RICHMOND — A human rights lawyer hoping to pull the Virginia Senate to the left announced Thursday that she will challenge the chamber’s Democratic leader, Sen. Richard L. Saslaw, in a primary next year.
Yasmine Taeb said she would swear off corporate campaign cash, push for a $15-an-hour minimum wage and oppose the death penalty as she tries to oust Saslaw, a veteran legislator from Fairfax who is firmly in his party’s establishment camp.
“There’s a real possibility that (Democrats) are going to be in the majority in 2020, and I want us to be able to champion a progressive agenda in the General Assembly and Virginians deserve that,” Taeb, 38, said in an interview.
Democrats are hoping for a blue wave next year like the one that nearly wiped out the GOP’s 2-to-1 majority in the House in 2017. The Senate was not up for election then, but all 140 seats in the House and Senate will be on the ballot in 2019. Republicans control both chambers by just two seats.
Saslaw, 78, supports the death penalty and is among the chief recipients of campaign cash from Dominion Energy, the state’s largest utility. But he pushed back on the notion that he does not reflect his party’s progressive wing when it comes to abortion rights, gun control, education and civil rights. He said he would support a $15 minimum wage if it is phased in. And he noted that Gov. Ralph Northam (D) credited him with helping to get Medicaid expansion through the Senate this year, expanding access to government health insurance for up to 400,000 Virginians.
“She makes these wild claims without any supporting facts, how I’m the most conservative Democrat,” he said. “I’ve run in the past, I’ve been supported by all of these groups — Planned Parenthood, NARAL, Everytown for Gun Safety, Virginia Education Association — I could go on and on with the Democratic-leaning groups that have always supported me. My civil rights voting record is impeccable. . . . I don’t think my colleagues would have been choosing me to be the Democratic leader if I was the person she described.”
Saslaw noted that Taeb had moved only recently to the district, which includes parts of Alexandria, Fairfax County and all of Falls Church.
“I welcome her moving into the 35th District and would be glad to show her around,” he said.
Taeb, who works as an advocate for refugees and asylum seekers at the Center for Victims of Torture, said she moved to Falls Church within the past year to be closer to the immigrant communities with whom she works. But she said she has been active in the community for many years and has lived in Northern Virginia for more than a decade.
She serves as Virginia’s Democratic national committeewoman, a statewide post she won in 2016 . In 2014, she ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for the House seat now held by Del. Richard C. “Rip” Sullivan Jr. (D-Fairfax).
Taeb announced her candidacy with a video in which she recounts her family’s escape from Iran when she was 6. She said they came to the United States illegally by way of Mexico, dashing through a hole in a border fence.
Her announcement was first reported by HuffPost.
“Some elected officials are more interested in siding with powerful corporations than the people they represent,” she says in the video. “The old ‘Virginia Way’ of pay-to-play politics is failing countless working families.”
Taeb said she planned to make an issue of Saslaw’s “incredibly close ties” to Dominion. The utility has donated about $350,000 to Saslaw over the past 20 years, according to the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project. She said she would oppose Dominion’s plans to build a natural gas pipeline in the state.
Saslaw noted that the legislature does not have a say in whether the pipeline gets built, but said he has supported a “stream-by-stream review” of the project. He also rejected the idea that citizens are hurt by the legislature’s support for Dominion, noting the utility charges the lowest rates in the region.
Saslaw said he is a top recipient of money from lots of groups — corporate and otherwise — simply because he is the Democrats’ Senate leader, who is expected to share those donations with members of the caucus.