Young, Determined, Empowered: These Democratic Women in Northern Virginia Want To Change Up the Virginia General Assembly

“People will tell me, ‘You’re like the AOC of NOVA,'” said Johanna Gusman, a Democrat running for the 87th district in the House of Delegates

Johanna Gusman (on left) and Nicole Merlene at the Arlington Branch NAACP 2019 Candidate’s Forum on May 29. (Courtesy photo)

Northern Virginia – It’s the age of the female politician in Virginia, and a batch of young progressive Northern Virginia candidates are looking to upset the applecart in Richmond. They’ve shaken thousands of hands, handed out campaign literature at Metro stations and doors, participated in enough forums and debates to make your head spin, and now it all boils down to June 11 – primary day across the Commonwealth. Will there be an upset?

Yasmine Taeb canvassing in the 35th Senate District. (Facebook photo)

“This is the most liberal Democratic district in the entire state of Virginia,” said Yasmine Taeb from the office of her apartment building in Falls Church. “It’s also one of the most diverse. Over 60 percent are non-white, more than 40 percent are foreign born, and yet it’s been represented by the same person and it’s the first time he’s been challenged since 1979. This is someone, in my opinion and in the opinion of thousands of voters that we’ve talked to since last year, whose values are far to the right of the progressive values of our voters.”  

Taeb launched her campaign against Senate Minority Leader Dick Saslaw (D-35) last fall, and it’s the first time his seat has been challenged from within. The 39-year-old Democratic Socialist announced her candidacy after moving from Arlington to the district, which includes Falls Church, parts of Fairfax County, and the City of Alexandria. By the end of her campaign she and her team will have knocked on 30,000 doors in a grassroots effort that has not allowed political contributions from corporate political action committees or Dominion Energy, which is one of her main sticking points against Saslaw, who has accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars from Dominion over the last 40 years.  

“We want to ensure that our leaders in Richmond are more reflective of the Commonwealth, and that means making sure that more young people are running for office, more women are running for office, more working people have the opportunity to run for office, and none of this is going to be possible unless we make this process more fair, open and transparent,” said Taeb, who left her job as senior policy counsel for the Center for Victims of Torture to run full-time. “That’s why we support getting corporate money out of politics. That’s why our campaign is not taking a single contribution from corporate PACs, because I want to ensure that people that look more like me and my staff have the opportunity to run for office.”

Saslaw, who has been the Democratic leader of the senate since 1998, has said publicly that this would be his last term. He says that his ultimate ambition is to become Senate Majority Leader this fall – should the Democrats regain power. Instead of sailing through November as usual, though, he’s had to go back to knocking on doors, attending candidate forums, defending his record, and focusing on keeping his seat in an era where women are shaking things up. He is hoping that since his race is split between Taeb and opponent Karen Torrent that their chances will be weaker against him at the polls on Tuesday. After all, primaries are legendary for their low turnout, he’s got $727,000 in the bank as of May 30, and decades of experience in public office.

But money isn’t everything. The Blue Wave that swept across the Commonwealth in 2017 resulted in Democrats taking 15 seats in the House of Delegates, 11 of which were by women. One of those winners was Del. Jennifer Carrol Foy of the 2nd House district (Prince William), who was motivated to run in early 2017 after the General Assembly passed the “Day of Tears” resolution encouraging Virginians to fly their flags at half staff recognizing the anniversary of Roe Vs. Wade. Foy, who was also one of the first African Americans to graduate from Virginia Military Institute, won her election by just 10 votes, and has since launched a political action committee – signaling a possible intent to run for statewide office.

“My opponent outraised me four-to-one, had all the major endorsements, and, just to make it interesting, I was pregnant with twins,” Foy said at the 2019 Blue Alexandria Dinner on June 6. “People told me I was a joke, that I would never win, that they had their candidate.” 

In Arlington, Nicole Merlene has been working 18 hours a day since announcing a primary campaign against State Sen. Barbara Favola for Virginia’s 31st Senate district. The 26-year-old policy director for Invest In The USA spends her early mornings handing out campaign literature outside metro stations, her afternoons and evenings knocking on doors, and attending fundraisers and official candidate events. Merlene has exhausted nearly all of her $52,000 war chest on campaign literature, signs, and online marketing, and says that Favola underestimates her. The avid long distance runner is an advocate for renters rights, transit options (she doesn’t own a car) and has been extremely critical of the 63-year-old Favola, who she repeatedly calls out for conflicts of interest and for receiving $10,500 in donations from Dominion. She’s also calling for the resignation of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam and Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax after a string of scandals earlier this year that gained national attention, and, like Taeb, criticizes her opponent’s stance on the issue.

“I think that Richmond culture generally has had a problem with money in politics, and in the Northern Virginia region where there is so much money it’s become the pervasive obstacle from us getting work done for our community, and instead of the people being represented we’re represented by major donors and private interests,” Merlene said. “We have knocked on over 23,000 doors. This district is a massive urban area, and those aren’t easily accessible doors, either. But by virtue of the fact that I am young, I have a lot of volunteers, and I’ve been able to contact voters in rental units and condo buildings and we’ve found it to be very, very effective for talking to voters.”

In Sterling, Johanna Gusman is the lone woman in a four person primary for the open 87th district seat. Gusman and her opponents,  Suhas Subramanyam, Hassan Ahmad, and Akshay Bhamidipati are all first-generation Americans. By day, the 35-year-old is a legal advisor at Georgetown University Law Center, and after work dons her jean jacket full of progressive buttons and knocks on doors and attends forums and other meet-and-greets. Gusman’s campaign has been dominated by the issues she wears not only on her sleeves, but all over her jacket – a symbol for her down-to-earth campaign, which she pledges to wear on the day she’s sworn in. Win or lose, right after the primary she has to travel to Beirut, Lebanon, to help write food law with the World Health Organization and a number of neighboring countries, including Syria.

“To me, campaigning and running for office is activism,” Gusman said at her campaign kickoff in April – about two months before the day of the primary. “You can tweet, you can even get arrested at the Kavanaugh hearings, but to dedicate every extra hour of your life to convincing others that you can get elected and make the change that you are proposing is next level. And I feel like I haven’t known true activism to this level until I got on this ballot in the 87th district.”

Gusman’s jacket nearly says it all. There’s buttons for the Green New Deal, Black Lives Matter, Moms Demand Action and more. She’s a staunch defender of women’s reproductive rights, universal health care, equal pay for women, closing Virginia’s gunshow loophole, and refuses to take contributions from utility companies like Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power. And yes, she was arrested in the district last year for protesting the confirmation of now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. She’s also won the endorsement of Blue Virginia, along with Merlene, and also received the endorsement of EMILY’s List.

“People will tell me, ‘You’re like the AOC [U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez] of NOVA,’” Gusman said. “And I wouldn’t necessarily even put that together because to me, she’s like a hero, right? Like, she is who I hope to embody. The narrative that she is bringing to the Congress, the things that she says, speaking truth to power, making sure that people deal with issues that otherwise have been accepted. I think it is so powerful from how she was able to get on the ticket to win that primary to unseat an incumbent, and then to be as powerful a voice like that is precisely what America needs. Somebody who brings a fresh perspective, somebody who calls people out and gets real about politics and the system upon which people are represented at high levels of power.”

Seizing A Golden Opportunity

“I think that these women are feeling empowered,” said Julie Jakopic, chair of Virginia’s List, a nonprofit dedicated to endorsing and financially supporting female candidates. “I think a lot of people woke up in a different way after the 2016 presidential election, and found that it brought opportunities. There’s less fear, and they’re seeing other women succeed at this. It’s not a pipe dream any longer and they have role models to look up to.”

Virginia’s List endorsed Gusman, did not endorse either candidate in the Favola-Merlene races (both candidates are women), and Taeb did not fill out a candidate questionnaire and was ineligible for an endorsement. The organization has given nearly $67,000 to Democratic women candidates, more than $11,000 in this cycle.    

Alexandria Vice Mayor Elizabeth Bennett-Parker is a relative political newcomer, and was also inspired by last year’s Blue Wave. She launched her campaign for the Alexandria City Council in late February 2018, just four months before the June primary. Before she knew it, Bennett-Parker, the nonprofit leader of the Together We Bake program, which is dedicated to providing comprehensive workforce training and personal development for women in need, found herself in the second-most powerful elected position in the city. The other women elected to council were longtime incumbent Councilor Del Pepper and lifelong Alexandrian Amy Jackson.

“I was surprised by the outcome. We certainly felt good about my chances of making it in the top six. We didn’t expect that I would come in first,” Bennett-Parker said, adding that the 2016 presidential election was a motivating factor in her decision to run for office. “I had not thought about running for political office before then. … I went though a training program for women interested in running for office. Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger was one of the women in the 2017 class of Emerge Virginia. I partly ran because of that program, but I was also inspired by women I knew who were running for public office. There was only so much I could do for the community from a local nonprofit level.” 

Clarence Tong, chair of the Alexandria Democratic Committee, said that the outcome of the 2017 elections in Virginia was conducted largely by political newcomers, by many candidates who were not previously part of the Democratic Party structure.

“Having great candidates matters,” Tong said. “When President Obama in 2017 asked people to pick up a clipboard and get involved, they did.”

Kyle Kondik, the editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, the University of Virginia Center for Politics newsletter, said that the winds began to change in Virginia when former U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-7th) lost his primary to economics professor David Bratt in 2014.

“You need to get people excited, to get people to show up who have not participated in the past,”  Kondik said. “The people who show up to the primaries, it may be that those voters are the ones who are more engaged, more likely to be party regulars and support the incumbent, but if you’re a challenger and mobilize support you can catch an incumbent napping – like Joe Crowley, (the former chair of the House Democratic Caucus, who lost to Ocasio Cortez). That doesn’t mean they can’t win, but victories like Bratt and AOC are more exceptions than rules.”

The Final Countdown

Saslaw said he feels confident as the days get closer to June 11. The 79-year-old has been in office more than half of his life, was majority leader from 2008 to 2012 and has defended Gov. Ralph Northam in the wake of controversies that shook the state to its core. Since 1998, he has also received more than $350,000 from his top donor – Dominion Energy. He’s not ashamed of it, though, and said he’s never been influenced by the utility company. He also said that he’s shared the wealth by donating funds to Democratic races across Virginia.

“If you’re the Senate or House Democratic leader, you attract the money. If it wasn’t me it would be somebody else,” Saslaw said. “If anybody thinks money influences my vote, they might want to go talk to Verizon. In the last session, Dominion was opposed to the Solar Freedom Bill. I voted for it. Anybody who thinks that money buys my vote doesn’t know anything about my financial situation. But I can assure you that’s not the case, I get more money from people in the beer and wine wholesale industry than I do Dominion and they’re as heavily regulated by the state as Dominion is.”

Saslaw and his team will have knocked on about 7,500 targeted doors by June 11.

“I love knocking on doors, because everybody knows me, and I mean just about everybody. Most of them recognize me the a second they open the door, and I get a just a ton of positive feedback every night. I think we’re going to be all right,” Saslaw said. “This will probably be it [his last term] and I hope to get in position a successor and get the party caucus in a position where if we had a Democrat in the White House as unpopular is this guy [Trump] is we can set the state in the right direction, and set up a party infrastructure that can function under such a set of circumstances and survive that.”

There is no love lost between Saslaw and Taeb.

“She has virtually no support. I don’t have to tell you that among any elected officials in Virginia,” Saslaw said. “And she apparently doesn’t seem to have much support anywhere else. She changes her campaign managers like most people change stocks.”

Taeb, who left her job as the senior policy counsel for the Center for Victims of Torture to run full time, said that Saslaw has a bad environmental record, has been an obstacle to campaign finance reform and does not support the Green New Deal.

He, as we know, is a top recipient of Dominion money,” Taeb said. “We need to break Dominion’s grip on the state legislature, making sure that they’re not able to make any contributions to any candidates. He has openly said that he opposes repealing Virginia’s anti-union right to work law… He’s also said that he doesn’t support a version of the Green New Deal in Virginia. And when we’re talking about us fighting and combating climate change, we’re talking about what we need to do in order for Virginia to transition completely from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy, and he’s someone who’s taken hundreds of thousands of dollars from the fossil fuel industry and who doesn’t see a problem with that… We’re in this race because it’s the best opportunity we’ve had to become a Democratic majority. And I want us to fight for a more progressive, inclusive Commonwealth.”

Favola served on the Arlington County Board from 1997 to 2011, and was board chair three times during that period. Like Saslaw, it seems one of her tactics has been to minimize her opponent, who has served in leadership roles with the Arlington County Civic Federation, the Arlington Young Democrats, and the Arlington County Economic Development Commission.

“I think she’s very ambitious, and she wants to run for some office. I’m not sure the Senate is the office she necessarily wants to wants to hold,” Favola said. “But a lot of the issues she talks about are really issues that the local government addresses. So, it’s been a interesting kind of conversation because I served on the Arlington County Board for 14 years and chaired the body three times. I’m well aware of what local government does and what the state role is. And, you know, things she’s talking about [like transportation funding], are things that the Arlington County Board has a lot of authority over.”

The campaign took a dark turn in April, when Favola said in a forum that Merlene was a “tantalizing” candidate, and a “new flavor that you can look at.” She later publicly apologized to Merlene.   

“The most disheartening thing was that the most sexist moment in the campaign came from another woman,” Merlene said. “It was unfortunate that we had to come to something like this, especially from a woman, but I accepted her apology. And hopefully we can move on from this, but it’s especially distressing from somebody who’s in authority and who’s been a legislator for so long.”

Favola’s website for Pathways to the 21st Century, before it was taken down.

Merlene said that Favola has double-dipped with her personal business lobbying with Richmond and has been ineffective in getting legislation passed over the last eight years. Favola’s website for her personal consulting business is also down, which she said is not due to impropriety, but because she is extremely busy. Merlene said that Favola’s business, which represents Marymount University and Virginia Hospital Center, has created conflicts of interest that have rewarded her clients.

“If you look at what her website said, the purpose and goal of her consulting organization is to work with government on various levels to get regulatory and legislative remedies, which are both tied to the state of Virginia’s policy and governing bodies,” Merlene said. “There is no question that she is a lobbyist.”

Favola said she took down her website because it is unnecessary and she is too busy to manage it. 

“We’re really busy right now. I don’t know if I’ll ever put it back up. Most of my business is through referrals, so I’m not sure I’m ever gonna put it back up. I’m not sure. We haven’t made a decision,” Favola said. “I’ve never been a registered lobbyist, so that is incorrect information. I mean, she hasn’t had a strong message or been able to articulate why voters should not reelect me. So, she’s sort of been grappling at straws.”

Favola’s website for Pathways to the 21st Century, before it was taken down.

Should the Democrats retake the majority in the Senate, Favola said she would focus on gun safety, codifying Roe Vs. Wade, and getting a dedicated source for Metro funding.

“I would like to actually get in a new funding source for our Metro system. Right now we’re still diverting a little bit of money from the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority,” Favola said.  “I’d like to bring in new dollars. There are ways we can do that that would not be burdensome, by as you know, Del. [Tim] Hugo (R-40), and others voted against an increase in any kind of tax… even though the increase would yield tremendous amount of benefits for the Commonwealth. So, those are the kinds of things I want to continue to work on. And climate change. The Republicans have taken budget language to remove the state from participating in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. That prohibition has got to come out. We need to start dealing with carbon reduction. This is something that’s important. It’s a quality of life issue, it’s our future.”

Merlene said the race has changed her perception of the region.

“My district is so diverse. You have Columbia Pike, you have McLean, you have Sterling, you have the metro quarter of Arlington. And every single one of those areas has a very different culture,” Merlene said. “It’s opened my eyes. But it also has taught me that we’re all much more similar than we give ourselves credit. I think at the end of the day, what it’s also taught me is that everyone that I talked to believes that government can be an agent for good change, and they’re hopeful for the future. And that has been a consistent theme, no matter where I am in the district and it just gives me so much hope.”

Back in the 87th district, Gusman knows that if she wins on June 11, it will only be a temporary reprieve. The Democratic winner will face Republican William Drennan, Jr. in the fall. However, that’s not the case in the Saslaw-Taeb and Favola-Merlene races, where winning the primary in such heavily Democratic districts is tantamount to a general election win.    

“Proximity to wealth does not determine someone’s electability,” Gusman said. “No amount of money can create an authenticity and genuine nature, and a lot of people know me because of my jean jacket, because of the issues that I wear that they care about. We want to make sure that people power is what is healing Virginia, not Dominion or any kind of corporate money. What matters is putting forward candidates who will do what they say they will do.”

Gusman said that nobody gave her permission or asked her to run, and that she has pushed herself further than she thought possible.

“I think people recognize immediately that a little brown woman in a jean jacket who is transparent about her values and her issues is the person that people want representing them,” Gusman said. “Not your typical choice, like a man in a suit. I didn’t ask permission to run for public office, and if you want to change things you have to be brave enough and have the courage to do it.” 

Don’t forget to vote on June 11! Find your polling place here.

8 COMMENTS

  1. With due respect, you mischaracterize Saslaw’s position on Northam: once the details came out, he called on Northam to resign.

    Also, you should check your reporting regarding Taeb’s departure from the Center for Victims of Torture. Her web site says she still works there as a senior policy counsel; the group will say only that she no longer works there. Your article says she left the group to run for the state senate, but the group’s financial disclosure form for 2017 makes no mention of her, for a filing year that began two and a half years ago. (link below.)

    https://pdf.guidestar.org/PDF_Images/2017/363/383/2017-363383933-0f6700ae-9.pdf

  2. Thanks for the note! As far as we know, Ms. Taeb was working in an official capacity as a human rights lawyer earlier this year when she visited the U.S. border with Mexico. She told us that she left her position to run full-time and that she will be looking for a job as soon as the primary is finished.

  3. And Saslaw walked back initial calls for resignation, defended the Governor and has publicly said that Northam has led an otherwise exemplary life.

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