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Challenge from the left: Moderate Democrats in Va. under fire from liberals

Karen Torrent, a candidate in the June 11, 2019 primary election in Sen. Richard L. Saslaw’s senate district.
Karen Torrent, a candidate in the June 11, 2019 primary election in Sen. Richard L. Saslaw’s senate district. (Karen Torrent campaign)
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Over four decades, Virginia Sen. Richard L. Saslaw — the dean of the Democrats in Richmond — has embodied what political insiders call the “Virginia Way,” forging bipartisan deals and casting a mostly friendly eye toward business.

That old-school approach is under attack by the party’s left wing headed into the 2019 elections, as energized liberals look to deepen their stand against President Trump and push for policies they see as more friendly to the environment, immigrants and women’s rights.

In what political analysts say is a growing rift among Democrats in Virginia and nationwide, Saslaw is among 10 incumbent lawmakers in the commonwealth facing challengers in the June 11 Democratic primary.

The candidacies of human rights attorney Yasmine Taeb, 39, and energy consultant Karen Torrent, 60, marks the first time Saslaw, the 79-year-old Senate minority leader, has had to compete in a primary election since he won his Fairfax County seat in 1979.

The odds favor him and most of the other incumbents, analysts say. But the challenges add further turmoil at a time when Democrats are trying to move past scandals over blackface photos and sexual assault allegations in Richmond and flip enough seats to take control of the General Assembly next year.

“The Democratic Party right now in Virginia and across the nation is feeling an incredible amount of anger,” said Jeremy D. Mayer, a political scientist at George Mason University who compared the situation to the tea party uprising in the Republican Party in 2009. “There are a lot of younger Democrats who don’t want to make deals with Republicans. They want to make change.”

In Northern Virginia, Sen. Barbara A. Favola (D-Arlington), Del. Kaye Kory (D-Fairfax) and Del. Alfonso H. Lopez (D-Arlington) also face challenges from more left-leaning candidates, who have criticized Favola and Kory for taking donations from Dominion Energy and Lopez for past consulting work for a private company that operates detention facilities for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Kory said Friday on WAMU’s Kojo Nnamdi show that she will no longer accept Dominion money.

Newly elected progressive Sen. Jennifer B. Boysko (D-Fairfax), longtime liberal Del. Vivian E. Watts (D-Fairfax) and self-proclaimed socialist Del. Lee J. Carter (D-Manassas), meanwhile, are in primary races against more moderate candidates.

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For those looking to move the party further to the left, Saslaw, the Democrats’ chief fundraiser, is a prime target.

His opponents say he is too closely linked to Dominion, the powerful utility company whose Atlantic Coast natural gas pipeline project has drawn intense opposition from environmental groups.

Since 2015, Dominion has donated $110,000 to Saslaw’s campaign fund, more than any other elected official, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. Overall, Saslaw raised $2.1 million since 2015, mostly from business groups, a war chest that he largely has allocated to members of the Senate Democratic Caucus.

Taeb and Torrent are among about 60 Democratic lawmakers and candidates who have promised not to take donations from the utility. They argue that the Dominion money played a role in Saslaw’s support for a controversial 2015 law that allowed the utility to pocket several hundred million dollars in excess charges by freezing rates for five years.

The law, which also benefited the Appalachian Power company, was meant to allow utilities breathing room to comply with the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, an effort to reduce carbon emissions that was dumped by the Trump administration in 2017.

After that happened, Saslaw co-sponsored a 2018 law spearheaded by Dominion that allows the utilities to use the excess profits for new projects instead of returning the money to ratepayers, which they were previously mandated to do.

“When you are regulating a monopoly and, at the same time, taking money from that monopoly, that to me is an inherent conflict of interest,” said Torrent, a former Justice Department environmental prosecutor who, as a private citizen, unsuccessfully sued to overturn the 2015 rate-freeze law.

Like Taeb, Torrent wants the state to bar corporations from contributing to political campaigns.

Taeb, a senior attorney at the Center for Victims of Torture, called Saslaw a relic of the “good ol’ boys’ club” mentality in Virginia politics that, she said, needs cleansing. She criticized Saslaw for initially defending Gov. Ralph Northam (D) after the revelation that Northam’s medical school yearbook page included a photo of a person in a Ku Klux Klan robe and another in blackface. Although the senator later joined other Democrats in calling for Northam to resign, he first said the governor “should be judged by who he is today.”

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Taeb said the comment revealed how out of touch Saslaw has become in his increasingly diverse 35th Senate District, which includes Falls Church, portions of Alexandria and Springfield.

“If you can’t understand right away how that picture was so hurtful, so painful, so racist — that’s poor judgment,” said Taeb, who as a child immigrated to the United States with her family from Iran and serves as a Democratic National Committee delegate for Virginia.

In an interview, Saslaw defended his reaction, saying Taeb “wants to put [Northam] against a firing squad; I don’t.”

He called the suggestion that he is swayed by campaign contributions an old political smear that is without merit.

“Give me a break,” Saslaw said, noting that the 2018 revised rate-freeze law he co-sponsored with Republican Sen. Frank W. Wagner (Virginia Beach) also requires Dominion to invest heavily in solar energy. “I’ve been hearing this for 40 years.”

Characteristically blunt, the senator ridiculed the idea of refusing donations from Dominion and dismissed the idea of a rift in the party as “a pimple on the ass of the elephant.” With Democrats just two seats away from regaining control of the Senate, he said, “I’m not about to unilaterally disarm my party when it comes to raising money.”

“The Republican senators and caucus, over the past eight years, have gotten almost $1 million from Dominion,” Saslaw added. “And now I’m supposed to say: ‘From now on, we just won’t take any’? We’d be back down to 14 senators again.”

Partly for that reason, Saslaw’s allies have worked to quash the primary challenges.

Sen. Janet D. Howell (Fairfax), another veteran Democrat, said she approached Taeb last fall to express concern that a DNC delegate was opposing a party leader, an exchange Taeb confirmed.

“The role that you’re supposed to have on the DNC is supporting our Democratic incumbents and candidates,” Howell said, recalling how she warned Taeb that she was breaking protocol. “I felt betrayed. I endorsed her for the DNC, and then she came out against my minority leader.”

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Like other Saslaw defenders, Howell highlighted his history of fighting for core party principles, such as education funding, reproductive rights and, since the late 1970s, a state law to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.

Those lawmakers credited Saslaw for pushing through last year’s Medicaid expansion law that benefited an estimated 400,000 low-income Virginians, calling the minority leader a master negotiator who also engineered $25 million in state funding for Alexandria’s aging sewer lines.

But those accomplishments have not dissuaded some liberal advocates from supporting the primary challengers.

Clean Virginia, an environmental group funded by wealthy investor Michael D. Bills, plans to donate money to candidates who commit to not taking contributions from Dominion, Appalachian Power or any of their affiliates.

Most of the $70,000 Taeb reported raising by early January came from Sonjia Smith, Bills’s wife, who donated $50,000. Saslaw, in contrast, has $1.4 million in his coffers, while Torrent, who entered the race late last month, has yet to raise money.

“When I think about Virginia politics, I don’t think about principles and ideology, I think about raw political power,” said Josh Stanfield, director of Activate Virginia, another group that has been working to get lawmakers to stop accepting corporate donations. “I would be shocked if Dick Saslaw ever lifted a finger to push through campaign finance reform. The primary source of his power is corporate cash.”

Such messages are more likely to resonate during primary election battles, which tend to draw the most passionate voters and leave room for surprises, political analysts say.

Quentin Kidd, director of Christopher Newport University’s Wason Center for Public Policy in Newport News, said Saslaw must energize supporters this spring for the first time in years.

“Having to run a primary for him is like having to start a car that hasn’t been running in a decade,” Kidd said, noting that then-Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) was similarly out of practice when he lost the 2018 primary to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who now represents the district.

“Northern Virginia is where a lot of that progressive energy is right now, in enough volume to actually shape an election,” Kidd said.

Saslaw insisted he’s not underestimating his opponents.

“I’m taking nothing for granted,” he said, drumming his hands on the table of a McDonald’s restaurant just before heading out to ask voters for their support. “I’m out seven days a week knocking on doors. This is not the same situation as in New York, by a long shot.”

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