A new court-mandated redistricting in Virginia has put Democrats in a prime position to retake both chambers of the state legislature in November 2019 elections for the first time since 1995. But there could still be one major obstacle standing in the way of the party enacting a bottled-up progressive agenda: Democratic Senate Minority Leader Dick Saslaw, a 39-year incumbent with a corporate-friendly voting record and close ties to the state’s dominant power company. As long as Saslaw remains the party’s Senate boss, little can get done without his acquiescence. But for the first time since he was elected senator, he’s facing a primary challenge.
Saslaw has stymied progressive efforts to push an anti-corporate agenda in the state, voting against bills that would lead to substantive regulation of the state’s two electric monopolies, and speaking out against campaign finance reform and increased ethics and transparency regulations. Yasmine Taeb, an American-Muslim human rights lawyer who immigrated to the United States from Iran as a child, launched her primary challenge to Saslaw in September — and she’s going after his ties to Dominion Energy, Virginia’s biggest private-industry political donor. The company gives heavily to both Democrats and Republicans, but Saslaw is its top recipient in the General Assembly and one of its biggest advocates in Richmond.
Taeb, who is the first Muslim woman elected to the Democratic National Committee, moved into the 35th District only last year, and her first foray into politics was in 2014, when she made a failed bid for the Virginia House of Delegates. She’s running on a platform that includes a $15 minimum wage, no corporate PAC donations, and “Medicare for All.” But she’s also focused on stemming Dominion’s influence in the state, fighting to stop the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines.
“My opponent has not faced a primary challenger since 1979. As a result, he has become severely misaligned with the values of our district, the most liberal in the Commonwealth,” Taeb told The Intercept. “I want to be a state senator who actually represents our district — one who stands with our working families rather than union busting employers; one who will fight to end Dominion’s control over our legislators rather than serving it; and one who embodies the diversity of our district rather than slowing down racial justice efforts.”
Her opposition to Saslaw comes amid changes to state and local governments around the country. Democrats flipped more than 300 state House and Senate seats and six state legislative chambers last year. Seven states now have Democratic trifectas, meaning that the party controls the governorship and both chambers in the state legislature. Progressives are more likely to be able to pass policies like a higher minimum wage or eliminating cash bail on the state level than in Congress.
“Dominion has become the key signal of a much broader push against the status quo.”
“There are increasingly two visions for Democratic politics in Virginia,” said Brennan Gilmore, executive director of Clean Virginia, a group advocating for stronger regulation of the state’s monopoly utilities and an end to two decades of manipulating legislation in their favor. “There’s the old-school Virginia Way, corporate friendly, pay to play, and then a new wave of legislators — many freshmen from last year, but a number of longtime incumbents as well — who are running on transparency and independence, putting constituent interests above special interests.”
The new lawmakers are not taking Dominion money, Gilmore said. “As the worst paragon of that old system of corporate cronyism, Dominion has become the key signal of a much broader push against the status quo. And no one represents the old school — or has done Dominion’s bidding — as much as Dick Saslaw.”
Virginia Democrats are angling to win control of the state legislature in 2019, and Saslaw’s re-election would make him the likely majority leader. A Democratic majority would make passing progressive legislation possible, but activists in the state worry that Saslaw, who has argued against proposals to strengthen campaign finance and ethics laws, would get in the way of that. Taeb is hoping that she can mobilize voters in their increasingly progressive district — which Saslaw helped redraw in 2011 — against him by highlighting his cozy, mutually beneficial relationship with Dominion ahead of the June 11 primary election.
Dominion is known for helping to write legislation in its favor. The Richmond Times-Dispatch in 2017 ran a four-part series that found Dominion exerting significant influence to gradually gut the power of the State Corporation Commission, the regulatory agency tasked with overseeing the company’s dealings. The assembly last year passed a bill that further weakened the SCC’s ratepayer protections. Former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli has described the relationship between the state legislature and the utility as “cronyism.”
“Dominion Energy is the strongest lobbying entity in Virginia, and that’s very evident in the fact that we’ve, for several years now, had legislation that further hurt ratepayers,” Delegate Sam Rasoul told The Intercept. “Objectively now, even Dominion agrees that it has overcharged ratepayers.”
Saslaw has consistently opposed bills pushing energy and spending efficiency, introducing and supporting Dominion-advised bills to allow the public utility to double-charge consumers and keep the excess profits, freeze electricity rates, and keep the SCC from regularly reviewing those rates. Saslaw is also known, according to a Democratic state legislator who spoke to The Intercept on the condition of anonymity given his relationship with the senator, for reprimanding individual members of the assembly for trying to amend Dominion-sponsored bills. According to local activist and Fairfax County Democratic Committee Member Stephen Spitz, who is volunteering with Taeb’s campaign, Saslaw is famous for scolding his colleagues for trying to rein in the company and going on unsolicited tangents singing its praises. Dominion, in turn, contacts Saslaw when it’s in trouble.
Saslaw’s campaign has raised just shy of $600,000 this cycle, including $22,500 from the Dominion Employees PAC, formerly known as Dominion Energy PAC. He’s also accepted donations from PACs associated with the weapons manufacturer, Raytheon, and controversial car-title lenders, which he’s been bashed for supporting. Taeb’s campaign, meanwhile, has raised just over $70,000. Fifty-thousand dollars of that came from Sonjia Smith, a longtime area Democratic donor who is married to Michael D. Bills, a billionaire investor who started an initiative to support candidates who refused to take money from Dominion.
The incumbent’s campaign manager, Andrew Whitley, said Saslaw respects candidates who have sworn off Dominion money, but he will continue to take money from the utility. “As the leader of the caucus, his main goal in 2019 is to take back the majority,” Whitley told The Intercept. “And of course, making that happen means that making sure that our campaigns have the resources to be successful. So yes, he does take contributions from Dominion, and he takes them with the goal of making Virginia more progressive and helping us take back the Senate.”
Whitley said that Saslaw’s voting record, and his prior endorsements by the League of Conservation Voters and advocates for solar, disprove the notion that Dominion’s donations have bought influence. “The senator has voted on initiatives that have been against Dominion’s influence,” Whitley said. He did not specify what initiatives those were, and LCV has not re-endorsed him this cycle.
Virginia is one of only six states that allow unlimited corporate contributions to state campaigns. Republicans Sen. Frank Wagner and Delegate Terry Kilgore are other lawmakers who have received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the utility giant while in office. Wagner in 2015 sponsored a controversial rate-freeze bill, which he authored and passed with help from Dominion, that locked in rates for the utility and allowed it to overcharge consumers by estimates of up to $425 million.
Following public outcry over that legislation, Saslaw and Wagner co-sponsored another bill last year that they said was meant to right the wrongs of the rate-freeze bill. Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring publicly denounced that bipartisan, pro-Dominion bill for double-charging clients and installing inadequate consumer protections. The state Senate killed another bill introduced by Democratic Sen. Chap Petersen that would have more abruptly lifted the rate freeze and pursued the Wagner-Saslaw measure, which was more favorable to utilities instead. It was eventually approved and signed into law last March.
This year, Rasoul and Rep. Alfonso H. Lopez are co-sponsoring an omnibus bill that would reinstate biannual reviews of Dominion rates by the SCC and increase the amount of over-earnings the company must refund to consumers. It is unclear whether the bill will have enough support to pass.
“It’ll be difficult for it to pass as it comes through the powerful Commerce and Labor committee,” Rasoul said. But, he said, pledges by Democratic candidates, as well as the attorney general and the lieutenant governor, not to take money from Dominion are a good sign. “The bar has definitely been elevated, that you need to be on the right side of this in order to be a candidate.”
Some Democrats think it’s important to balance skepticism of corporate donations with the risk of losing elections. “If we were not to take money, and Republicans still take money, and Democrats lose, there’s a part of me that would regret seeing that,” said Peg Willingham, chair of the Falls Church Democratic Committee. “But I absolutely think that Virginia should have a lot stricter controls on campaign donations.”
In addition to his ties to Dominion, Saslaw’s critics have also turned their attention to the senator’s past comments that, they say, show he is out of step with an increasingly diverse Democratic Party.
In September, Saslaw was at a George Mason University-sponsored senatorial debate between Tim Kaine and Corey Stewart. In a conversation with a group of people at that event, Saslaw suggested that voters in the 35th District would not vote for Taeb given that his district is majority white, according to two people with knowledge of the conversation.
Saslaw said Taeb “‘can’t win in a district like this,’ and then he went off spouting all these facts about his district,” said one person who was there, requesting anonymity because of their relationship with the senator. Saslaw pointed out that the district is “60 percent white, it was some percentage of older Virginians, it was some percentage of Christians,” the source said. “Basically the message I interpreted was that someone like Yasmine, who’s a diverse candidate and a young candidate, couldn’t win in the district.”
Whitley, Saslaw’s spokesperson, said the conversation could not have happened because Saslaw didn’t have time to speak to people on the margins of the debate, dismissing it as a “he-said-she-said” scenario.
Saslaw has previously been accused of being skeptical that a Muslim candidate could win. When Atif Qarni, now Virginia’s secretary of education, was running for the Virginia House of Delegates in 2015, he wrote in a Washington Post op-ed that state Democrats warned him not to proceed with his campaign because, as a Muslim, he couldn’t win. Responding to a Facebook post criticizing the article, Qarni named Saslaw in relation to the challenges he faced securing funding as a Muslim candidate. “There was bias in this race. Religion was brought up,” Qarni wrote in a comment. “I brought up these concerns with several people–including some people you know well, but the typical response, was ‘this is politics’. People are too afraid to stand up to people like Dick Saslaw.”
In a 2015 meeting of the Mason District Democratic Committee, Saslaw opposed a proposal to change the name of the Jeb Stuart High School, which was named after a Confederate army general. He described the name-change effort as being overly politically correct and suggested that it would lead to a slippery slope, with calls to change the name of Virginia schools and landmarks named after Confederate leaders, according to Spitz; David Jonas, a Mason District Democrat; Sean Barnett, a Fairfax County Democrat; and two local Democrats who asked for anonymity given their working relationship with the senator, who were all at the meeting. (Barnett has endorsed Taeb for state senator.)
Though Saslaw originally opposed changing the name of Stuart High, he appeared this year at a fundraiser supporting the school board’s move. He also donated to the private fundraising efforts to support the change. The school is now called Justice High School.
Jessica Swanson, a Mason District Democrat, told The Intercept that she is extremely grateful for the senator’s $1,500 contribution to the name-change effort. She was at the 2015 meeting and said she doesn’t remember what, if anything, Saslaw said about it at the time. Saslaw has endorsed Swanson in her bid for school board.
Three years earlier, Saslaw had cut his sponsorship of the Fairfax County Democratic Committee’s annual dinner, after members changed the event’s name from the Jefferson-Jackson fundraising dinner — after the slave-owning presidents Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson — to instead honor Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt, according to Spitz and another person familiar with the matter. In 2014, the name of the dinner was changed back to Jefferson-Jackson, and Saslaw resumed his support.
Willingham, chair of the Falls Church Democratic Committee who has worked with Saslaw, said she’s “never heard him say a bigoted word.” She knows Taeb as well and hasn’t endorsed either candidate.
In response to questions about Saslaw’s comments on Taeb and the school’s name change, Whitley said talking about these claims does a disservice to both candidates. “We also do a disservice to the constituents and to the party in general by having this kind of conversation,” he said.
Correction: February 2, 2019
A previous version of this story misstated the Senate district Saslaw represents. It is the 35th, not the 38th.