At last month’s Memorial Day parade in Falls Church, Va., volunteers for Virginia Senate candidate Yasmine Taeb easily outnumbered those chanting for Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw, the veteran lawmaker she aims to unseat in Tuesday’s Democratic primary.
Some of Taeb’s backers were from the Northern Virginia legislative district Saslaw has represented for 40 years. Others were from Washington, or from as far away as Baltimore. They shared Taeb’s contention that the Democratic Party should move sharply left, embracing universal health insurance and free public transit and abolishing the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
Saslaw has a huge financial advantage over Taeb and another Democrat, Karen Torrent, and is spending some of the $1.9 million he has on a stream of television commercials, online ads and mailers.
But Taeb is stirring energy in the Fairfax-area district and beyond and hopes to pull off an upset akin to U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s primary defeat of incumbent Joseph Crowley in 2018 in New York. Tuesday’s contest is expected to draw a low turnout.
The race, Saslaw’s first contested primary since 1979, will help set the tone for Democrats as they try to seize control of the General Assembly in November.
“In any primary, you need consistent prodding to get people to the polls,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg. “When you have a lot of energetic volunteers knocking on doors, money may not be as decisive.”
After initially refraining from publicly criticizing either of his opponents, Saslaw attacked Taeb this week for stances including writing in an endorsement questionnaire in February that she supported taking weaponry from local police departments.
Saslaw, 79, argued that such a move would have led to more deaths in last week’s mass shooting in Virginia Beach, where local police confronted and killed the gunman.
“Imagine how many more lives could have been lost if they had to go back to their headquarters to get a gun,” he said in a emailed statement. “I want our police departments armed so that they can better protect citizens.”
Taeb, 39, said Saslaw mischaracterized her answer in the questionnaire from the regional chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, a group that helped elect Ocasio-Cortez, Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and other Democrats last year.
She responded “yes” to a question that asked whether police should be “disarmed.” But her answer focused on the use of excessive force.
Police “should not be acting as an occupying force that too often resorts to violence, especially in communities of color,” wrote Taeb, an Iranian American human rights attorney who arrived in the United States as a refugee 32 years ago. “As such, the police should be demilitarized and reoriented where applicable towards a more community-oriented partnership with the neighborhoods wherein they work.”
“I’m not talking about taking guns away from our police officers,” Taeb said in an interview. “I’m talking about weapons of war and tanks being used against our citizens.”
Saslaw has the backing of most of the area’s elected Democrats, labor unions and national groups including the NARAL abortion rights organization and the gun-control PAC co-founded by former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.)
But Taeb has been endorsed by the Democratic Socialists, Run for Something and a host of other liberal organizations, raising $178,000 since last July and drawing scores of supporters at public events. Torrent, 60, has raised just $2,840 and appears to be less of a factor in the race.
Sasi Yajamanyam, 42, an immigrant from India who approached Taeb at a booth her campaign set up outside the parade, said, “She looks and represents more of what the district is today. . . . It’s important to have people who look like us.”
Others said they agreed with Taeb’s characterization of Saslaw as beholden to politically influential Dominion Energy, which has donated $77,500 to his campaign fund since 2016 but nothing so far this year, according to the nonprofit Virginia Public Access Project.
“If he takes money from corporations, that has to be an influence,” said Franklin Wood, 67, who described himself as a reliable Democratic voter who never gave Saslaw much thought while supporting him in previous elections.
In contrast, Taeb’s candidacy excited him, he said: “It seems like she’s more concerned with doing what’s right by people rather than the corporations.”
Such claims have Saslaw working hard to turn out voters who like his long record in Richmond, which last year included ushering through the passage of a law that expanded eligibility for state-funded Medicaid insurance to an additional 400,000 low-income Virginians.
This week, Saslaw said he plans to push hard for stricter gun-control laws when Gov. Ralph Northam (D) convenes a special session of the legislature this month.
“Now is the time to act,” said Saslaw, who is in line to become Senate majority leader if Democrats pick up the two seats they need to flip the chamber. “Lives are depending on it.”
The senator says raising money from corporate groups and other large donors is part of his job as a party leader, noting that he distributes those funds to help other Democratic senators. The argument resonates with party activists.
“We need someone like Dick to help raise money and help get Democrats in the majority,” said Tom Johnson, 62, a member of the Fairfax County Democratic Party committee who also was at the Falls Church parade.
“To see people support someone with no credentials, it just disappoints me,” Johnson said of Taeb.
Saslaw says he is confident that he’ll win but is taking nothing for granted.
He is criticizing Taeb’s support for abolishing and replacing ICE, and for advocating for a single-payer health-care system — an idea supported in various versions by several Democratic presidential candidates.
“It’s foolish to think that private insurance organizations are going to disappear,” Saslaw said.
Taeb says the federal immigration and health-care systems need to be revamped, but she added that a state senator would have no control over such reforms.
“I’m not running for federal office,” said Taeb, whose campaign positions include favoring more local control over gun laws and opposing Dominion’s proposal to build a 600-mile natural gas pipeline through the state.
In the endorsement questionnaire, Taeb indicated that she supports making some forms of sex work legal. But she told The Washington Post that she is mostly concerned about protecting victims of human trafficking from being charged with prostitution. She also said in the questionnaire that she supports raising taxes for wealthy Virginians and eliminating corporate tax breaks to cover the cost of public transit.
Last week, Saslaw was out seeking votes in Falls Church, the skin on his knuckles worn down from what he says have been hours of knocking on doors. Some residents recognized him right away; others offered noncommittal smiles.
Fotios Kokkoros, 79, said he has not been interested in the race and is unlikely to cast a ballot. “My wife probably will,” he offered.
“Come on, I could use your help. You know that,” a smiling Saslaw told him before marching over to the next house.
This story has been updated since its initial publication to include Taeb’s positions on sex workers and free public transit.