Image by the author.

Incumbent state senator Barbara Favola and challenger Nicole Merlene faced voters on the same stage for the first time on Saturday, April 13, at a morning candidate forum at Busboys & Poets in Shirlington. About 100 people watched the two contenders for the Democratic nomination for Virginia State Senate District 31 respond to written questions from the audience on a variety of topics.

Merlene has made ethics-based criticism the core of her argument against Favola. Favola, in contrast, listed her achievements as senator in Richmond on a number of issues, including mental health and gun control.

The primary will take place on Tuesday, June 11. Here are some of the topics the candidates discussed, particularly on GGWash-related issues:


“This county was much more diverse while I was growing up. We had a much larger immigrant community that was able to thrive in places like garden-style apartments and we just had generally higher housing availability for market rate affordable [housing],” Merlene said.

Merlene endorsed “allowing localities the ability to zone things at their own discretion” and “allowing local government discretion to decide what is right for their community.” The impediment to this goal is the legislature in Richmond, which is often reluctant to give more authority to local jurisdictions.

Favola said she was “very, very, very much in the leadership role on affordable housing” when she served on the Arlington County Board and also in the Senate.“I treat affordable housing as one of those infrastructure needs that every community has to embrace and has to create if they want to keep a robust economy.”

Shortly after that, Favola said, “Our land values are high. We're sort of a victim of our own success. We need to do more. We need to figure out how to renovate the affordable units that we do have, and we need to figure out how to provide incentives so that we can keep the market rate affordable stock that we have. It will continue to be a challenge.”

“What's the next set of tools the county needs to tackle this? … I'm going to go forward with an inclusionary zoning authority for local governments so they when they approve a project [they can] require a portion to be set aside.”

Favola also said she had helped pass a law which made it easier for local zoning administrators to approve applications based on local zoning ordinances.

Barbara Favola. Image by the author.

Plastic bag fees

This year, two bills that would require plastic bag fees in Virginia (similar to those in DC) died in committee in Richmond. How, someone asked, can we get a plastic bag fee enacted in Virginia?

Merlene and Favola agreed that the key to making this happen was “flipping” the Virginia state legislature to a Democratic majority. Currently, the Republicans hold slim majority in both the Senate and the House of Delegates.

Toward that end, Favola said, she was contributing to campaigns and mentoring new Democratic candidates.

Child care

The question: “What specific plans do you have to bring down the cost of child care? And if it's deregulation, what regulations in specific would you target?”

Favola, speaking first, told the audience that federal child care subsidies require a “certain level of quality” from providers. As part of meeting these requirements, Favola said, “we reduced the number of children permitted per one caretaker down to four.”

In reply, Merlene said: “We don't have enough spaces for our children…. A lot of that has to do with the rules and regulations around how many slots are available. Because of rules like you have to have a four to one ratio, we don't have enough spaces available. I don't think that you need a four-to-one ratio. That's really restrictive.”

Another example of a regulation that makes child care difficult to obtain, Merlene said, was the requirement that each child care provider is required to have its own outdoor playground. This restricts options on Arlington's urban corridor unnecessarily, since many providers could use public parks near their location.

Nicole Merlene. Image by the author.

Ethics and campaign donations

In her opening statement, Merlene referred to a December 2016 proposal to build a 325-foot tall tower on Virginia Department of Transportation land in Rosslyn. Favola, the sitting state senator for the district, was an advisor for the project.

Merlene said this type of behavior was pervasive, citing her opponent's relationship with Marymount University and Virginia Hospital Center, which are both clients of a lobbying organization that Favola leads when she is not working in Richmond.“This is an issue where our representative was using public office for private benefit,” she said.

Favola said she was “proud” to be associated with Marymount University and Virginia Hospital Center. Favola worked with Marymount for more than 25 years, she said, and raised scholarship dollars for young aspiring nurses. She also said she was active in crafting a proposal for improving psychological health services for Virginia Hospital Center.

Later in the forum, the candidates were presented a one word question: “Dominion?”

All those present seemed to understand that this referred to a campaign by activist group Activate Virginia. The group is trying to get state legislators to pledge to accept no money from Dominion Power.

Merlene said: “I led on not taking contributions from Dominion. …We need to reform campaign finance laws. The fact that a public utility that we require people to use donates to our legislators is wrong.”

“A Dominion donation has never, ever, influenced my vote,” Favola said later in reply. “In the eight years I've been in the Senate, I've raised $1.4 million. Dominion's given me about 9,500 or 9,700. I'll do the math for you. It's slightly more than half of one percent. But, you know, it wouldn't matter how much it was. I've never looked at my donor sheet when I make a vote.”

Other topics discussed at the forum included protecting LGBTQ rights, project labor agreements, the closing of the Central Virginia Training Facility, and the popular vote compact.

Coming up

Favola and Merlene have further debates scheduled. They include May 1, 7 pm at Key Elementary School (2300 Key Boulevard) and May 5, 3:15 pm at the Arlington Central Library (free tickets necessary; get them here).

The deadline to register to vote in the June 11 primary is Monday, May 20. Virginia is an open primary state, so any registered voter with photo ID can vote in the primary, regardless of party affiliation.

Virginia State Senate District 31 covers parts of Arlington, Fairfax, and Loudoun counties. Each county will have both by-mail and in-person absentee voting. In-person absentee voting will begin on April 26 or 27, depending on the county. See information about absentee voting in Arlington here, in Fairfax here, and in Loudoun here.

The Merlene campaign live-streamed the forum on Facebook. You can watch the video here. See a post about this same candidate forum on Blue Virginia here.