according to a report on the website of the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star, and has moved to a Senate committee. Governor Northam would need to sign some version of the bill for it to become law.
Favola has had series of bad publicity moments connected with fundraising. She was embarrassed last year when an auction item in a Democratic fundraiser appeared to be selling access to her office. After negative attention on social media, Favola tweeted that she had not authorized the item and it was withdrawn at her request.
In 2017, NBC4 reported that she had engaged in improper lobbying in Richmond on behalf of a “predatory” Arlington towing company. Favola “disputes the characterization” of her activity as lobbying, according to the report. Finally, as of this writing, Favola has not signed onto a recent pledge campaign to refuse to accept contributions from Dominion Energy, and public records show Favola has accepted $10,500 from this source in the last seven years.
Favola has not yet officially announced her candidacy for re-election. The website InsideNoVa said Favola is holding off on an announcement until later in the current Virginia General Assembly session but it “was clear she planned to battle to retain her seat.” However, her website has a 2019 campaign updates tab, including testimonials from several local politicians.
Challenger Nicole Merlene kicked off her candidacy for State Senator on January 12 at an event at a pub in Clarendon. Merlene was raised in Arlington and has been active in Arlington political and civic organizations, including the Arlington County Young Democrats, the Arlington Economic Development Commission, and (until recently) as Vice President of the Arlington County Civic Federation. She lives in a rented apartment.
“If elected, Nicole Merlene would be the youngest woman to be a sitting State Senator in the United States and in recent Virginia state history,” says Merlene's website.
Up until early February when she left her post, Merlene's day job was Director of Policy and Government Affairs at Invest in the USA (IIUSA), a “not-for-profit industry trade association” which supports the EB-5 visa program. EB-5 visas are sometimes known as “investor” or “entrepreneur” visas. They allow foreign nationals who invest a certain amount of money (often $1 million or more) to become “lawful permanent residents,” that is, holders of the so-called “green card.”
Although the Arlington Sun-Gazette has characterized Merlene's campaign as from Favola's left (see page 4 here), there's not a lot particularly leftish about the policy page of Merlene's website. It focuses largely on bread-and-butter issues for local residents, particularly younger ones. These include increasing the availability of housing, increasing rights for renters, and creating easier public transit commutes across county and state lines.
She also favors eliminating or restricting variable tolls on I-66, a practice that has both critics and supporters among urbanists, but has also become something of a political punching bag. She has taken a pledge to accept no campaign money from Dominion Energy, and has also announced that she will not accept campaign contributions from Amazon.
What to watch for
Favola and Merlene are both Arlington residents, so they will need to do outreach to the 40+% of District 31 residents that live outside Arlington. Those voters will want to see that Arlingtonians can look after their interests as well.
Virginia is an open primary state, so any registered voter can participate in the Democratic primary. There are over 140,000 residents potentially eligible to vote in District 31. The last Democratic primary in District 31 was in 2011, when a voter turnout of slightly over 10,000 votes resulted in a Favola victory by nearly a 2 to 1 margin. An upset victory by Merlene could depend upon her ability to get the enormous number of people who simply don't vote regularly out to the polls.
Not many policy issues have yet emerged where Favola and Merlene differ. So far, much of the rhetoric has been over youth versus experience and also about campaign cash.
Favola clearly and openly takes money wearing her lobbyist hat from organizations over which she has influence wearing her state legislator hat. Merlene has suggested a ban on General Assembly members working as lobbyists on state-level issues.
In contrast, Merlene's day job is for an organization that deals exclusively with federal issues, so there is no apparent conflict, but her work supports a policy that benefits wealthier foreigners seeking green cards, so voters may not see that as “purer” than Favola’s position.
Favola has years of experience, local name recognition, and the support of much of the Democratic establishment. Her war chest is reported to be over $200,000, while the same source has zero fundraising for Merlene.
There will be no Republican primary in District 31, and so far no Republican candidate has been announced for the November general election. The district has been contested by Republican candidates in the last two elections. In each case, Favola won with more than 58% of the vote.
Correction: Statements in the original headline and lead, characterizing the northern end of the district as being near Great Falls or near Leesburg, potentially gave a misleading impression of its location (near Potomac Falls, between Great Falls and Leesburg). The headline and lead paragraph have been revised.