I’ve been thinking about this question for months now, but didn’t write about it during the Democratic primary for the seat of retiring State Sen. Chuck Colgan in the 29th district. With Jeremy McPike’s victory last Tuesday over Atif Qarni, by 227 votes (1,377-1,150), however, I have continued to wonder how things might have played out with Senate Democratic Leader Dick Saslaw and other Democratic Party leadership if Atif Qarni’s name had been “Andy Carney,” with the same sterling resume – U.S. Marine, Iraq War combat veteran, Prince William County teacher, member of Governor McAuliffe’s Small Business Commission, a strong campaigner, etc. Then, this morning, I saw the Washington Post article Virginia GOP placing new emphasis on recruiting minority candidates, and it gave me extra motivation to write about this. Here’s a key excerpt.
Several Democrats were particularly bothered that the establishment rallied around Jeremy McPike for an open Senate seat in Prince William County over Atif Qarni, a math teacher and former Marine who entered the race first and with stronger fundraising.
“My understanding was that the current Democratic caucus unofficially made it clear that their favorite was Jeremy McPike,” said Del. Mark L. Keam (D-Fairfax), who supported Qarni. “I’m a little bit frustrated that our party doesn’t think about, to the extent that’s possible, if we have two or three candidates that are strong and equally qualified, think about diversity.”
Minority communities have long felt taken for granted by a party that overwhelmingly wins the support of blacks, Latinos and Asians year after year. For some, party leaders’ preference for McPike exacerbated those feelings.
“We felt in the general election, talking to people in Prince William, that [McPike] was the strongest candidate,” Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) said. “You want the best candidate out there in the general election.”
The open seat in Prince William, being vacated by Sen. Charles J. Colgan (D), is a rare swing seat on the edge of the D.C. region. Nearly half black and Hispanic and 8 percent Asian, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, it’s one of the most diverse districts in the state.
Qarni said he thinks that some local party leaders were concerned that his Muslim religion would hamper his bid.
I’m a bit surprised the Post article didn’t also mention Saslaw and Company’s efforts, over many months, to recruit a white guy to run for that seat. For instance, in July 2014, I was alerted by numerous sources that, as one put it, “Senate Democrats have other plans for a nominee” other than Atif Qarni. Saslaw’s first choice, Rex G. Parr III, is a 60-something-year-old white guy (pictured above, at left) who has donated to both Democrats and Republicans over the years.
Parr opted out, so then Saslaw et al. turned their focus to recruiting former Del. David Brickley (D?), a 70-or-so-year-old white guy (pictured above, second from the left) who in December 1997 was selected by Governor-elect Jim Gilmore (R) to join his administration, in the process “open[ing] up a key House seat in a district that’s becoming ever more Republican.” The end result of Brickley’s move was to throw the district to Republican Michele McQuigg, in the process turning the Virginia House of Delegates over to Republican control. Nice, eh? Oh, and as an added bonus, ran again in 2003 and got crushed (55%-45%) by far-right wingnut Scott Lingamfelter (R), who’s still in the House of Delegates today. As one Democratic politico/progressive activist put it to me, Brickley “was Phil Puckett before Phil Puckett was Phil Puckett.”
In the end, Brickley decided not to run either, so Saslaw et al. turned to Plan C, 2013 Democratic House of Delegates (in the 31st district, against Scott Lingamfelter) candidate Jeremy McPike (pictured above, second from the right), who ended up winning the nomination.
So, what if Atif Qarni’s name had been “Andy Carney” instead? In other words, what if Atif had been a white, Irish guy who also happened to be a U.S. Marine combat veteran, teacher, etc? My guess is that Saslaw et al. would have decied in about 0.0001 seconds that not only would “Carney” be his hand-picked candidate, but that Saslaw would work to “clear the field” for “Carney,” fund “Carney’s” campaign, etc. Instead, in reality, Saslaw repeatedly pushed Atif Qarni aside and kept looking for his white whale…er, white guy to be his nominee against Republican nominee, Manassas City Mayor Hal Parrish.
Now, none of this is to say that the Qarni campaign still couldn’t have won the Democratic primary last week. As the semi-serious, mostly sarcastic saying goes in politics, when you win you’re a genius and when you lose you’re an idiot, so I guess that applies here too. But the bottom line is that Saslaw appeared convinced that a Muslim – no matter how strong his resume, political skills, etc. – could win a race against Hal Parrish (R) this fall.
Of course, Saslaw’s the same guy who was convinced that nominating a conservative Democrat and coal company executive, then spending around $700,000 on that campaign, would help save Sen. Phil Puckett’s seat in a nearly 2:1 Ken Cuccinelli district. The end result of that race: $700,000 from the Senate Democratic Caucus down the tubes, Saslaw’s candidate (Mike Hymes) losing around 2:1, as I had predicted at the time. Brilliant strategy, tactics, etc. by Saslaw, huh? We’ll now see how things work out for Saslaw et al. in the 29th State Senate district, but personally I don’t have a great deal of confidence at this point in Saslaw’s (very) “old-school” style of thinking.
P.S. By the way, Saslaw’s also the same guy who argued that the highly qualified Latino Jaime Areizaga-Soto couldn’t win the overwhelmingly Democratic 31st State Senate district in 2011, even though…of course he could have! So that’s the mentality we’re dealing with, at least until Dick Saslaw heads off to his long-overdue retirement.