Left to right: Karen Torrent, Dick Saslaw, Yasmine Taeb. Screen capture from the forum.

One of the more dynamic legislative races on the June 11 ballot in Northern Virginia is the Democratic primary in Senate District 35, covering Fairfax County, Falls Church, and a bit of Alexandria. Longtime incumbent and Senate Democratic Leader Dick Saslaw has drawn his first primary challenger in decades, human rights lawyer and Democratic activist Yasmine Taeb, and a later entrant, energy consultant Karen Torrent.

Last month, the League of Women Voters hosted a forum with all three candidates at George Mason High School. Dominion Energy loomed large at the forum, with both challengers repeatedly hitting Saslaw for the hundreds of thousands of dollars he has taken in contributions from Dominion, and claims that Saslaw has staunched the advance of renewable energy in the Commonwealth.

Saslaw, meanwhile, repeatedly defended his ties to and actions with respect to Dominion, and positioned himself as someone “getting things done” in Richmond rather than promulgating what he called “fashion statements.”

Housing Amazon workers

The question most relevant to GGWash readers concerned affordable housing, particularly in light of Amazon’s HQ2 coming to the area. Torrent said the region already has an affordability crisis, and offered a suggestion of converting excess office space in places like Tysons into housing to quickly address the problem.

Taeb — who was interviewed on a National Public Radio story that aired this morning about Muslim politicians — called housing “a human right” and noted that affordable housing is critical for maintaining diversity.

“One issue that would address this is by repealing the Dillon Rule, which would — again — provide localities with autonomy, with greater authority to do what's best for their communities,” Taeb said. “Free our communities, get rid of the Dillon Rule to free our localities, maximize their ability, be able to empower localities to increase revenue for affordable housing trust; and increase statewide funding for affordable housing.”

While the Dillon Rule is a federal precedent that can't be repealed by Virginia, the state could pass laws explicitly authorizing local governments to take certain actions, or — like Maryland — empower localities with tools to circumvent the Dillon Rule.

Saslaw countered that the Dillon Rule isn’t preventing municipalities from providing more housing. He also pointed out that the build-up of Amazon workforce will be gradual, and most of the new jobs will go to people already living in the region.

And let them have Dominion upon the earth

Dominion Energy factored into most of the questions asked, from those about campaign finance to ones about climate change and clean energy — as well as opening and closing statements.

Saslaw was clearly on the defensive about his ties to Dominion, though he didn’t shy away from the fight. He said that last year’s Senate Bill 966, an electric utility regulation bill that also included grid modernization and energy efficiency measures, is already making an impact. (Some Democratic legislators criticized the bill for being a “blank check to Dominion” and for being rushed through the process.) Saslaw said it will lead to more houses being powered by solar and wind, and funds energy conservation. He also said that when Dominion wanted to reduce funding for conservation in the bill, he called higher-ups at the utility and demanded they keep it.

Torrent, while also discussing changes to the energy incentive structure, also brought up transportation with respect to climate change. She said Virginia needs a comprehensive plan to “electrify” moving people – whether that’s through electric vehicles, buses, or other means – but that the state can’t just keep doing “one-offs” like a few wind turbines in the Atlantic.

Taeb, meanwhile, continued to slam Saslaw for his connections to Dominion and said we need more clean energy.

Out of touch vs. getting things done?

In her closing statement, Taeb cast Saslaw as someone whose longevity — he was first elected to the Virginia House in 1975 — has put him out of touch with the increasingly progressive district, and that his actions as a party leader are holding back more progressive legislation.

Saslaw asserted that he is in touch with the district, as demonstrated by his large reelection tallies in past elections. He noted that he uses his campaign coffers to help progressive candidates elsewhere in the state, even those candidates who have taken “no Dominion” pledges.

The depth of Saslaw's experience was clear, though it was also apparent that he hadn't faced a challenger in decades, such as when he repeatedly used phrases like “fashion statements.” Taeb didn't have many policy specifics beyond the Dominion attack. Torrent, being an energy consultant, was able to provide more specifics regarding Dominion.

The Greater Greater Washington Elections Committee will be reviewing questionnaire responses and making endorsements in Northern Virginia races soon.