View from Bailey’s Crossroads by Kit Case licensed under Creative Commons.

A powerful Virginia legislator is facing his first serious challenger in recent memory in Senate District 35, a diverse, V-shaped district in Alexandria, Fairfax County, and Falls Church.

Democrat Dick Saslaw, the Senate Minority Leader, has served in the General Assembly since 1976. He has not faced a primary challenger in 40 years, and cruised to reelection in his solidly blue district in the last few elections.

Yasmine Taeb, a human rights lawyer and progressive activist, is challenging Saslaw from his left. Saslaw’s role as a legislative leader has drawn him into the controversies surrounding Governor Ralph Northam and Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, issues which may factor into the coming campaign.

About the 35th Senate District

Virginia's Senate District 35.

The district is large, spanning from Merrifield to Bailey's Crossroads to Springfield, including Falls Church and part of the City of Alexandria. It contains significant tracts of single-family homes, several Metrorail stations, and the Mosaic District, a retail and restaurant development which has contributed to more urbanization in the area. Big issues here include affordability, congestion, and lack of walkability and easy access to Metro.

The 35th has the highest foreign-born population in the state, with 40% born in another country, according to legislative tracking service Quorum. The district has non-white Hispanic and Asian populations well above the state average, and handily favors Democrats. In 2016 and 2017, residents voted for national and statewide Democrats by a 3-to-1 margin.

Dick Saslaw, a powerful force in Richmond

Dick Saslaw. Image from the candidate's Facebook page.

Saslaw has been in the Senate since 1980 and has been the Democratic leader in the chamber for 20 years. He’s won in each campaign since 1999 by at least 17 points – and usually by much more.

While Saslaw holds progressive views on many social issues and has received endorsements in the past from groups favoring abortion rights, gun control, and conservation, he has also been a lightning rod for criticism from the left. Liberal groups argue that he has used his leadership position to stymie progressive policies, and say he’s too conservative for his Northern Virginia seat. He was also critical of Tom Perriello’s outsider run for Governor against Northam, his former Senate colleague.

But Saslaw’s ties to Dominion Energy dog him the most. Critics say that Saslaw—who has taken $350,000 from Dominion—has facilitated the company's ability to develop more fracking and fossil fuel infrastructure at the expense of clean-energy goals in Virginia.

As a Democratic leader in Virginia, Saslaw has entered the fray amid accusations against Northam and Fairfax. As a picture on Northam’s medical school yearbook page emerged depicting one man in blackface and another in Ku Klux Klan robes, Saslaw was one of the only Virginia Democrats to defend Northam. Concerning Justin Fairfax, who is facing claims of sexual assault, Saslaw asserted that impeachment is reserved for crimes committed in office.

However, as Minority Leader, Saslaw is one of the people the party relies on to wrangle the other Democratic Senators and to negotiate with Republicans. Some voters may stick with him because replacing him could weaken the Democrats' organizational structure.

Yasmine Taeb, progressive challenger

Yasmine Taeb. Image from the candidate's Facebook page.

Yasmine Taeb, a human rights lawyer, progressive activist, and Democratic National Committee member, is offering Saslaw his first primary challenge in a generation.

Taeb, who calls herself “the first Muslim woman ever elected to the Democratic National Committee,” fled Iran as a child and grew up in Florida, incidentally attending Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the site of last year’s school massacre.

Although her campaign website does not mention her opponent by name, it does feature a “clean energy” plank that promises to “stand up to Dominion” and promote renewable energy. Taeb has also seized upon Saslaw’s defense of Northam, tying his position to upholding the “old Virginia way” that tolerates racism.

Urbanist issues aren’t a highlight—yet

Image by Elvert Barnes licensed under Creative Commons.

Thus far, a paucity of urbanist issues have emerged in the campaign.

Only Saslaw’s website mentions transportation, where he touts transit and multimodal transportation. Last year, he pushed for Virginia to pay its full share of Metro funding, provided DC and Maryland did the same.

Both candidates highlight education, with Saslaw noting his support for STEM programs, smaller class sizes, and higher teacher pay, and Taeb promoting increasing teacher pay, universal pre-K, and standardized testing reform.

Housing affordability and land use do not seem to have yet emerged as major issues in this race, and transportation isn’t yet a major differentiator between them. We’ll continue to watch how the campaign develops, and try to illuminate the candidates’ views on these important issues. Saslaw, for instance, will soon vote on the Governor's proposed changes to the budget, which includes additional funding for affordable housing and eviction mitigation.

While many of the issues Taeb is running on so far are hallmarks of progressives versus centrist Democrats in Virginia, housing and transportation often doesn’t line up cleanly along this divide. Some self-identified progressives see it as a priority to open up opportunities for people of all incomes to live in job-rich Northern Virginia, while others feel communities need to be “rescued” from proposals for new housing.

Likewise on transportation, both progressives and centrists in Northern Virginia generally support transit funding and expansion, though specific decisions—especially ones that might inconvenience drivers or force them to pay for the cost of infrastructure and pollution—don’t break down cleanly across ideological lines.

Taeb will have to form more detailed positions on these issues if she wants to mount a viable challenge to one of the Senate’s most powerful figures.