The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Two Arlington lawmakers attacked by challengers over ethics

Virginia Sen. Barbara A. Favola and Del. Alfonso H. Lopez have been stalwarts of the Northern Virginia Democratic delegation since 2012, dependable liberal voices in a General Assembly controlled by Republicans.

Now, with Democrats hoping to take control of the legislature in November, Favola and Lopez find themselves being contested in the June 11 primary not on their liberal records but over questions of ethics and judgment — Favola for her work as a consultant and Lopez for his previous work with an immigration detention center.

They are among 10 Democrats facing primary opponents from the left flank of a party still energized in opposition to the election of Donald Trump. Neither Favola nor Lopez has been challenged by Democrats in their previous bids for reelection; so far, no Republicans have entered either race.

Activists who have grumbled about Favola and Lopez in the past few years have quieted during the campaign, leaving the challengers to mount their case against the far-better-funded incumbents mostly on their own.

Nicole Merlene, the 26-year-old community activist running for Senate, has attempted to tie Favola into what she describes as an “entire Richmond culture . . . that is beholden to special interests,” citing her outside job as a consultant and lobbyist.

In south Arlington, challenger Julius D. Spain Sr. says Lopez lacks “judgment, character and integrity” and has failed to advocate sufficiently for the needs of his non-Latino minority constituents.

“He’s been absent for people of color. I’m not talking Latino — I mean African American, Bangladeshis, all the other communities,” said Spain, 46, president of the Arlington chapter of the NAACP. “The diverse regulars say: ‘We haven’t seen the delegate. We don’t know what he’s doing.’ ”

Both incumbents dismiss their challengers’ attacks as, essentially, unfounded.

“I do not represent anybody but the constituents of the 31st Senate district,” said Favola, 63, who announced early this year that she would no longer take money from Dominion Energy. “I’ve never looked at my donation records before I’ve taken a vote.”

Lopez, 48, says he is in “every community” in his district “on an almost daily basis.”

Questions of influence

Senate District 31 stretches along the Potomac River from Arlington’s Pentagon City through Fairfax to Loudoun County’s Potomac Falls. Favola was elected to the seat after 14 years on the Arlington County Board.

She is known in Richmond for her work on health care, education, reproductive rights and gun safety bills. One of the more than 40 laws she has sponsored extended the age at which foster youths can continue to receive payments for housing and living expenses from 18 to 21.

Another, which passed this year, gave local governments more flexibility to negotiate with developers, a key issue in a region where the scarcity of affordable housing is the top need. But Merlene says the bill was not nearly rigorous enough.

Over the past eight years, Favola has raised $1.4 million, $10,500 of it from Dominion Energy, the state’s largest political donor. In December, after Dominion critics began arguing for lawmakers to turn down the utility’s contributions, she pledged to no longer accept the donations.

Favola’s consulting work, with clients including Marymount University and Virginia Hospital Center, also draws Merlene’s criticism. Her company’s website highlights Favola’s elected positions, Merlene notes, and Favola has appeared on behalf of clients before a handful of local organizations and planning boards in Northern Virginia. Favola said she does not lobby in Richmond or to any state entities.

“For someone to leverage their position in the legislature to retain private clients is wrong,” Merlene said. “Her response, that ‘you’re threatening my livelihood,’ is exactly the point.”

Until February, Merlene worked for a nonprofit trade association that supports the EB-5 visa program, which allows wealthy investors to obtain a green card. She left that job to focus on her campaign.

A renter who does not own a car, she says she wants to eliminate variable tolls for HOV-3 lanes on Interstate 66, protect renters’ rights, expand down-payment assistance for home buyers and decriminalize cannabis in the home.

She pledged not to take corporate donations and has the endorsement of Our Revolution Northern Virginia and the Progressive Virginia Project. Favola was endorsed by Emily’s List and the regional version of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

Merlene’s attacks on Favola got under the veteran lawmaker’s skin enough that she recently warned an audience not to be attracted by “a new flavor . . . that is tantalizing.” Local blogs called the statement sexist, and within days Favola publicly apologized.

Lopez's private work

The U.S.-born son of an undocumented Venezuelan immigrant, Lopez is the House minority whip and sponsor of the Virginia Affordable Housing Trust Fund. He has worked on a long list of liberal issues, including minimum wage, certification for small, women-owned and minority-owned businesses, and Medicaid expansion. He founded the Virginia Latino Caucus and the Virginia Environment and Renewable Energy Caucus.

Lopez voted against the state’s incentive agreement for Amazon’s new headquarters, saying he was worried about rising housing costs for existing residents. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

The delegate was criticized in 2017 by La ColectiVA for his work with the detention center in Farmville, Va. Lopez said in an interview that his legal-consulting firm was brought in during the Obama administration to help improve conditions at the facility. The contract ended just before Trump was elected.

La ColectiVA has moved on; its Facebook page now focuses on fighting Amazon’s arrival and on other issues. But Spain, 46, a Marine veteran and federal contractor, said he would like to know why Lopez “never came forth and talked” publicly about that work.

Spain accused Lopez of not taking a strong-enough stand against Gov. Ralph Northam (D) this winter after a racist photo in Northam’s yearbook surfaced and he acknowledged wearing blackface decades ago, dressing as Michael Jackson at a party.

Lopez, who called for Northam to resign, said there is little else a lawmaker can do under Virginia law.

Spain, whose policy positions closely match Lopez’s, has not questioned the incumbent lawmaker about either issue at any of the forums they have attended; in the interview, he said he may do so “in due time.”

After this article published online, Spain sent an email Monday to supporters charging that Lopez lacks “moral courage” and has failed to make a difference in the lives of the district’s residents.

Lopez said he has a strong record of defending immigrants and new Americans on the House floor and working for legal protections and in-state college tuition for them. “This is my family and my community,” he said.

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