A special election on Tuesday to fill a vacant seat in the Virginia House of Delegates could be the first sign of how much the scandals in Richmond have hurt Democrats.
In an increasingly blue district where Gov. Ralph S. Northam, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark R. Herring carried nearly 70 percent of the vote in 2017, Democrat Ibraheem Samirah, a 27-year-old dentist, entered the election as a heavy favorite.
But that was before Northam, Herring and Fairfax — all Democrats — became embroiled in allegations of racial or sexual misconduct, and before the same right-leaning website that broke the news of those scandals aired old social media posts by Samirah that are critical of Israel.
Now, Republican Gregg Nelson, 63, is calling attention to Samirah’s online comments, and trying to link him to the political chaos in Richmond, writing on his own Facebook page: “Racism has no place in our Commonwealth. Especially from individuals in office or seeking office.”
The delegate’s seat, in a district located mostly in northwestern Fairfax County, became vacant last month, when Democrat Jennifer Boysko was elected to the state Senate to succeed newly sworn-in Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.). Republicans hold a slim majority in the House of Delegates, and Democrats are vying to win control of the chamber this November, when every seat will be on the ballot.
“No doubt about it, the prospects of the Democratic Party in the House and Senate had better odds two weeks ago,” said Stephen J. Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg. “This special election will give us a sense of how much damage has been done to the Democratic brand.”
Samirah, who is Palestinian American, would be the second Muslim elected to Virginia’s General Assembly, joining Del. Sam Rasoul (D-Roanoke). A resident of Herndon, Samirah has campaigned on expanding affordable health care and public transportation, protecting the environment and pushing for universal prekindergarten.
He has raised $89,000 for his campaign, including a $36,000 loan to himself, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. Nelson, a retired Air Force sergeant from Herndon who wants to lower state taxes and boost vocational training in schools, raised $20,300. Also on the ballot is Connie Hutchinson, 64, a former Herndon Town Council member who is running as an independent and says she would be a bridge builder in the legislature. She has raised $2,800.
While in dental school in 2014, Samirah posted on his Facebook page an angry letter by musician Brian Eno about Palestinian civilian deaths caused by Israeli missile strikes in Gaza. The letter said funding Israel is like supporting the Ku Klux Klan.
“I’d say worse, but I’ll go along with Eno on this one,” Samirah wrote above it.
In a different post, after the death of Ariel Sharon in 2014, Samirah wrote that the former Israeli prime minister should “burn a million times for every innocent soul you killed. Hell is excited to have you.” He wrote that he wished the same for “our beloved Arab ‘leaders’ (butchers I should say).”
Samirah apologized for the comments after they were the subject of a story on the Big League Politics website, which days earlier had revealed a racist photo on Northam’s medical school yearbook page and a sexual assault allegation against Fairfax.
“I am so sorry that my ill-chosen words added to the pain of the Jewish community, and I seek your understanding and compassion as I prove to you our common humanity,” Samirah said in a statement. He also said his words were taken out of context as part of “a slander campaign.”
Republicans say Samirah’s posts were anti-Semitic and have likened them to recent comments by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), who insinuated that American support for Israel is fueled by Jewish money and later apologized for what many saw as an anti-Semitic trope.
“It is alarming how many times we have had to reiterate that racism and bigotry have no home in Virginia,” state Republican Party Chairman Jack Wilson said in a statement.
Jack Moline, a rabbi who heads the Interfaith Alliance group in Washington, called Samirah’s comments “terrible.” But he stopped short of calling Samirah anti-Semitic.
“I take him at his word that he regrets what he did and that he has evolved past those attitudes,” said Moline, whose group works to combat religious discrimination.
The National Republican Congressional Committee has demanded that Wexton withdraw her support for Samirah, while the state GOP said House Minority Leader Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) should do the same. Neither of those officials responded to messages seeking comment.
Kathryn Gilley, a spokeswoman for the House Democratic Caucus, said no Democrats have stopped backing Samirah, although Boysko called his comments “inappropriate.”
“I don’t think anyone here is speaking in defense of his comments,” Gilley said. “We haven’t really been able to suss through this, given the nature of this session. He was chosen in the primary process by Democrats in the 86th District, so we’ll see what happens on Tuesday and go from there.”
Boysko, who had her earlier endorsement of Samirah taken down from his Facebook campaign page, said she still plans to vote for him and is hoping that he will “learn and grow.”
Samirah — who as an undergraduate at American University co-founded a chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, a group that advocates for an end to Israeli occupation of the West Bank — said his anger over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Gaza clouded his judgment in making the posts.
“But that doesn’t mean I’m anti-Semitic,” he said. “As somebody who wants to lead people of all backgrounds going forward, I understand that those emotions in public do not foster goodwill between all people.”
Nelson noted that Northam and Herring are being criticized for blackface worn decades ago, while Samirah posted his comments in 2014.
“It’s a little different than 35 years ago,” Nelson said. “I’ve got to believe it was coming from his heart.”